Tadmor is mentioned in texts discovered at Mari dating back to the 2nd millennium BC. Early rulers included the Assyrians and Persians, before the settlement was incorporated into the realm of the Seleucids, the empire founded by a former general of Alexander the Great. From an early time Tadmor was an indispensable staging post for caravans travelling between the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Arabia. It was also an important link on the old Silk Route from China and India to Europe, with the city prospering greatly by levying heavy tolls on the caravans.
As the Romans expanded their frontiers during the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD to occupy the eastern Mediterranean shores, the Seleucid dynasty failed. Tadmor became stranded between the Latin realms to the west and those of the Parthians to the east. The oasis used this situation to its advantage, keeping the east–west trade routes open and taking the role of middleman between the two clashing superpowers. The influence of Rome grew, and the city they dubbed Palmyra (City of Palms) became a tributary of the empire and a buffer against rivals to the east. The Palmyrenes were permitted to retain considerable independence, profiting also from rerouted trade following the defeat of the Petra-based Nabataeans by Rome.
The emperor Hadrian visited in AD 129 and declared Palmyra a ‘free city’, allowing it to set and collect its own taxes. In 212, under the emperor Caracalla (himself born of a Syrian mother), Palmyra became a Roman colony. In this way, its citizens obtained equal rights with those of Rome and exemption from paying imperial taxes. Further wealth followed and Palmyra spent lavishly, enlarging its great colonnaded avenue and building more and larger temples.
As internal power struggles weakened Rome, the Palmyrenes strengthened their independence. A local noble, Odainat, defeated the army of one of Rome’s long-standing rivals, the Sassanians, and proclaimed himself ‘king’. In 256 the emperor Valerian bestowed upon Odainat the title of ‘Corrector of the East’ and put all Roman forces in the region under his command.
The most glorious episode in Palmyra’s history – which also led to the city’s subsequent rapid downfall – began when Odainat was assassinated in 267. His second wife, Zenobia, took over in the name of their young son, Vabalathus. Rome refused to recognise this arrangement, particularly as Zenobia was suspected of involvement in her husband’s death. The emperor dispatched an army to deal with the rebel queen. Zenobia met the Roman force in battle and defeated it. She then led her army against the garrison at Bosra, then the capital of the Province of Arabia, and successfully invaded Egypt.
With all of Syria and Palestine and part of Egypt under her control, Zenobia declared her independence from Rome and had coins minted in Alexandria bearing her image and that of her son, who assumed the title of Augustus, or emperor.
Claiming to be descended from Cleopatra, Zenobia was, it seems, a woman of exceptional ability and ambition. Though she was headstrong and wilful, the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon also said of her in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
She equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valour. Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex. She was of dark complexion. Her teeth were of a pearly whiteness and her large black eyes sparkled with an uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness. Her voice was strong and harmonious. Her manly understanding was strengthened and adorned by study.
The Roman emperor Aurelian, who had been prepared to negotiate, could not stomach such a show of open defiance. After defeating Zenobia’s forces at Antioch and Emesa (Homs) in 271, he besieged Palmyra itself. Zenobia was defiant to the last and instead of accepting the generous surrender terms offered by Aurelian, made a dash on a camel through the encircling Roman forces. She headed for Persia to appeal for military aid, only to be captured by Roman cavalry at the Euphrates.
Zenobia was carted off to Rome in 272 as Aurelian’s trophy and reputedly paraded in the streets, bound in gold chains. Later freed, she married a Roman senator and lived out her days in Tibur (now Tivoli), close to Rome.
Zenobia’s defeat marked the end of Palmyra’s prosperity. A further rebellion in 273, in which the Palmyrenes massacred a garrison of 600 Roman archers, elicited a brutal response and Aurelian’s legionaries slaughtered large numbers and put the city to the torch. Palmyra never recovered. The emperor Diocletian (r 254–305) later fortified the broken city as one in a line of fortresses marking the eastern boundary of the Roman Empire, and Justinian further rebuilt the city’s defences in the 6th century. The city survived primarily as a military outpost and the caravan traffic all but dropped away.
In 634 the city fell to a Muslim army led by Khaled ibn al-Walid, and from this time Palmyra all but fades from history. Architectural and archaeological evidence tells that the Arabs fortified the Temple of Bel, which became host to a small village, and a castle was built on a nearby hilltop, but the great city itself was largely abandoned. Its structures were devastated by earthquake and largely covered over by wind-blown sand and earth.
It wasn’t until 1678 that Palmyra was ‘rediscovered’ by two English merchants resident in Aleppo. Few followed in their footsteps; the buried desert city was an often-dangerous five days’ journey from civilisation. It took a 1751 expedition, which resulted in drawings and the first tentative excavations, to truly pique travellers’ interest. Throughout the rest of the 18th and 19th centuries a steady flow of intrepid visitors made the expedition out from Aleppo or Damascus, although it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the first scientific study began. The earliest surveys were carried out in the 1920s by the Germans. In 1929 the French took over.
Work intensified following WWII, and continues to this day.