Palmyra Archaeological Site



Location: Homs Governorate Map


Palmyra is located in the area of the modern city of Tadmor, which had around 51,000 inhabitants before the Syrian Civil War.

The first archaeological finds came from the Neolithic period. The first written mention of the city itself occurred in ancient Near Eastern times: it was mentioned in the annals of several Assyrian kings and in the Old Testament. Palmyra was later part of the Seleucid Empire and flourished after annexation by the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. Palmyra enjoyed some autonomy within the Roman Empire and became part of the province of Syria. The metropolis had its own Senate (Boulé), which was responsible for public works and the local militia, and an independent tax system. In the 3rd century it was elevated to a colonia. During the imperial crisis of the 3rd century, the city gained great political importance and briefly became independent in 270. The city's empire represented a significant power factor in the Near East. However, Palmyra was reconquered by Roman troops in 272 and largely destroyed in 273 after a failed second rebellion.

Palmyra was located on an important caravan route in Syria, halfway from Damascus via the Roman oasis of Al-Dumair and further via the castle of Resafa to the Euphrates. In the middle of the Syrian desert, two springs provide water that is used to irrigate the still preserved palm gardens in the south and east of the city. The city's wealth made it possible to build monumental building projects. By the third century, the city was a prosperous metropolis and had risen to become a regional center of the Middle East. The Palmyrians were among the renowned traders, established stations along the Silk Road and traded throughout the empire. The social structure of the city was tribal and its residents spoke their own language, the Palmyrene dialect of Aramaic. Greek was used for commercial and diplomatic purposes. Palmyra's culture, influenced by the Romans, Greeks and Persians, is unique in the region. The inhabitants worshiped local deities and Mesopotamian and Arabian gods.

The city has been part of Syria as an independent state since the Ottomans were expelled in 1918. It is now home to distinctive art and architecture and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. In May 2015, members of the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (IS) took Palmyra and subsequently blew up important historical buildings; the site was also looted. In March 2016, Syrian forces with Russian support temporarily regained control of Palmyra, but in December 2016, after heavy fighting, IS fighters re-entered Palmyra. In March 2017, IS had to evacuate the city for a second time.


Location and etymology

Palmyra is located 215 km (134 miles) northeast of the Syrian capital Damascus. The ruined city lies in an oasis surrounded by palm trees (around 20 different varieties). It is located in the center of the Aleppo highlands and is enclosed by two mountain ranges to the north and southwest. To the south and east, Palmyra is surrounded by the Syrian Desert. A small wadi (al-Qubur) traverses the area before flowing out of the western hills behind the town in the oasis's eastern gardens. The tributary stream Efqa flows south of the wadi. Around 70, Pliny the Elder praised the city for its location, the richness of the soil and the fields on the outskirts of the city, which had previously made agriculture and livestock breeding possible.

The word Tadmor (in Palmyrene inscriptions tdmry or tdmwry) has an ancient Semitic origin, the Greek name Palmyra refers to the vegetation of the oasis (in the figurative sense “palm city”). Today it is generally believed that Palmyra is derived from Tadmor. Tamar means “date palm” in Hebrew and, according to legend, was the name of a city that Solomon founded; This name reference was transferred to the oasis settlement of Tadmor.

The name Palmyra first appeared at the beginning of the first century AD and was used throughout the Roman Empire; However, the form of the name Tadmor was still used in Palmyra itself. The American archaeologist Michael Patrick O'Connor claimed that Palmyra and Tadmor come from Hurrian origins. Here he creates a connection between the Hurrian verbs pal (to know) and tad (to love). In the thirteenth century, the Syrian geographer Yāqūt ar-Rūmī wrote that Tadmor was the name of a daughter of one of Noah's distant descendants and that she was buried in the city.



The earliest signs of human settlement in the oasis date back to the 7th millennium BC. BC. Determine. Palmyra (Tadmor) is mentioned in Old Assyrian and Babylonian texts (variously spelled: Tadmu/i/ar). At the time of the Mari archives in the 2nd millennium BC. The oasis there apparently already functioned as an important trading post. The place appears again and again in later sources, without any detailed reports being handed down. In the 1st century B.C. Priests of Bēl-Marduk and a Bēl temple are documented there. This was one of the most important religious buildings in the entire Near East, especially in the 1st century AD. The Bēl cult lasted in Palmyra until late antiquity.

The city was founded in the late 1st century BC. Conquered by Roman troops in the 1st century AD and was under Roman sovereignty from the 1st century AD. It was given the status of a free city by Emperor Hadrian (who briefly stayed in Palmyra in 129/30) and Emperor Caracalla elevated it to a colonia. This not only brought prestige, but also tax privileges. By the year 100, the city had established itself as a central trading hub for the Indian trade. Palmyra was able to benefit from its connection to the Silk Road and quickly achieved great wealth. A peculiar culture developed in Palmyra, which fused Greco-Roman and Oriental elements. Numerous different influences can be identified, particularly in the religious area. The city's wealth was expressed in monumental buildings. Apparently Palmyra set up its own militia early on to protect the caravans against robbers; The Palmyrene archers in particular quickly gained fame. Palmyrene units are also documented as Roman auxiliary troops in the lower Danube region and in Numidia. The city's troops would become important in the middle of the third century, when the Persian Sassanids attacked the Roman East and were even able to capture Emperor Valerian in 260 (see Imperial Crisis of the 3rd Century). Faced with this crisis, Palmyra developed enormous activity to protect its interests.

After the Sassanids' victory over Roman troops in the Battle of Edessa in 260, the Palmyrenes first tried to get closer to the Persians. After the Persian King Shapur I rejected this request, the Palmyrene prince Septimius Odaenathus sided with Rome and attacked the Persians surprisingly and successfully. In doing so, he suddenly made the city an important power factor in the region and effectively independent. Survivors of the defeated Roman army joined Odaenathus and reinforced his army. After he defeated the usurper Quietus in 261, Emperor Gallienus appointed him corrector totius Orientis and thus effectively his deputy in this region. Between 262 and 266, the Palmyrene troops under Odaenathus conquered large parts of Mesopotamia from the Persians. During this time, Odaenathus formally subordinated himself to Rome, especially since the interests of the prince and the Roman emperor coincided: defending against the Persians and securing trade routes. However, Odaenathus gained a lot of influence, so that hidden tensions also became noticeable.

After the murder of Odaenathus in 267 (the background is unclear), his wife Zenobia continued the policy, but the resurgent Romans were apparently not prepared to simply transfer the father's special position to Odaenathus' son. An open military conflict broke out. Zenobia took control of Syria in the name of her son Vaballathus and also occupied the rich Roman province of Egypt in 270. When the Roman Emperor Aurelian attacked Palmyra in 272, Zenobia also had her son proclaimed emperor and took the title of Augusta herself. Aurelian defeated the Palmyrene troops at Immae near Antioch and again at Emesa and took Zenobia as a prisoner to Rome. During the Roman occupation, the population of Palmyra, which had initially been treated leniently, rose in a second revolt shortly afterwards under Septimius Antiochus. After its defeat, Palmyra was destroyed by the Romans. The territory temporarily controlled by Palmyra fell back to Rome and Persia.

Emperor Diocletian had the city rebuilt in a much smaller size around 300 AD and built a Roman military camp here. Christianity also reached Palmyra, and the city became a bishop's seat in the early 4th century. The old Temple of Baal served as a church from the 5th century. In 527, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I had Palmyra fortified again and stationed the dux of Emesa with troops here. But the city's time of prosperity was long over. In 634, Islam came to Palmyra with the Arabs, and after 636 the settlement finally passed from Eastern Roman hands to that of the Muslims, who built a mountain fortress near the city. As a result, most of the residents left the place, which had become meaningless.

In 1751, an English expedition visited the ruined city and took careful architectural photographs of the best-preserved ancient ruins. After they were published in a monumental documentation in 1753, they exerted considerable influence on the development of classicist architecture in Europe.


Current state

Before the fighting in Syria in 2015, the city was developed for tourism, there were good bus connections and several hotels. The ruins have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.

In the civil war in Syria since 2011 - including the fighting by the Islamic State (IS), which destroys cultural property for ideological reasons (see also iconophobia) - the site is increasingly threatened by looting. UNESCO has placed it on the Red List of World Heritage in Danger. Palmyrene grave reliefs are in great demand among collectors and are exported illegally. By removing the objects from their context, valuable data for historical analysis is lost, which could help answer the question of the economic and social conditions of Palmyra's rise.

On the evening of May 20, 2015, Syrian government troops and militiamen evacuated the city of Tadmor. This meant that the archaeological site also came into the hands of IS. The director of the Syrian Antiquities Administration said that the objects housed in the Palmyra museum had been brought to safety. On June 21, 2015, reports emerged from Syria that ISIS had installed landmines and explosive devices around the ancient ruins in Palmyra. However, it is unclear whether the explosives were planted to defend Palmyra against Syrian government troops who might be planning an offensive, or to destroy the temple complex.

Maamun Abdelkarim, head of the Syrian Antiquities Collections, described the June 27, 2015 destruction of the famous lion sculpture from the Allat Temple, discovered in 1977 and standing at the entrance to the Palmyra Museum, as “the worst crime committed by the jihadists against the heritage of Palmyra”. The destruction is condemned worldwide.

On August 25, 2015, the Temple of Baalshamin was destroyed by the IS militia. On August 31, 2015, the IS militia reportedly also blew up the Temple of Baal, causing it to be severely damaged. Shortly afterwards, the United Nations confirmed the destruction using satellite images. At the beginning of October, the terrorists blew up the triumphal arch (Hadrian's Gate) on the city's boulevard.

In March 2016, Syrian army troops, supported by pro-government militias and in particular the Russian Air Force, managed to liberate parts of the city from IS. They had already captured tactically important heights some time before, including the old citadel of Palmyra, which IS lost with heavy losses. On March 27, 2016, the Syrian army announced the complete recapture of Palmyra.

Initially, people were confident that a significant part of the blown-up buildings in Palmyra could be reconstructed. In May, the recapture of the city was celebrated with a classical concert in front of the ruins. However, on December 10, 2016, IS fighters managed to recapture Palmyra in a surprise offensive. On January 20, 2017, further destruction by IS in the ancient city became known. This affected the tetrapylon and the stage of the theater.

On March 1, 2017, Syrian troops advanced on Palmyra Castle. According to Russian information, on March 2, 2017 the city was again in the hands of Syrian troops. However, since the Islamists left behind numerous booby traps, the Syrian army is only slowly moving back into Palmyra.

In 2017, various faculties at the University of Konstanz reconstructed the original state of the ruins in a model and presented this in an exhibition.


Public buildings

Temple of Bēl/Temple of Baal

The Temple of Bēl, better known as the Temple of Baal, was one of the most important religious structures in the Middle East in the first century AD. According to an inscription, the shrine, the actual sanctuary, was built on April 6, 32 BC. Consecrated in 500 BC, a feast day of Bēl-Marduk. The temple has some structural features that testify to Palmyra's cultural independence, for example the temple has windows. In addition, the entrance is on the broad side (Babylonia), which means that the temple has two cult niches - in contrast to Greek or Roman temples. The Temple of Baal was converted into a citadel in 1132/33. On August 30, 2015, the Islamist militia carried out an explosion that severely damaged the interior of the temple.


Temple of Baalshamin

North of the thermal baths was the temple of Baalshamin. In addition to Bēl, who was originally a Mesopotamian god, the Phoenician deity Baalshamin was also worshiped in Palmyra. This was also a “supreme god”. He had a similar area of responsibility to Bēl. As with Bēl, he was often assigned the moon god Aglibol and the sun god Jarchibol. The fact that there were two “supreme” gods in Palmyra may have been due to the fact that there were two different population groups. The Phoenicians who immigrated later brought their own god with them, whom they worshiped in an independent temple. The exact time when the temple was built is not known. It is believed to have been built either by Hadrian in 130 or around 150. There was already a sanctuary on the site of the temple. In the 4th century the temple was converted into a church.

On August 22, 2015, the terrorist organization Islamic State blew up the structure.



The boulevard took on its current form around 220 AD. It is about 1 km long. The streets in Palmyra were not paved but were made of compacted clay. The boulevard does not run in a typical Roman straight line, but bends twice: when the colonnaded street was built in several stages in the 2nd century, existing buildings had to be taken into account. The changes in direction were concealed by the construction of the Tetrapylon and the large Hadrian's Gate. Hadrian's Gate was built as the entrance to the boulevard in honor of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The gate consisted of three archways decorated with reliefs; it was blown up by members of the IS militia in autumn 2015. Almost all of the important buildings are located between Hadrian's Gate and the Tetrapylon. The road was 11 m wide at this point. The street was bordered by approximately 9.5 m high columns and bronze statues of Palmyrian dignitaries. On the columns there are small bases for statues of donors of the colonnade or of distinguished Palmyrenes, now lost. They were identified by bilingual or trilingual inscriptions.


Temple of Nebo

Southwest of the great Arch of Hadrian stands the Temple of Nebo. Nebo was originally a Mesopotamian deity of writing, wisdom and power who was identified with Apollo in Palmyra. The monumental entrance was on its south side and was oriented towards the Hellenistic city, which has hardly been explored until now. Access was through a gate with six columns. The courtyard was designed in a trapezoidal shape - the side of the portal was narrower than the back of the temple - and was made of rammed earth. There was a well with a wide rim for ritual ablutions. The temple itself rose on a podium 2.15 m high and was surrounded by 32 Corinthian columns. The cella was entered via a monumental eleven-step staircase. The lower steps supported a small altar, like the Temple of Baal. Inside the cella was the cult niche, flanked by two stair towers. Like the Temple of Baal, the roof was flat and decorated with turrets and false gables. Today only the floor plan with stumps of columns and parts of the south portal can be seen of the Temple of Nebo.


Thermal baths

On the other side of the colonnaded street are the Baths of Diocletian. The floor area was 85 m × 51 m. The thermal baths were built towards the end of the 2nd century. Towards the end of the 3rd century, various renovations were carried out with new installations, which led to the current name. The highlighted entrance protrudes into the columned street in the form of a platform with four columns made of red granite. This was imported from Egypt. Inside the building there was a hot bath room with a hot water basin (caldarium). There was also a room for moderate heat, the tepidarium. There was no water basin in it. There was also a frigidarium, a cold water pool for cooling down. Sports fields, foyers and relaxation rooms were also located in the bathing complex. The water was supplied via an underground pipe. Today only a pool of water can be seen.


Roman theater

To the west of Columned Street is the theater, which dates back to the 2nd century AD. In the past it probably had many more rows of seats than today, some of which could have been made of wood. The back wall of the stage is 48 m long and 10.50 m deep. It dates from the 3rd century. It represented the entrance to a palace with a central royal gate and two side doors. In addition to the two arched passageways, the theater had a central entrance that led under the rows of seats and opened onto the circular street. The theater was used for plays, but also for animal and gladiatorial fights.

On July 4, 2015, a video was released showing a public execution of 25 Syrian soldiers by very young IS fighters (including apparently teenagers) in front of an audience on the theater stage; Executions had probably already taken place there before. In January 2017, the stage building was heavily damaged by IS fighters; the extent of the destruction is currently unclear.



The agora was a square courtyard surrounded by colonnades. He had eleven entrances. The current complex was built on the site of the old agora in the early 2nd century. The oldest inscription found in this area dates to the late first century. At the southwest corner of the Agora there is a rectangular building (14.20 by 12.10 m), the entrance of which is flanked by two columns. Perhaps it was the Bouleuterion of Palmyra, i.e. the meeting place of the “City Council”, but it may also have been a banquet hall. The courtyard has stone benches, which are probably where sacrifices took place.



The Tetrapylon marked the intersection of Palmyra's two most important streets. It is considered the most beautiful tetrapylon the Romans ever built. Sixteen slender columns of pink granite from Aswan formed four covered niches that once housed statues. However, today's columns were replicas; only one of the columns was ancient.

Between December 26, 2016 and January 10, 2017, the Tetrapylon was largely destroyed, according to the Palmyra Monitor, probably by an intentional explosion by IS. Of the original four pylons, the eastern and southern pylons have been completely destroyed and only two pillars of the other two still exist.



In front of the gates outside the city area there are various burial grounds, which are referred to according to their location as the north, south-east, south-west and west necropolis (the so-called “Valley of the Graves”).


Tomb towers of the western necropolis

The burial towers of the Western Necropolis are unique in the Middle East. According to the building inscriptions, the grave complexes were built between 9 BC. Built between 128 BC and 128 AD. The Tomb of Elahbel is the largest tower tomb. It had up to five floors, which were connected by narrow spiral staircases. Numerous dead people found their final resting place in the tower. The grave towers were a family's grave house. Poorer Palmyrenes were able to rent burial sites in one of the tombs. The coffins were transported through shafts to the respective floors. The exterior of the towers was usually plain. However, inside the towers were richly decorated with architectural decor and sculptural decoration. The grave towers had a special feature for archeology: remains of valuable textiles were found. This allows conclusions to be drawn about the trading connections of the Palmyrenes.

In September 2015, the terrorist organization Islamic State blew up a total of six burial towers, including the three best-preserved: the burial tower of Iamblichus (83 AD), the tower of Elahbel (103 AD) and the tower of Kithot (44 AD) were destroyed.



In addition to the grave towers, underground graves (hypogees) were also built. According to the inscriptions, these were created between 81 and 232. So far around 90 of them have been found. Access was via stairs. The name of the founder and the date of creation were engraved on the monumental stone doors. The burial chambers were decorated with rich architectural ornaments or frescoes.

The most famous is the Hypogeum of the Three Brothers. It was built around the year 160 and was lavishly decorated with frescoes. Figures from Greek mythology are depicted that had a connection to the world of the dead. For example, there are frescoes of Ganymede, who was kidnapped to Mount Olympus by Zeus, and of Achilles. Grave space could also be rented in this grave. You can still see the inscriptions with the family names.

The tomb of Burfa and Burli was built in 128 AD and is now in the National Museum of Damascus. The founders of the family were buried here with other family members. The grave consists of a long corridor with grave niches branching off to the left and right. The grave niches were carved into the rock, bricked up and decorated with a bust of the deceased. In addition, large stone sarcophagi were often placed in the hypogea towards the end of the 2nd century. In the main niche was the statue of the founder of the tomb, the progenitor of the family. Mummies were also found in the tombs; However, the burial technique was different than in Egypt.


Temple tombs

What remains of the house graves are mainly unsightly “heaps of rubble”. These originally had elaborately designed facades in the shape of a temple and an inner courtyard surrounded by columns. There were about as many house graves as grave towers. According to the building inscriptions, they were built between 143 and 253 AD. An example of a rebuilt house tomb is the mortuary temple. This is very close to Diocletian's camp at the end of the columned street.


Qal'at Ibn Ma'n

In the 13th century, the Muslims built a fortress about two kilometers from the ruins on a mountain ridge to protect themselves against the Crusaders. However, this castle no longer achieved great importance. The Lebanese Druze prince Fakhr ad-Dīn II (r. 1572–1635) converted it into a castle-like residence in an attempt to expand his domain at the expense of the Ottomans.