Sunday, May 31, 2015

Palmyra, seized by IS, 'so far' intact


Although Islamic State 's record of destroying non-Muslim shrines and relics does not bode well, a video thought to have been taken by IS (ISIS) and published on 26 May shows the historic  site of Palmyra to be intact 'so far', a Syrian official has stated.  The ancient Graeco-Roman city contains houses bearing Hebrew inscriptions. Ilan Ben Zion reports for Times of Israel:

Among the archaeological gems from Palmyra, the pearl of Syria’s desert, at risk after the Islamic State’s takeover last week are vestiges of its Jewish past, including the longest Biblical Hebrew inscription from antiquity: the opening verses of the Shema carved into a stone doorway.

Western archaeologists who visited the site in the 19th and 20th century discovered Hebrew verses etched into the doorframe of a house in the ancient city. But whether that inscription is still at the site is unclear.

The last time a European scholar documented it in situ was 1933, when Israeli archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik of Hebrew University photographed it.

“What may have happened to it since is anyone’s guess,” Professor David Noy, co-author of Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis (Jewish Inscriptions of the Near East), wrote in an email on Friday.
Three views of the Shema inscription found in a doorway in Palmyra, taken in 1884 and printed in Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis. (S. Landauer)
Three views of the Shema inscription found in a doorway in Palmyra, taken in 1884 and printed in Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis. (S. Landauer)

Palmyra was one of the Roman Empire’s major cities, rising to prominence in the first centuries of the common era as a vassal state and entrepôt connecting West and East. Situated at an oasis in the desert frontier separating the empires of Rome and Parthia, Palmyra grew to an estimated population of 150,000-200,000 at its height in the third century CE. Textiles, perfumes, spices and gems came from India and the Far East, and metals, glass, wine and cash from Rome passed overland, bypassing the longer Red Sea trade route.

Because of its unique location, Palmyrene culture and art exhibited a fusion of Roman and Persian traditions. Traditional Mesopotamian mud bricks comprised the majority of the city’s architecture, Jørgen Christian Meyer, an archaeologist from the University of Bergen explained, but temples to Semitic gods such as Bel, Baalshamin and Al-lat were constructed in Classical style with stout columns hewn of stone.
When the city was abandoned following its destruction in 273 CE and left to the elements, the mud brick disintegrated, leaving behind a petrified forest of stone columns.
During its centuries of prosperity and decline it was home to a thriving Jewish community.
“What we see in Palmyra is a multicultural, and possibly also a multi-identity city,” Meyer, who headed a Norwegian-Syrian archaeological excavation at the site in 2011, just as the civil war started heating up. “Here we’ve got this mixture of Greek, Aramaic, Middle Eastern, Roman culture. This is fantastic.”

“That’s why it’s a unique place from a historical point of view, a cultural point of view,” he said.


That fusion included Jews. Two locally produced terra cotta lamps found next to one of the great pagan temples bear menorahs on either side of a conch, suggesting close integration of Jews and gentiles.
Solomon and the plan for the First Temple. (Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Co.)

Solomon and the plan for the First Temple. (Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Co.

Known in Hebrew and Aramaic as Tadmor, Jewish legend attributed the city’s construction to King Solomon. Josephus Flavius, writing in the first century CE, ascribed its construction to King Solomon, saying that the city of Tamar referred to in Kings I was the “very great city” Josephus’s contemporaries knew in the Syrian Desert.

“Now the reason why this city lay so remote from the parts of Syria that are inhabited is this, that below there is no water to be had, and that it is in that place only that there are springs and pits of water,” the Jewish Roman historian said. “When he had therefore built this city, and encompassed it with very strong walls, he gave it the name of Tadmor, and that is the name it is still called by at this day among the Syrians, but the Greeks name it Palmyra.”

Modern scholars, however, dispute the veracity of Josephus’s claim that it was built by Solomon. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Classical city of Palmyra didn’t predate the first century BCE, and the biblical city of Tamar was likely in today’s Negev Desert.

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