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Volume 13, Number 5May 1962

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Queen Zenobia

Few men could match the brave deeds of the woman who ruled an ancient empire.

The bright stars of the Syrian desert shone on Palmyra, capital of the caravan empire. White limestone colonnades, temples and palaces gleamed in the moonlight, and a hot dry wind stirred in the palm trees that gave the city its name.

The soldier Yarkai, captain of the guard, wrinkled his nostrils as the breeze assailed them with the reek of the sulphur springs that had been supplying water to passing caravans for 20 centuries. Not all the primrose and oleander near Queen Zenobia's palace, where he was standing guard duty, could dispel the acrid fumes, but Yarkai was used to them. Any good Palmyrene had to be. Turning his head from the familiar pattern of streets he nightly covered on his rounds, he gazed uneasily toward a high, arched window in the castle's red walls. He knew that beyond the window was the beautiful, dark-haired woman who held the destiny of all Palmyrenes in her dainty hands. Yarkai admired his ruler, but it made him apprehensive to think that all the opulence and security of his native city, all the aspirations of a swiftly risen empire stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates, depended upon one daring, spirited and sometimes unpredictable queen.

It was nearly midnight. Most of the palace windows were dark. No torches burned in the theater as they did when public discussions were under way or the Council of the People had met. The voices of the Greek, Phoenician, Persian, Parthian, Babylonian, Roman and Egyptian merchants had fallen silent in the agora, the central market place. He could hear muffled shouts in the caravanserai, where late-arriving camel trains were being unloaded and bedded down. The clatter of footsteps echoed in the streets as a group of men gowned in richly embroidered tunics, led by a white-robed priest with conical cap and mitre, hastened by on their way to late rites at the Temple of Bel.

Palace, temple and most of the public buildings stood to the south of the broad-columned avenue that crossed the city from northwest to northeast. Once it had been nothing more than a caravan road, but now it was one of the most splendid boulevards in the world. Yarkai compared it in his mind to other great avenues, for as one of the famed Palmyrene archers he had been stationed in many cities, even in Rome. The street was more than 1,200 yards long, lined with tall Corinthian columns topped with capitals of gilded bronze, nearly 400 on each side. Each column was bracketed to hold statues of famous men—merchants, caravan leaders and chiefs of market—for the city did honor to commerce.

Palmyra, he had learned long ago under his father's roof, had once been nothing but a mud-hut oasis called Tadmor, a tiny village at the junction of two great trading routes. Then King Solomon had erected a temple there—with the help of a jinni, some said—to direct the wealth of the far-off east toward his kingdom. But Tadmor remained an obscure desert outpost until some three centuries before Yarkai's time, just prior to the birth of Jesus. Then, suddenly, with a shift in world powers, Palmyra began to grow.

Almost midway in the desert, 150 miles from Damascus and 190 miles—four days' journey by swift camel—from the Euphrates, it lay on the shortest route between the Phoenician coastal towns that gathered the rich merchandise of the western world and the Mesopotamian cities that commanded the fabulous eastern trade. To the west stood the mighty empire of Rome; to the east, the savage Parthians. Neither felt confident enough to wage war against the other. Swiftly, almost like a boom town privileged by both sides, Palmyra waxed rich and important as a trading center, a balance wheel and bulwark between two hesitant enemies.

In 41 B.C. Mark Antony tried to capture Palmyra, but the citizens retreated beyond the Euphrates, bearing their valuables with them. Trajan granted the city honor, and years later Hadrian attempted to give it his name. Operating within the Roman Empire, it remained independent, free to make its laws and collect its levies. The city's camel corps rode out to escort and protect the caravans. Its merchants established their own trading centers from Babylon to the Danube, Rome and Gaul. Borrowing from cultures with which it came in contact, Palmyra made up its own: Iranian dress, weapons and furniture; Persian manners; Babylonian temples, houses and gods, and other gods, too, including the caravan deities, Arsu and Azizu. And everything tempered and refined by the tastes of the Latins and Greeks.

But Palmyra had been content to remain a bulwark town, contributing to the greatness of others, until King Odenathus and his queen, Zenobia, came to the throne.

Footsteps sounded on the tiles of the courtyard and Yarkai came alert. He recognized Worod, swift-footed messenger of Zabda, Zenobia's general. It was Zabda who had ridden at her side when she led her 80,000 troops into Egypt and garrisoned Alexandria with Palmyrenes, spread her empire over Syria and part of Asia Minor and northern Arabia, captured Hims and Antioch. His messenger spoke now in Arabic, the language of Palmyra's streets.

"My message is for the queen. The Roman legions are marching southward!"

Silently Yarkai pointed to the arched window.

In her bedroom, a high-ceilinged chamber hung with tapestries, Zenobia ran her strong hands over a bolt of silk taffeta woven on a loom known only in China. Did she prefer it, she wondered, to the gossamer-thin wool with the Greek floral design? To one side lay the suit of iron armor and the helmet that transformed her into a soldier when the need arose. She knew that she must shortly don that armor. Emperor Aurelian was threatening her from the north. She must soon ride at the head of her troops to meet him. But for a while longer she would be a woman as well as a queen.

Her mirror reflected a vivacious, dark-skinned face with large, black eyes. Her lithe body was garbed in robes of heavy purple silk and jewels. She recalled how she had come to the palace as a young second wife when her husband, Odenathus, had first started to establish Palmyra as a power in its own right and carried his conquests to the shores of the Red Sea. She had ridden to the hunt and the battlefield beside him and shared his ambition to make Palmyra the military as well as the commercial capital of the caravan world.

Brave as Diana and beautiful as Venus men called her; known for her wisdom, too, for had not Longinus, the philosopher, the "walking university," come out of Athens to instruct her and make her worthy of any throne? Did she not know Greek, Egyptian, Aramaic and a little Latin? She had compiled a history as well, and was versed in Plato and Homer. But when Odenathus and his heir were treacherously murdered, she was forced to put aside her literary and artistic interests. She had rallied the sons of the desert, and they had ridden forth to bear arms for their heroic queen. She had led them into battle and conquered many lands and cities, establishing the title of "King of Kings" for her own young son, Waballath.

The coins from Zenobia's mint bore Waballath's likeness on one side and, as a conciliatory gesture, Aurelian's on the reverse. But Aurelian struck his own coins, bearing the threatening words Restitutor Orientis (Restorer of the Orient). Proud Zenobia answered the challenge with an issue of new coins from which Aurelian's face had been removed and her own substituted. The act caused the Roman emperor to consider Zenobia a dangerous, insubordinate woman who must be put down. He and his legions were on the march. At any moment Zabda would send for Zenobia, and she must don her armor and lead out the cavalry.

Unhappiness and foreboding oppressed her mind, and she thought, as she seldom did, of death and its prominence in Palmyra's religion. Tall rectangular tower tombs on the sands, vaulted underground chamber tombs, temple tombs in the city—all these were made splendid for the dead of leading families and banquets were held in them to honor the departed.

Zenobia's mirror did not reveal the events soon to come. Worod's message proved true and Yarkai the soldier once again fought for his queen. But the gods of war turned away from Zenobia. Within the year Aurelian's newly developed light cavalry had outmaneuvered and defeated Zenobia's archers and heavy cavalry. The caravan empress herself was captured by a Roman patrol as she set out to appeal for troops from an ally.

Her fate was never recorded. One legend has it that Zenobia, determined to prevent the humiliation of being paraded through the streets of Rome, starved herself and died en route. Another story relates that she was driven through the streets of the Eternal City bound in chains of gold, then was pardoned to live happily ever after in a villa at Tivoli.

The fate of her city is, however, certain. Palmyra was sacked and despoiled by Aurelian, and it slowly went back to the desert again, to the cluster of huts it had been in Solomon's time. But even today there is a difference about it. Many of its splendid columns remain, and its ruined temples, and the memory of Queen Zenobia, certainly one of the world's most fascinating women.

This article appeared on pages 12-13 of the May 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May 1962 images.