17 February 2009

Where Did Zenobia Die?

The 6th century historian Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500-565 CE) tells us that Queen Zenobia built the city on the Euphrates River (below) that even today is known by her name:
on the road to Roman territory, Zenobia, wife of Odenathus, who was ruler of the Saracens in that district, once founded a small city in earlier times and gave her name to it; for the name she gave it was Zenobia, as was fitting. (Buildings 2.8)

By the side of Zenobia, Procopius continues, flows the Euphrates River, passing to the east of it and coming very close to the circuit-wall on that side; but since high mountains rise beside the river at this point, the stream cannot spread out at all, but by reason of the proximity of these mountains and because it is constrained by its banks, which are hard, it would gather its stream into an extraordinarily narrow space

Actually, mountains rise on both sides of the Euphrates here, making a sort of gorge through which the turquoise waters of the river in pre-dam days used to run with great speed. On the opposite bank -- some 3 km (2 miles) downstream -- she may also have founded Zenobia's sister city, Zalebiye (seen below).

Zenobia and Zalebiya are surely the two towns mentioned by the Persian historian and commentator on the Koran, al-Tabari (839-923 CE), who wrote a History of Prophets and Kings, ten thick volumes in Arabic recounting the history of the world from the Creation up to the events of his own day. When he reaches the time of Zenobia, Tabari tells us that
Al-Zabba [Zenobia] built herself a fortress on the western bank of the Euphrates. She used to spend the winter with her sister, and the spring at Batn al-Najjar from where she would go to Palmyra.
The connection with Palmyra makes it clear that Tabari's Al-Zabba is the same as our Queen Zenobia. Later, Tabari says that she also built a castle beyond the Euphrates with a tunnel under the river to link the two banks.

This seems to be a half-remembered reference to twin towns on opposite banks of the river. We'll come back to Tabari and his story of Zenobia's life in a moment. But, first, let's have a look at the archaeology of her cities.

Zenobia and Zalebiye

The two towns control the river crossing at this narrow point -- undoubtedly the reason these forts were established by the queen, or her husband, or by someone else entirely. Very little is left of Zalebiye on the eastern bank because the cliff on that side of the river has partly collapsed into the Euphrates. What remains shows, however, that Zalebiya was probably built following the same plan as Zenobia (aka Halebiye, named after the peninsula on which it is located). Happily, Zenobia itself is amazingly well preserved, even if the city we now see is much later in date than the 3rd century.

What's the background?

As far as is known, the original city was built when Palmyra moved its troops into the area, certainly well before 266 CE. In Zenobia's time, the forts may have been meant to replace Dura Europos which had been destroyed by the Sassanian Persians in 256 or 257 CE [see the map below]. Their geo-strategic importance is clear: from here, the Palmyrans maintained control of the Middle Euphrates valley and the routes across the desert.

Pity, then, that the emperor Aurelian, in destroying Palmyra, had clobbered the essential buffer state which held back the Persians and inadvertently opened the eastern empire to multiple invasions. Without Palmyran power, the frontier was wide open. Palmyra's commercial empire collapsed, too. And with it went the wealth it had brought to Rome. Just like many plans gone awry -- in saving the Roman empire, he helped destroy it. Well, we all know how that feels, nowadays.

After Palmyra fell in 272 CE, the Romans took over Zenobia-Halebiye as one of their main forward defences against the Persians. The city was rebuilt and fortified twice, first under Diocletian who, more than most emperors, was able to see beyond immediate material gains, and who tried to strengthen his defences in this area. That still wasn't enough to reverse Aurelian's damage.
The long period of time that had elapsed since [Zenobia's foundation of the city] had reduced its circuit-wall to a ruin, since the Romans were quite unwilling to take care of it, and thus it had come to be altogether destitute of inhabitants. So it was possible for the Persians freely, whenever they wished, to get into the middle of Roman territory before the Romans had word of the hostile inroad.

The great period of Zenobia's expansion came under the Emperor Justinian (527 - 565) in a renewed effort to fortify the Euphrates against the continuing Persian threat. Justinian provided it with massive defences around 545 CE -- and this is basically what we see today.

Justinian demolished the old city walls which had been sufficient protection against attacks by nomads but not nearly strong enough to withstand a Persian siege or to guard the rest of Syria from attack:
He also found that portion of the city's circuit-wall which faces the north dangerously weakened by the passage of time; so he first took it down, along with the outworks, clear to the ground, and then rebuilt it.
At the same time, the emperor gave the city of Zenobia all the trappings of a Byzantine-Roman town: there are still traces of a north-south street (the cardo maximus), several baths (complete with frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium), two Christian basilicas, a gymnasium, and a forum.

But there can be no doubt that Zenobia was, first and foremost, a military post.

Anti-Persian Ramparts

[The] Emperor Justinian rebuilt Zenobia completely and he filled it quite full of inhabitants, and he stationed there a commander of select troops and a thoroughly adequate garrison, and made it a bulwark of the Roman Empire and a frontier barrier against the Persians; indeed he did not simply restore its previous form, but he actually made it very much stronger than it was before.

The walls of Zenobia resemble a triangle (left) with its base parallel to the Euphrates and its apex on the highest hill where he built the fortress that dominates the town. The encircling walls, made of basalt stones, measure 1400 m (4300') long and are punctuated by 38 rectangular bastions. The walls still stand 10 m (30') high in places.

The site, which covers 15 hectares (30 acres), is mightily impressive: the massive towers and the Praetorium (barracks) are almost intact, just like Justinian's fantastic walls.

The Praetorium (left), about halfway up the hill, has vaulted rooms surviving even today up to three storeys high, and a very large hall. It is built of blocks of local white crystalline gypsum. I don't know if anyone has estimated the number of troops that could be quartered there, but it was undoubtedly a serious commitment, as Procopius said.

The local gypsum is a handsome building stone, but terribly susceptible to erosion -- and it does rain surprisingly often on the Euphrates. The structure is collapsing. As are the two churches and the bits of the inhabited city that were exposed in early excavations.

The French to the Rescue

Since 2006, a Franco-Syrian Mission has been active at Zenobia-Halebiye. The main goals are the conservation of existing buildings and -- what is really exciting -- the exploration of the town before Justinian's 6th century refortification and urbanization. Was it really founded by Queen Zenobia? What did it look like in her lifetime? We may soon learn.

But, keeping to the ultimate point of this post: did Zenobia, in fact, die here -- in her own city on the Euphrates?

A Tale of Two Cities

Tabari may indirectly suggest that she did. He tells an entirely different story about Queen Zenobia from the one given in the Historiae Augustae -- or in any other Greek or Roman source -- and it is just as fabulous. Those who would miss none of his tale of Blood Revenge, Deceit, and Royal Murder in the desert should read my post about Tabari and Zenobia's Arab history in The Zenobia Romance.

But the heart of the matter is this. He tells us three new things:

1. That the queen built herself a fortress on the western bank of the Euphrates -- by which he must mean the town of Zenobia-Halebiye.

2. As part of her plot to take revenge on her father's murderer, the Arab sheikh, Jadhima, she builds a castle beyond the Euphrates with a tunnel under the river to link the two banks. This castle on the eastern bank must surely be a reference to Zalebiye.

3. Her tunnel-building isn't over yet. Presumably in case her plans go awry, she later 'builds a tunnel from the audience hall ... to a fortress inside her city, an escape route (as it were).

Two (legendary) tunnels should raise eyebrows in even the most trusting of readers. According to Tabari, she succeeds in killing Jadhima. His murder, in turn, now demands blood revenge. So, Jadhima's sister's son, Amr ibn Adi, attacks her city and, through a folkloric trick, sneaks his army into the town and massacres her soldiers. Amr pursues Zenobia, who attempts to flee via her tunnel. But the enemy is waiting for her inside. She evades capture by swallowing poison. Her kingdom passed to Amr.

Where was that tunnel?

There is a real possibility that Tabari meant the (legendary) tunnel to be understood as at Zenobia-Halebiye. The 'city' Amr attacked is never named. Everyone has always assumed that it was Palmyra. In truth, Tabari mentions Palmyra only once in his story -- merely saying that Zenobia goes there in the spring. Given that two tunnels are a bit much, there may have been just one in the 'original' story -- the one supposedly dug under the Euphrates.

And that must be where she was thought to have met her end.

What Now?

Outside Zenobia, on the northern and southern sides of the city, are two cemeteries with a total of 120 tombs, including funeral towers and monumental underground tombs. Many boast painted and plaster decorations, and grafitti and inscriptions. Perhaps a thorough survey would turn up just one hoped-for grave, dated ca. 272 CE

.... and who knows?

Footnotes and Illustrations credits:

On the map (left), the big red spot marks Palmyra and the middle-sized Dura Europos.

Further information on Halebiye at Livius.Org (in French) at France Diplomatie , and from the Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier (under the direction of Sylvie BLÉTRY),

Photograph top centre: Campagnes 2007 Mission franco-syrienne : Sylvie BLÉTRY, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier.

2nd centre: ForumFr

3rd centre: Livius.Org

All others from: Campagnes 2007 Mission franco-syrienne : Sylvie BLÉTRY, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, or Programme d’études archéologiques et de consolidations sur le site de Zénobia-Halabiyé.

Translation Procopius Buildings 2: via LacusCurtius


  1. Anonymous20/2/09 20:07

    Dear Judith,

    Slightly off-topic and yet never off-topic on this blog: here's the youtube link to a very interesting little ten minute film on Rossini's Zenobia-opera 'Aureliano in Palmira'. A synopsis of the opera with bits of film from the opera's new world premiere in the 1980s. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Hwnv24xURk&feature=related
    Kind regards,

    Hein van Eekert

  2. Thanks very much, Hein, that's a wonderful fragment of Rossini's opera. And I do love Luciana Serra's voice.

    Pity about the history :-), but that tells us something important about how the 19th C viewed Zenobia's story. I shall certainly write a Zenobia opera post -- sometime soon, I hope -- anyway, when I dig myself out of the pile of stuff I'm supposed to be doing.


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