The search for identity is an unending one. As we peer across big lenses of time, such as those that separate us from the ancient Mediterranean world, one of the questions that occurs again and again is “who were these people?” In the case of Palmyra, a prosperous caravan city located in the Syrian Desert, a remarkable assemblage of funerary portraiture grants us a glimpse at the self-styled identity of a number of the city’s former occupants.
The tower tombs tend to occupy high ground and were likely built for kinship groupings. These tall, slender structures enclose tiers of niches or loculi in which human remains would be deposited. Each loculus would then be sealed with a stone slab, often carved with a relief portrait of the descendent. An exceptionally fine (and early) example is the Tower Tomb of Iamblichus (dated to 83 C.E. on the basis of epigraphic evidence—evidence from inscriptions). Another is the well preserved Tomb of Elahbel (above) with its elaborately coffered ceilings (below).
The individual loculus relief sculptures present a rich range of iconographic information about the people of Palmyra. These individualized reliefs are formatted as portrait reliefs and depict their subjects intimately, often with symbols of their status and social position.
The portrait of a priest dating c. 50-150 C.E. (above left) provides a good example of this practice. The priest holds ritual vessels (a bowl and a jug) and wears the traditional polos hat—a high, cylindrical hat worn by both men and women and derived from the divine crowns of the goddesses of the ancient Near East and Anatolia. A fragmentary female figure stands behind the priest’s right shoulder. The funerary bust of Tamma, c. 50-150 C.E. (above right) demonstrates similar traits. Tamma is richly dressed, perhaps indicating worldly wealth, and holds a spindle and distaff, perhaps indicating that she produced fabric in her household. The inscription identifies her as “Tamma, daughter of Shamshi geram, son of Malku, son of Nashum.”
Left: Palmyrene Funerary Relief Bust of a Priest, c. 50-150 C.E., limestone, 63 x 52.5 cm / Right: Palmyrene Funerary Bust of Tamma, c. 50-150 C.E., limestone, 50 cm high © Trustees of the British Museum
The bust portrait of a couple (above) shows a pair of decedents. This portrait carries a Greek inscription, which differs from the typical Aramaic inscriptions. The text identifies the two individuals as Viria Phoebe and Gaius Virius Alcimus. This pair have the same clan name, a possible indication they are the former slaves of a brother and sister. Alcimus holds a book-roll, while the woman holds the spindle and distaff (both implements associated with cloth production). These objects may be meant to evoke their respective roles.
Palmyrene funerary relief of Viria Phoebe and Gaius Vurus, c. 50-150 C.E., limestone, 47.5 x 52 x 25 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
A third century C.E. funerary relief from Palmyra now in the British Museum (below) depicts a funeral banquet. Elite tombs of this period demonstrate a mixture of Roman and Near Eastern motifs. In this particular relief that depicts a funeral banquet, the reclining male is attended by a seated female; perhaps the pair are meant to be husband and wife. The idea of the funeral banquet is a Roman motif adopted by local craftsmen. The male—presumably the deceased—reclines on a couch while holding an open vessel. He is depicted at a slightly larger scale than the attendant female. His costume is of Parthian origin, a sort of pant-suit. The Parthian empire, c. 247 B.C.E.-224 C.E. was a major political power of ancient Iran located on the eastern margin of the Roman empire. Reliefs such as this one would be arranged in groups of three in communal tombs, thereby giving the tomb chamber the resemblance of a Roman-style dining room (triclinium) in which a real banquet would have taken place.
Limestone relief showing a funerary banquet, Palmyra, Syria, c. 200-273 C.E., 40.6 x 43.1 x 19 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
The funerary reliefs from Palmyra form a profoundly evocative body of evidence. The individualized treatment of the sculptures themselves still serves to convey important elements about the identities of these individuals. We can glean information about wealth, social status, role in the community, familial relationships—all of which help to enrich our reconstruction of ancient Palmyrene society. The reliefs also demonstrate the degree to which Palmyra existed in a multicultural and multilingual landscape, one in which the traits, trends, styles, and languages of the Graeco-Roman world and the Near Eastern world not only overlapped but intertwined, producing new, unique cultural objects. This is an important realization, one that helps remind us of the degree to which the ancient world was diverse and varied and that a great deal of the material culture of the ancient world resulted from shared cultural influence and hybridization. The tombs of Palmyra embody and evoke this climate of cultural diversity as they still stand as monuments to Palmyrene identity.
Essay by Dr. Jeffrey Becker
W. Ball, Rome in the East: the Transformation of an Empire (London: Routledge, 2001).
M.A.R. Colledge, The Art of Palmyra (London: Westview Press, 1976).
Michael Danti, “Palmyrene Funerary Sculptures at Penn,” Expedition 43.3 (November 2001).
M. K. Heyn, “Gesture and Identity in the Funerary Art of Palmyra” American Journal of Archaeology 114.4 (October 2010) pp. 631-61. DOI: 10.3764/aja.114.4.631
Andreas J. Kropp, Images and Monuments of Near Eastern Dynasts, 100 BC - AD 100 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Want to join the conversation?
- Given the current status of ISIS (alternatively called ISIL) and all the chaos within Syria...what is the status of Palmyra? Is it safe?(6 votes)
- From my understanding the so-called ISIL still holds Palmyra. It is a fluid situation, there is not a lot of concrete information about the archaeological site. Many portable artifacts were re-located from the Palmyra museum to other museums prior to the site being taken by ISIL. There are news reports of ISIL forces planting mines / explosives in the site, videos of them using parts of the site for executions. Not a pretty picture overall. Last week's news reported Syrian troops re-taking positions west of Palmyra. You can follow the ASOR Syrian Heritage Initiative here (http://www.asor-syrianheritage.org/). Their most recent online report is from 9 June 2015 (http://www.asor-syrianheritage.org/syrian-heritage-initiative-weekly-report-44-june-9-2015/).(6 votes)
- After the third paragraph, the image of the Coffered Ceiling, Elahbel Tower Tomb shows four portraits, and the third paragraph says that the ceiling is well preserved. However, the four faces of the portraits are worn away, yet the rest of the portraits, that is, the clothing, is still clearly visible. Were the faces purposefully erased? Was it possibly due to some iconoclastic activity by a later culture, such as Islamic or Byzantine prohibitions against images?(5 votes)
- 'The priest holds ritual vessels (a bowl and a jug) ...'
What meaning do these vessels have?(2 votes)
- These are containers most likely used to make offerings to the gods during sacrifice. The bowl might hold fruit or grain while the jug most likely would hold wine.(3 votes)
- Balconies on tombs seem somewhat superfluous. Were they used by the priest to deliver a eulogy? Perhaps to allow the spirit of the deceased an element of freedom?(2 votes)