|Author:Laxman Burdak, IFS (Retd.)|
Palmyra is located 215 km to the northeast of the Syrian capital Damascus, in an oasis surrounded by palms of which twenty varieties were reported. A small wadi named al-Qubur, crosses the area, it flows from the hills in the west and passes the city, before disappearing in the eastern gardens of the oasis. To the south of the wadi, a spring named Efqa is located. Pliny the Elder described the town in the 70s AD, as famous for its location, the richness of its soil, and the water springs that surrounded it, making the agricultural and herding activities possible.
Origin of name
"Tadmor" is the Semitic and earliest attested native name of the city, it appeared in the first half of the second millennium BC. The etymology of "Tadmor" is vague, Albert Schultens considered it to be derived from the Semitic word for dates ("Tamar"), in reference to the palm trees that surround the city. The name "Palmyra" appeared during the early first century AD, in the works of Pliny the Elder, and was used throughout the Greco-Roman world. The general view holds that "Palmyra" is derived from "Tadmor" either as an alteration, which was supported by Schultens, or as a translation using the Greek word for palm ("palame"), which is supported by Jean Starcky.
Michael Patrick O'Connor argued for a Hurrian origin of both "Palmyra" and "Tadmor", citing the incapability of explaining the alterations to the theorized roots of both names, which are represented in the adding of a -d- to "Tamar" and a -ra- to "palame". According to this theory, "Tadmor" is derived from the Hurrian word "tad", meaning "to love", + a typical Hurrian mid vowel rising (mVr) formant "mar". "Palmyra" is derived from the word "pal", meaning "to know", + the same mVr formant "mar". According to the 13th century Syrian geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi, Tadmor was the name of the daughter of one of Noah's distant descendants and that she was buried in the city.
Mahabharata says: O monarch, we beheld Bhishma of unfailing prowess look like the risen moon. His standard bearing the device of a palmyra of gold himself stationed on a car made of silver, both the Kurus and the Pandavas beheld that hero looking like the moon encircled by white clouds.
Mahabharata says: There, on the bank of the Sarasvati, that mighty hero having the palmyra on his banner beheld a gigantic tree, called Mahasankha, tall as Meru, looking like the White-mountain, and resorted to by Rishis. There dwell Yakshas, and Vidyadharas, and Rakshasas of immeasurable energy and Pisachas of immeasurable might, and Siddhas, numbering thousands. .... That tree is the cause of this celebrated and sacred tirtha on the Sarasvati. 
Mahabharata says: ....The two great standards of Krishna’s car and Valadeva’s car, that with the device of Garuda and that bearing the device of the palmyra, which were reverently worshipped by those two heroes, were taken away by Apsaras who, day and night, called upon the Vrishnis and the Andhakas to set out on a pilgrimage to some sacred water.
The city was mentioned in the annals of the Assyrian kings and might be mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It was incorporated into the Seleucid Empire, followed by the Roman Empire, which brought great prosperity.
Palmyra's wealth allowed the construction of many monumental projects. By the third century, Palmyra became a prosperous metropolis, with a strong army capable of defeating the Sassanid Empire in 260 under the leadership of the Palmyrene king Odaenathus who was assassinated in 267. He was succeeded by his minor sons, under the regency of queen Zenobia, who started invading the Roman eastern provinces in 270. The rebellion was masked by a nominal subordination to Rome. However, the situation escalated and the Palmyrene rulers adopted imperial titles in 271. Roman emperor Aurelian defeated Palmyra in 272, and destroyed it in 273 after a failed second rebellion.
Palmyra became a minor city under the rule of the Byzantines, Rashiduns, Ummayads, Abbasids, Mamluks, and their vassals.
After being destroyed by the Timurids in 1400, Palmyra remained a small village under the rule of the Ottomans until 1918, then the Syrian kingdom, followed by the French mandate.
In 1929 the French started evacuating the villagers into the newly built village of Tadmur. The evacuation was completed in 1932 and the site became abandoned and available for excavations.
The site of Palmyra provided evidence for a Neolithic settlement near Efqa, with stone tools discovered and dated to 7500 BC. The use of archaeoacoustics in the Tell beneath the Temple of Bel revealed traces of a cultic activity dated to 2300 BC.
The town was mentioned in a tablet discovered at Emar dated to the 13th century BC, and records the names of two "Tadmorean" witnesses.
The Hebrew Bible (Second Book of Chronicles 8:4) records "Tadmor" as a desert city built or fortified by King Solomon of Israel, it is likewise mentioned in Talmud (Yebamot 17a-b). Flavius Josephus mentions the Greek name "Palmyra" and also attributes the founding of "Tadmor" to Solomon in his Antiquities of the Jews (Book VIII). Later Islamic traditions attributes the founding of the city to the Jinn of Solomon. The association of Palmyra with Solomon could be a confusion between Palmyra ("Tadmor"), and a city built by Solomon in the land of Judea, mentioned in the Books of Kings (9:18) as "Tamar".
The description of "Tadmor" and its buildings in the Bible does not fit the known archaeological findings of Palmyra, which was a mere settlement during the days of Solomon in the 10th century BC.
Hellenistic and Roman periods: During the Hellenistic period under the Seleucids, Palmyra became a prosperous settlement, that owed allegiance to the Seleucid monarch.
In 217 BC, a Palmyrene force, led by a sheikh named Zabdibel, joined the army of king Antiochus III in the Battle of Raphia. Toward the middle of the Hellenistic era, Palmyra, formerly restricted to the south of al-Qubur's wadi, started to expand beyond the northern bank.
By the late second century BC, the tower tombs in the Palmyrene Valley of Tombs began to be constructed, in addition to the city temples, most importantly the temples of Baalshamin, Al-lāt and the Hellenistic temple.
In 64 BC, the Roman Republic annexed the Seleucid kingdom, and the Roman general Pompey established the province of Syria, but Palmyra was left independent, trading with both Rome and Parthia but belonging to neither.
The earliest known Palmyrene inscription is dated to c. 44 BC, and by then, Palmyra was still a minor sheikhdom, offering water to caravans that occasionally took the desert route, along which Palmyra was situated.
However, according to Appian, Palmyra was wealthy enough for Mark Antony to send a force aimed at conquering it in 41 BC. The Palmyrenes evacuated and headed into Parthia's lands beyond the Euphrates eastern bank, which they prepared to be defended.
Palmyra became part of the Roman Empire when it paid tribute in the early years of emperor Tiberius' reign c. 14 AD. The Roman imperial period brought great prosperity to Palmyra, which enjoyed a privileged status under the empire and retained much of its internal autonomy.The Romans defined the boundaries of Palmyra's region; a boundary marker established by Roman governor Silanus was found 75 kilometers to the northwest of Palmyra at Khirbet el-Bilaas. Another marker that defined Palmyra's southwestern borders was found at Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, while the borders in the east extended to the Euphrates valley.
The earliest Palmyrene text that attests to the Roman presence in the city is dated to 18 AD, when the Roman general Germanicus sought to establish a friendly relation with Parthia, and sent a Palmyrene named Alexandros to Mesene, a Parthian vassal kingdom. This was followed in 19 AD, by the arrival of Legio X Fretensis. The Roman authority was minimal during the first century, they had tax collectors in the city, and built a road that connected Palmyra with Sura in 75 AD. The Romans also made use of Palmyrene soldiers, however, no local magistrates or prefects are recorded in the city as was the case for typical Roman cities.
Palmyra witnessed an intense construction movement during the first century, which included the city's first walled fortifications, and the Temple of Bel, which was finished and dedicated in 32 AD. The first century saw Palmyra's transformation from a minor desert station for caravans into a leading trading center,with the Palmyrene merchants establishing colonies in many of the surrounding important trade centers.
(L. 5.) He before whose feet chieftains, having (their) arrogance removed by the strength of (his) arm, bow down, from the neighbourhood of the (river) Lauhitya up to (the mountain) Mahendra, the lands at the foot of which are impenetrable through the groves of palmyra-trees, (and) from (Himalaya) the mountain of snow, the tablelands of which are embraced by the (river) Ganga, up to the Western Ocean, by which (all) the divisions of the earth are made of various hues through the intermingling of the rays of the jewels in the locks of hair on the tops of (their) heads.
(L. 3.)-His son was the illustrious Jîvitagupta (I.), the best among kings, who was a very-cold-rayed (moon) to (wither) the waterlilies that were the countenances of the women of (his) proud enemies. The very terrible scorching fever (of fear) left not (his) haughty foes, even though they stood on seaside shores that were cool with the flowing and ebbing currents of water, (and) were covered with the branches of plantain-trees severed by the trunks of elephants roaming through the lofty groves of palmyra-palms; (or) even though they stood on (that) mountain (Himâlaya) which is cold with the water of the rushing and waving torrents full of snow. Even still his superhuman deeds are regarded with astonishment by all mankind, like the leap of (the monkey Hanumat) the son of the Wind from the side of (the mountain) Kôshavardhana.
L-5: ....— whose forces, moreover, have reverence done to them by [the oceans], the palmyra-trees on the shores of which are beautified by the lustre of the production of jewels (from the waters);...
The Palmyrenes were mainly a mix of Arameans, Amorites and Arabs, in addition to Jewish and Greek minorities. The society was tribal and the inhabitants spoke their own dialect of Aramaic, in addition to Greek. Both of the languages were replaced by Arabic following the Arab conquest in 634. Palmyra's local culture was influenced by the Greco-Roman and Persian cultures, which produced a distinctive art and architecture. The city's inhabitants worshiped local deities, in addition to Mesopotamian and Arab gods.
They later converted to Christianity in the fourth century, followed by Islam in the second half of the first millennium.
The Palmyrene political organization was based on the Greek city-state model. It was governed by a senate responsible for both the public works and the military. After gaining the status of a colonia in the third century, Palmyra incorporated Roman institutions to its system before adopting a monarchical system in 260. Palmyra gained its wealth from caravan trade. The Palmyrenes were renowned merchants who established colonies along the Silk Road, and conducted their operations all around the Roman Empire.