Palmyra [Tadmor] 1872, 1874
Like a shrinking beauty, Tadmor sits in solitary grandeur behind her own desert mountains: and those who would see her in her calm retreat must leave the beaten tracks of tourists, and cross "the great and terrible desert."
During ten years, I had seen many tourists arrive at Damascus, eager as devotees to gaze on this queen of ruins ; but owing to the expense, danger, and general hardships of the journey, few of the multitude had been permitted to look upon her beauty. Of these few, fewer still had free leisure to become acquainted with all her charms.I may consider myself the most fortunate of tourists, in that I twice succeeded in visiting Palmyra under the most favourable circumstances.... I shall take my readers by my latest route, through a region seldom explored.So begins the account of the Reverend William Wright, a Presbyterian missionary in Syria and a perfect example of 'muscular Christianity', that late Victorian British breed of manly men "going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other."
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland had sent him to Damascus in 1865 as Missionary to the Jews. Any Church which sought the salvation of the Jews was, they thought, bound to prosper. But, as always, the Jews were not very interested in being converted, and so instead Wright concentrated on bringing education to the poor.
Eastern Gate, Damascus
Unlike many other missionaries, he believed that educating people in mathematics, geography, and Arabic was as important as studying the Bible. He believed in education for women, and was proud that he had Moslem, Druze and Christian children sitting side by side in his classrooms.
When he returned to Britain, he published An Account of Palmyra and Zenobia with Travels and Adventures in Bashan and the Desert. The first edition of this rare book has just been reprinted (with original photographs and engravings).* The Rev. Wright assures us, "This book was written partly in the saddle and partly in the tent, and almost wholly amid the scenes and adventures which it describes. It should therefore not be lacking in local colour."
Truly, the missionary brings the world of late Ottoman Syria to life. And these were dangerous times.
During that spring [of 1874] the Bedouin plundered the whole eastern borders of Syria. Caravan after caravan with Baghdad merchandise was swept off into the desert. Spearmen, like swarms of locusts from the east, spread over Jebel Kalamoun, and having slain the shepherds, and stripped any men or women who fell in their way, drove before them all the flocks and herds of the region.Wright's Account tells the wonderful story of his lengthy stay among the ruins of Palmyra and his later travels in the Bashan (the rough and rocky basalt terrain nowadays known as the Hauran). It is partly a tale of adventure, partly of his missionary efforts, and partly of his own archaeological research -- for the good reverend was also a fine linguist and could read ancient inscriptions in Palmyrene Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, Hittite, and Egyptian Hieroglyphs as well as, naturally enough, Greek and Latin.**
Feeble fanaticism held sway in the city, and absolute anarchy reigned in the rural districts ; and so great was the terror of the peasantry, that, though they were actually starving, they could not move from their villages, except in large armed bodies, and even thus they sometimes fell a prey to the Ishmaelites.
In this state of the country, I had almost given up my [plan], when two daring explorers, the Honourable C. F. P. Berkeley and wife, arrived in Damascus. Coolness and courage had carried them safely through Petra and Karak, and all the trans-Jordanic regions, where they were sometimes beset with savage and furious mobs. Their faces were set towards Tadmor [Palmyra], and the prospect of danger only gave a keener zest to the projected tour. The season was already far advanced for making the journey to Palmyra, and so we resolved to start at once.
It was not, however, a great time to be travelling in Syria. The Ottoman empire in its dotage was corrupt and violent. Heavy Turkish taxes on the peasants led to famine whereupon the Bedouin attacked and robbed those who remained. As Wright comments, "These spoilers follow on each others heels, and that which the Turkish caterpillar leaves, the Bedouin locust devours."
He also gives a vivid account of a caravan raid. The Bedouin he describes are very different from the desert dwellers of romantic fiction. What had happened was this:
The caravan was conducted by the hardy villagers of Jebel Kalamoun, who were bringing provisions for their families from the Euphrates, and they had, besides, Persian carpets, and tobacco and other valuable merchandise for Damascus.... [W]ith the first onset, the Bedouin cut off and captured a number of stragglers. The remainder of the caravan was then drawn up in a circle, and the camels were tightly bound together in a living rampart, from behind which the villagers fired on their assailants.
The Arab force consisted of about twenty horsemen, accompanied by forty dromedaries, each carrying two armed riders. The Bedouin ... galloped round and round the circle, making a feint here and an attack there, till the villagers were weary of rushing round their rampart, and their ammunition was exhausted. Thus they continued hour after hour, till near sunset, when a wounded camel staggered and fell, and broke the line. Quick as lightning, the Bedouin rushed in at the breach, the camels started off in all directions, and the active horsemen, with their flashing spears, decided the victory in a few minutes.
The Bedouin took possession of, and carried off, all that the caravan contained—120 loads of butter and an enormous number of donkeys, mules, camels, horses, and arms, valued at £ 4000. In addition to this they stripped all the travellers, and left them naked in the blazing desert. They even stripped the dead.
Not surprisingly, in the face of such dangers, Wright recruited a large company of guards from the irregular Syrian police and some Turkish soldiers for his journey to Palmyra. Despite some close calls on the road, all was not glum. We get a glimpse of his crew being attacked by a mischievous mule.
The gentleman in the pith helmet is the Rev. William Wright. His unsheathed sword does not impress the mule who is swinging about three 30-foot [10 m] ladders to its own great delight:
A Turkish soldier who had got a [ladder] punch in the back, rushed up valiantly to chastise the "father of ladders," as the mule was called; but before he reached the object of his wrath a sweep of the ladders unhorsed him, to the great amusement of all the spectators.They resumed the march to Palmyra. As they approached, ruins on surrounding hilltops rose into view, and beyond the final pass, they could see the tops of the colonnades within. Perhaps there is no view of Palmyra which gives so much excitement as this.
On the left, the yellow mountains towered over [the city]; and on the right, green gardens of palm and olive surged around it. On the outer side, these gardens are girt by the desert, which stretches away to the horizon, smooth as the sea, and the yellow sands, which shimmer golden in the sunlight, are flecked by the silver sheen of extensive salt lakesThey begin their descent, thrilled with expectancy and delight.
As we swept through the pass, Tadmor lay beneath us; and its ruins, which seemed graceful and fantastic as frostwork on glass, stretched out for more than a mile before us, and ended in the massive Temple of the Sun.This is what the missionary saw:
As we approach it in front, we see, over the patched and broken walls, columns standing, and leaning about at every angle, as though the temple enclosure were a huge lumber-yard of columns. Around the outer wall is a deep ditch, and the entrance is reached by a raised causeway flagged with broad stones, among which I recognized a panelled stone door. The sheikh and a crowd of his people are sitting on stones in the gate. Camels and mules pass in and out, and women with jars of water on their heads, and babies on their shoulders.Of course, the intrepid Doctor of Divinity does not lose heart. Look up, dear sir, look up!
Within, we find the whole area of the temple filled with clay-daubed huts, so that we can only get an idea of the place by climbing over them. We pass on straight to the Holy of Holies, which we explore with our handkerchiefs held to our noses, for the inmost shrine is the cesspool of the community.
We hurry out to the fresh air; but it is not fresh, for all the offal and filth of the houses are flung out into the narrow lanes, and lie rotting in the sun. Wherever we go among these human dens there reek filth and squalor, and the hot pestiferous atmosphere of an ill-kept sty.
Towers of Death
He next tackles the lofty funeral towers. The long ladders carried by that obstreperous mule were hauled to the towers along with stout ropes and grappling-irons. Earlier travellers had been unable to explore the structures due to lack of such equipment.
Even so, it looked daunting:
I shall never forget the consternation with which I first saw the tomb-towers. There they towered up to heaven, more than one hundred feet [30 m] high, most of them horribly cracked and toppling over; even the stones seemed rotten. And was I to throw a grappling-hook over those lofty pinnacles, and commence slack-rope practice up those "bowing walls," which were only waiting for an excuse to fall ?
But what's the use of being a muscular Christian if you don't give it a try? The towers turned out to be surprisingly accessible.
We began quietly with the smallest towers, and proceeded steadily to the largest, and in less than three hours of hard work, we had thoroughly explored them all. I stood on the top of every tower, and we had only twice recourse to the ladders; and even then I think we might have dispensed with them. The ropes were used for measuring, and the grappling-irons were not used at all.Immense treasures, especially works of art, were alleged to have been found in such tombs, but any such valuables were long gone:
I can now assure all those who sighed to explore the upper stories of the tomb-towers, and whose imaginations revelled in their undisturbed treasure, that the highest recesses had been ransacked before I scaled them, and that nothing remained but a few mutilated mummies and a great number of bones and skulls.Zenobia in Palmyra
Like most other 19th century learned gentlemen, Wright had great faith in the credibility of the Roman historians. He had read them all, in Latin and Greek, and believed implicitly what they told him about Zenobia, her womanly graces and accomplishments, her vast learning and martial bearing. In addition to the historians, Wright was able to read the Palmyrene inscriptions, several of which mentioned Zenobia and her warrior husband, Odenathus. With slight scepticism, he also adds information culled from what he calls 'the living tradition' of Sitt Zeinab (Lady Zenobia), the tales told by the current inhabitants of Palmyra -- as if these impoverished Arabs were direct descendants of Zenobia's people:
For much of the traditions to which I attach weight, I am indebted to the late Lady Ellenborough, who spent a great deal of time at Palmyra, and busied herself in weaving together the local stories regarding the great desert queen. Chiefly from this source I derived my information regarding Zenobia's military camps, and the routes by which her armies marched to meet Aurelian.With this grand story in mind, he begins his search for the statue of Zenobia. He offers the workmen a 5-piastre reward if they can find her head.
And how the descendants of the proud Tadmorenes delved in the debris of the beautiful city for the head of the illustrious queen that once ruled the East, and set at defiance the Romans! The diggers strained every nerve and muscle to secure the reward!
Suddenly, while on a ladder examining inscriptions, Wright hears a tremendous yell burst from the excavators, a shout of triumph, "We have got the head of Sitt Zeinab!" shouted the chief of the party, holding a large stone in his hands. It was the head of a Palmyran lady with carefully folded turban (left) which had clearly been broken off a statue. She wore a broad jewelled band across the forehead, and other bands extended from the middle of the forehead downwards toward the ears, with jewels in each. The head was not as grand as Wright expected, and it was considerably battered.
I was reconciling myself to it with the reflection, that perhaps, like heroes generally, the heads of female statues are less impressive on close inspection, when another yell of triumph ... made the ruins of old Palmyra resound again. Nothing like it had been heard since the day that the Tadmor cavalry, with Zenobia in glittering armour at their head, drove [the Persian Emperor] Sapor the Great, across the Euphrates.
My excavators, seeing that I was pleased with their find, as I was tenderly removing the sand of ages from the folds of the turban, and doubtless thinking that I ought to be encouraged, had delved deeper and brought to the surface the female head of another statue (left).There are circumstances, as the Rev. Wright wryly remarks, under which one may have too much of a good thing.
In the end, he was left with the tantalizing inscription honouring Zenobia and her missing statue that he had been copying while his workers searched for the head -- which is virtually all we still have of her even today. From his translation of the Palmyrene:
The statue of Septimia, the daughter of Zabbai, the pious and just queen, The Septimii Zabda, General-in-Chief, and Zabbai, General of Tadmor, Excellencies, have erected it to their sovereign, in the month of Ab, the year 582 [= August 271 A.D.]and in Greek:Septimia Zenobia, the illustrious and pious queen.
* My warm thanks to Dr Maria Nilsson, currently resident in Luxor, Egypt, for bringing this reissue of Wright's Account of Palmyra and Zenobia to my attention. I also thank the publisher, Forgotten Books, for generously offering a temporary free download in e-book form (unfortunately, this offer has now expired). The text with better quality illustrations is available free of cost at University of Washington's Electronic Text Archive but without the charm of reading Forgotten Books' classic reprint.
For the earlier visit of Robert Wood and his friends James Dawkins and John Bouverie to Palmyra in 1750-1753, see the post at The Lure of the East; and the work of their Italian artist and architect in A Short Tribute to Giovanni Battista Borra.
** Rev. Wright was an active member of the Society of Biblical Archaeology and of the Palestine Exploration Fund and author of several highly serious books. From 1876 he was Editorial Superintendent of the British and Foreign Bible Society, where his aid to translators of the Revised New Testament was of the highest value. He died on July 31st, 1899. Obituary here.
Illustrations: all from University of Washington, Electronic Text Archive. By kind permission and in accordance with their requirements.