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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