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

05 February 2009

Time Gazing at the Pantheon in Rome

What's the time now?

An expert in ancient timekeeping thinks we can tell the time from this sunbeam entering the Pantheon in Rome. The building is, he says, a colossal sundial.

The Pantheon, a Roman temple dedicated to "all the gods" , was finished by the Emperor Hadrian in 125 CE. It consists of a cylindrical chamber topped by a domed roof with a big open hole in the top (the oculus) which lets through a dramatic shaft of sunlight -- bang, as you see on the left.

Paranormal blogs have got quite excited by this news ... but what is it all about?

Robert Hannah, author of Time in Antiquity, argues that the Pantheon is just a vastly larger version of the sundial used by the Greeks and Romans -- a hollowed-out hemisphere with a hole in the top -- to tell the time as well as seasonal information (solstices and equinoxes). The Roman comic poet Plautus (250-185 BCE) complained bitterly that the town was already full of those accursed sun-dials:
The gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish hours! Confound him, too,
Who in this place set up a sun-dial,
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small portions.
Like those unutterably smaller dials, the Pantheon's dome forms a perfect hemisphere inside. Hannah reckons that this is no coincidence but, he says, "a deliberate design feature."

You enter through gigantic bronze doors – the originals. There were once veneers of precious marbles within, pure gold tiles on the roof, and the bronze doors, weighing twenty tons each, were themselves once covered with plates of beaten gold. Inside the temple is one immense circular room. The interior is a cylinder above which rises the hemispherical dome, constructed of stepped rings of solid concrete with less and less density as lighter aggregate (pumice) is used as it rises. The only natural light enters through the oculus at the centre of the dome and through the bronze doors to the portico.

As the sun moves, striking patterns of light illuminate the walls and floors of porphyry, granite and yellow marbles.

Its roof represented the dome of the sky -- where Romans believed the gods resided. Cassius Dio (who saw it in its glory days) says as much:

Also [Hadrian] completed the building called the Pantheon. It has this name, perhaps because it received among the images which decorated it the statues of many gods, including Mars and Venus; but my own opinion of the name is that, because of its vaulted roof, it resembles the heavens.(53.27)

At equinox, the sun is on the celestial equator -- where Earth's equator would lie if projected into space -- which was seen as the most stable part of the sky, a perfect eternal home for the gods.


The inscription on the architrave reads “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, third time consul, made this temple.” Originally constructed in 27 B.C. by Agrippa, the Pantheon was rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian in 118-125 CE to reflect the terrestrial and cosmic order.

The interior space was designed around a perfect sphere 43.3m (142 feet), in diameter, the largest dome ever constructed in masonry. Its mathematical perfection is underscored by its symmetry: the width and the height of the dome are equal. A whole sphere can be inscribed in the interior volume, with the diameter at the floor of the cylinder of 43.3 m (143 feet) equalling the interior height.

The sphere (or orb) was a symbol of the world and universe and consequently doubled up as a symbol of the Emperor's power over the world. It's not far-fetched to see the Pantheon as also a political message marking the symbolic connections between the cosmos and the empire, and between the sun and the emperor.

There is a progressive narrowing of the five coffered rows of the cupola’s interior, so that the eye is drawn to the centre. And up, up, up to the oculus. The 9 m. (30' ) hole in the roof allows in light (and rain!). When the sun is shining, the shaft of light travels across the interior of the building. It takes little imagination to conclude that a cosmic effect was being sought rather like being in a large scale observatory where the heavens are turned outside-in.

In her Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar speaks of
"this open and secret temple, conceived as a sundial. The hours were to circle the center of its carefully polished pavement where the disk of the day was supposed to rest like a golden buckler; there the rain would make a limpid pool from which prayer could transpire like smoke toward the void where we place the gods.”
All other Roman temples before and since cope perfectly well without the oculus solution. Even Hadrian himself designed the enormous temple to Venus and Rome without such a device. Hannah thinks that by marking the equinoxes, the Pantheon was designed to elevate emperors who worshipped there into the realm of the gods.

How It Could Have Worked

During the six months of summer the noon sun falls on the walls and floor of the temple, and in winter (when the sun is lower in the sky) it falls onto the inside of the roof itself. But at the exact moment of the two equinoxes, in March and September, the sun falls at the junction between the roof and the walls, directly above the northern doorway, and shines through a grill there onto the porch floor beyond.

A grille above the door allows a sliver of light through to the front courtyard -- the only moment in the year that it sees sunlight if its main doors are closed. So, it seems certain that the building served some sort of important function on the equinoxes. Extinguish the torches ... and it's easy to imagine that, twice a year, the emperor would get to stand in that ray of light.

The Pantheon probably doesn't work as a sun-dial (the necessary markings are not there; or, at least, have not survived) but imagine the impact of the emperor's entrance. And, then, his prayers rising through the open oculus to the heavens, a union of earth and sky, from the god on earth to all the gods above.


Top: From Great Buildings.com

Upper left: From The Monolithic Dome

Middle left: From Roman Pantheon

Below: No place like dome: the Emperor Hadrian's connection with the Pantheon at TimesOnLine

And with thanks to Dea Adria Mallin at The Cultured Traveller: the Oculus, and to MariaMilani, Antiquities of Rome: Purpose of the Roman Pantheon

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