— The Erimtan Angle —

(20 May 2015)

From Beirut, Reuters’ Sylvia Westall and Tom Perry report that “Islamic State insurgents stormed the historic Syrian city of Palmyra on Wednesday [, 20 May], fighting off pro-government forces who withdrew after evacuating most of the civilian population, state television said. The capture of Palmyra is the first time the al Qaeda offshoot has taken control of a city directly from the Syrian army and allied forces, which have already lost ground in the northwest and south to other insurgent groups in recent weeks. The central city, also known as Tadmur, is built alongside the remains of a oasis civilisation whose colonnaded streets, temple and theatre have stood for 2,000 years. Islamic State has destroyed antiquities and ancient monuments in neighbouring Iraq and is being targeted by U.S.-led air strikes in both countries. Syria’s antiquities chief called on the world to save its ancient monuments and state television said Islamic State fighters were trying to enter the city’s historical sites”.[1]

Originally re-discovered in 1678, scholars usually describe Palmyra as a “caravan city” and the “brief seat of an empire” . . . “As the Romans expanded their frontiers during the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD to occupy the eastern Mediterranean shores, the Seleucid dynasty failed. Tadmor [the Arabic name for Palmyra] became stranded between the Latin realms to the west and those of the Parthians to the east. The oasis used this situation to its advantage, keeping the east–west trade routes open and taking the role of middleman between the two clashing superpowers. The influence of Rome grew, and the city they dubbed Palmyra (City of Palms) became a tributary of the empire and a buffer against rivals to the east. The Palmyrenes were permitted to retain considerable independence, profiting also from rerouted trade following the defeat of the Petra-based Nabataeans by Rome. The emperor Hadrian visited in AD 129 and declared Palmyra a ‘free city’, allowing it to set and collect its own taxes. In 212, under the emperor Caracalla (himself born of a Syrian mother), Palmyra became a Roman colony. In this way, its citizens obtained equal rights with those of Rome and exemption from paying imperial taxes. Further wealth followed and Palmyra spent lavishly, enlarging its great colonnaded avenue and building more and larger temple”.[2]  The expression “brief seat of an empire” primarily refers to the reign of Queen Zenobia, who succeeded her husband Odainat who had been Rome’s ‘Corrector of the East’. Zenobia declared independence from Rome in 267 AD. The Roman “[E]mperor [Gallienus, r. 253-68] dispatched an army to deal with the rebel queen. Zenobia met the Roman force in battle and defeated it. She then led her army against the garrison at Bosra, then the capital of the Province of Arabia, and successfully invaded Egypt. With all of Syria and Palestine and part of Egypt under her control, Zenobia declared her independence from Rome and had coins minted in Alexandria bearing her image and that of her son [Vabalathus], who assumed the title of Augustus, or emperor. Claiming to be descended from Cleopatra, Zenobia was, it seems, a woman of exceptional ability and ambition”.[3]  The rebel queen was eventually defeated and taken as a hostage to Rome by Emperor Aurelian (r. 270-5) in the year 271 AD.[4]

And now, in the 21st century the Caliph has captured Zenobia’s city in an effort to unseat Bashar al-Assad. Westall and Perry relate that the “attack [on Palmyra] is part of a westward advance by Islamic State that is adding to pressures on the overstretched military and allied militia. The group holds tracts of land in the north and east and is now edging towards the more heavily populated areas along its western flank. In the east, U.S. special forces carried out a ground assault on Saturday [, 16 May] against Islamic State and killed a militant believed to be in charge of the group’s financial operations . . . Islamic State supporters posted pictures on social media showing what they said were gunmen in the streets of Palmyra, which is the location of one of Syria’s biggest weapons depots as well as army bases, an airport and a major prison”.[5]

[1] Sylvia Westall and Tom Perry, “Islamic State seizes ancient Palmyra city from Syrian forces” Reuters (21 May 2015). http://in.reuters.com/article/2015/05/20/mideast-crisis-syria-northeast-idINKBN0O52AH20150520.

[2] “Palmyra History” Lonely Planet. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/syria/palmyra/history.

[3] “Palmyra History”.

[4] “Zenobia” Livius. http://www.livius.org/person/zenobia/.

[5] Sylvia Westall and Tom Perry, “Islamic State seizes ancient Palmyra city from Syrian forces”.


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