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Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra

Essay by Dr. Jeffrey Becker

Hybrid in design

The Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra was a first century C.E. sanctuary dedicated to one of the key gods of the city.* As with other Palmyrene architecture, the sanctuary of Baalshamin demonstrated hybridity of design—incorporating both Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman elements.
Temple of Baal Shamin, 1st century C.E. (Palmyra—in modern Syria) (photo: Verity Cridland, CC BY 2.0)
Temple of Baal Shamin, 1st century C.E. (Palmyra—in modern Syria) (photo: Verity Cridland, CC BY 2.0)

The cult

The temple’s cult is dedicated to Baalshamin or Ba'al Šamem, a northwest Semitic divinity. The name Baalshamin is applied to various divinities at different periods in time, but most often to Hadad, also known simply as Ba’al. Along with Bel, Baalshamin was one of the two main divinities of pre-Islamic Palmyra in Syria and was a sky god. The relief plaque below depicts a votive dedication by a worshipper—Baalshamin and Bel along with Yarhibol (the lord of spring with a solar nimbus) and Aglibol (a lunar divinity).
Limestone bas-relief dedicated by Ba’alay to Bel, Baalshamin, Yarhibol, and Aglibol. Limestone, dated January 121 CE., from Palmyra (Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon) (photo: Owen Cook, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Limestone bas-relief dedicated by Ba’alay to Bel, Baalshamin, Yarhibol, and Aglibol. Limestone, dated January 121 CE., from Palmyra (Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon) (photo: Owen Cook, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The architecture

The temple of Baalshamin was a prostyle (having free standing columns on the façade only), tetrastyle (four columns across the façade) temple of the Corinthian order with a deep porch (visible in the photo below). The temple was set within a colonnaded precinct (a colonnade is a row of columns). The temple building dated to c. 130 C.E. and represents an addition to a sanctuary that already existed by 17 C.E.
Temple of Baal Shamin, 1st century C.E. (Palmyra—in modern Syria) (photo: Juan Llanos, CC BY-ND 2.0), CC BY 2.0)
View of the porch with free-standing columns, and a pilaster visible on the flank, Temple of Baal Shamin, 1st century C.E. (Palmyra—in modern Syria) (photo: Juan Llanos, CC BY-ND 2.0), CC BY 2.0)
The temple itself is conventional in its external design, meaning it conforms to what one would expect from a Classical Graeco-Roman structure. The four freestanding columns across the facade are complemented by engaged pilasters at the sides and back.
Temple of Baal Shamin, 1st century C.E. (Palmyra—in modern Syria) (photo: Juan Llanos, CC BY-ND 2.0), CC BY 2.0)
Temple of Baal Shamin, 1st century C.E. (Palmyra—in modern Syria) (photo: Paul Kidd, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), CC BY 2.0)
The colonnaded precinct experienced several phases of development during the first century C.E. (prior to the addition of the current temple). By the time of the temple’s construction, the colonnade had become a so-called Rhodian peristyle—meaning one flank was taller than the other three. The complex continued to develop across the course of the second century.
The temple itself adopts a Near Eastern motif of including a window in each of the cella’s flanks, a trait that is not Graeco-Roman but that finds comparison in contemporary temples in Lebanon. These windows reflect the belief that the divinity dwelled in the temple.

Context

The Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra is a rough contemporary of the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek (now in Lebanon). Although dissimilar in scale (the Temple of Bacchus is a monumental building), both show the contemporary propensity in Roman provincial architecture of using forecourts to frame sanctuaries, as well as showing the widespread use of the Corinthian order. This is one of a number of sanctuaries in the city that demonstrates the great wealth of the Palmyrenes. Palmyra and much of the Roman Near East was rich in cultural diversity, a diversity expressed in many ways, including by means of art and architecture.
*Note: The current (August 2015) political situation in Syria has endangered the archaeological site of Palmyra and there are reports of severe damage done to the Temple of Baalshamin.
Essay by Dr. Jeffrey Becker

Additional resources:
Palmyra, UNESCO (video)
Paul Collart, “Reconstruction Du Thalamos Du Temple De Baalshamîn a Palmyre,” Revue Archéologique, Nouvelle Série, Fasc. 2 (1970), pp. 323-327.
Klaus Schnädelbach, Topographia Palmyrena (Documents d'archéologie syrienne; 18) (Damascus, 2010).
A. M. Smith, II, Roman Palmyra: Identity, Community, and State Formation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
J. Starcky and M. Gawlikowski, Palmyre (Paris: Librairie d'Amérique et d'Orient, 1985).
J. B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture (Yale: Yale University Press, 1981).

Want to join the conversation?

  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
    Question: why bother posting this article, if the temple has been destroyed? This is not a rhetorical question, but an attempt to be a joke, if the reality wasn't so sad. Are we lucky to at least have some photos and some archaeological analysis of the site? And what is the value of art, history, art history, culture, and architecture if they are so impermanent, ever changing, and subject to the whims of later societies and political states? We have lost so much history ... the indigenous art of the Americas (North, Central, and South) due to the Conquistadors and the westward expansion of the United States, the destruction of art (and artists) by the Nazis before and during World War II, the loss of the ancient Library of Alexandria and numerous "pagan" art and structures due to the rise of a new religion (Christianity), occasional thefts of major works of art from museums, and on and on. I mean, it's unreasonable to expect that we can preserve EVERYTHING, but just how much have we lost? Can we even quantify the value of art, culture, and history? If anything, we can at least qualify that we, humanity, have definitely LOST something. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Baalshamin
    (7 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Jeffrey A. Becker
      Well, Anthony, one way to fight ignorance is through education. There is value in understanding and documenting art and architecture, whether it is extant or not. Art and cultural resources are lost all of the time - some disappear more quickly than others. A study of the past imparts valuable information that moves well beyond any ability to quantify. I wrote the essay because I would prefer for learners to have an opportunity to learn about and appreciate the nuances of this singular building that is now no more. It is not about rhetoric or joking or politics. It is simply about information. And appreciation. Archaeologists - of which I am one - have an obligation to document the past, teach about the past - no matter what condition that past is in. Our mission is to preserve and disseminate knowledge. I won't engage you here in a debate, but say simply that I, for one, take it as an ethical duty to the community. I cannot defeat ISIL, but I can help to share information - untainted by politics - so that, in the end, some kernels of the past remain.
      (35 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user czamador29
    is this temple really destroyed?
    (1 vote)
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