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Volume 32, Number 5September/October 1981

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Palmyra – A Portent ?

Written by John M. Munro
Photographed by Katrina Thomas
Additional photographs by Brian Smith and Jamie Simpson

It requires no effort to recapture Palmyra's splendor. The ruins of graceful, colonnaded streets and a magnificent monumental arch, the crumbling remains of a theater and a temple dedicated to Bel, all testify to its glorious past. Isolated in a desert setting dominated by the looming presence of an old Arab castle on a nearby hill, Palmyra, a romantic vision in the clear, sunlit air, inevitably stirs the imagination; even seasoned tourists can instantly visualize the great caravans that, centuries ago, brought silks and spices and precious stones from Arabia and distant Cathay.

It was because of the caravan trade that Palmyra flourished during the third and second centuries B.C. Already prosperous, Palmyra became a Roman client state in the time of Mark Antony; about 60 years later, in the reign of Tiberius, it became a tributary and then, in A.D. 212, a colony. Eventually, Palmyra also became a valuable ally and Odenathus II, Palmyra's king, was appointed commander of the Roman armies in Syria, under whose charge they were able to recapture Mesopotamia from the Sassanians and extend their authority across the Euphrates as far as Ctesiphon.

It was not Odenathus, however, but his widow Zenobia who assured Palmyra its prominent place in ancient history. Unhappy under the authority of Rome, she took the title "Augusta" and sent her armies to occupy Egypt and parts of Asia Minor while Emperor Claudius Gothicus was preoccupied with problems closer to home: the invading Goths, then attacking Rome from the north.

Initially successful, Zenobia and her son Vaballathus then went too far. Vaballathus assumed the title of Augustus, and had coins struck with his own image and that of his mother - an affront that Claudius' successor, Aurelian, could not accept. The Roman armies swept into the city, ransacked it, captured Zenobia and brought her to Rome, where, bound in golden chains, she was made to march behind the Emperor's triumphal chariot through the streets of the city.

In the history of Palmyra, that was a turning point. With Zenobia in Rome - where she married a Roman senator - Palmyra's fortunes declined rapidly. And although it enjoyed a brief revival under the Abbasid caliphate, Palmyra never again attained anything like that splendor that characterized it during the time of Odenathus and Zenobia.

Not surprisingly, Palmyra's rise and fall have attracted the attention of many historians and amateur philosophers, who have contemplated the city's dramatic reversal of fortune, and sought moral lessons among its still impressive ruins.

Among them was Robert Wood - or "Palmyra" Wood as he came to be known - an Englishman born in 1717, who visited Palmyra in 1751.

Best known as a politician, Wood served as under secretary to Prime Minister William Pitt from 1756 until 1763 and was also secretary to the Treasury during the administration of Lord Bute. But Wood was also a student of ancient history, sharing with his more famous contemporary Edward Gibbon an interest in the rise and fall of great nations. And to Wood the story of Palmyra was a portent of the future of Great Britain.

According to Wood, who published The Ruins of Palmyra in 1753, it was the traveler's duty to analyze the forces which led to the rise and fall of past civilizations, rather than simply describe the splendor of their monuments. Despite its splendid engravings, therefore, Wood's book is less significant for its description of Palmyra's ruins than for its brief, but now eerie prophecies with regard to Britain.

A cultivated, 18th-century Englishman, Wood, in an essay on Homer published in 1765, said that true knowledge can come only after one has had an opportunity to evaluate one's own society in relation to others. Homer is great, Wood observed, partly because he was a traveler, and therefore able to place knowledge of his own culture in its proper perspective.

It was in this spirit that Wood, accompanied by two Oxford scholars, James Dawkins and John Bouverie, and an Italian artist, Borra, journeyed to Palmyra, and then to Baalbek, - which led to publication of The Ruins of Baalbec in 1757. He hoped that his investigations might lead him to a better understanding of his own country. To Wood, Palmyra achieved a high level of civilization as a result of its own unaided efforts - as did England - rather than through contact with supposedly superior cultures.

Although it was widely supposed, he wrote, that Palmyra's splendor came about as a result of Rome's beneficence rather than by the enterprise and industry of the city's own inhabitants, this, in fact, was entirely wrong. The city rose to prominence, he went on, by capitalizing on its advantages as an important stopping place on the trade routes from the East. It declined only after it had become a tributary of Rome.

Suggesting other similarities between Palmyra's situation and that of Great Britain, Wood noted that just as the sea contributed to Britain's "riches and defense," so the desert contributed to Palmyra's: both states profited from their strategic position in terms of commerce and their ability to ward off potential invaders.

Like Great Britain, Wood argued, Palmyra had been able to prosper as a result of its independence from surrounding nations. After it was absorbed by Rome, the Palmyrans were reduced to living "idly on as much as Aurelian had spared," a situation which sapped their morale and weakened their resolve. There was a lesson here for his own country, Wood thought.

In Wood's eyes, another factor in Palmyra's success was its natural environment, a climate not unlike that of classical Greece. True, one could not explain Britain's cultural heritage in terms of similar climatic conditions, but some argue that the energies of Western Europe do stem from a brisk climate. Besides, there were other parallels. Like Palmyra during the time of its greatness, Britain was blessed with a form of government that was essentially sound.

In particular, Britain had a constitution which, in the words of Wood's Scottish contemporary, philosopher David Hume, was the envy of her neighbors, "a noble fabric" that had been raised "by the labor of so many Centuries, repaired at the expense of so many Millions, and cemented by such a profusion of Blood." Nevertheless, Wood argued, if Britain fell victim to the dissensions of the age, it might suffer the fate of Palmyra, and he warned his fellow countrymen that they should not allow the pressure of the moment to pervert the noble simplicity of their constitution.

What perhaps prompted Wood to issue his warning was his fear that the complacency of his age might lull his countrymen into a state of pliant acquiescence, and so Britain might suffer the same fate as Palmyra.

The years between the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years War of 1756 to 1763 have been called the most placid of the century, a time when Britain felt powerful and secure. But, as Wood realized, and as his investigation of Palmyra seemed to confirm, such periods of glory could be short-lived, and the British should be wary of the misfortunes that frequently attended nations that became too self-confident.

On the other hand, Wood believed that once a great civilization had established itself, it was unlikely to die. Palmyra, he believed, could still regain its past glory, since the basic conditions that had promoted its rise to power were still present: the caravan trade and the desert. Such optimistic predictions were, of course, never realized; today most of the traffic flowing toward Palmyra is composed of busloads of tourists who come to view its ruins.

To Robert Wood, today's tourists, plodding resignedly among the stones with the same quiet veneration that visitors accord museums, would be an affront. To Wood, Palmyra was much more than a museum. It was evidence of a past civilization, and its stones bore messages of value to all mankind. Wood believed that the true traveler inspected the ruins of other civilizations in order to assess the forces that influenced their development and to learn something of value in relation to his own. To Wood, ancient ruins were the tangible remains of the past way of life and it was the duty of the interested observer to examine them for clues which might account for their greatness and subsequent decline. Like most modern archeologists, Wood realized that the stones themselves were less important than what they signified.

John Munro teaches English at the American University of Beirut and writes for several British newspapers and magazines.

This article appeared on pages 34-40 of the September/October 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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