03 January 2013

Zenobia's Blog

In her Sixth Year

Ummayat, daughter of Yarhai, 150-200 CE

On 3 January 2007, Zenobia's blog was born and, in welcoming her, I thought of the poem by Anne Stevenson, Sylvia Plath which asks
Poor Sylvia, could you not have been
a little smaller than a queen –
a river, not a tidal wave
engulfing all you tried to save?
This is how I still think of Zenobia and what she tried to do.

I've been writing now for six years about Zenobia and her world -- thinking about Palmyra between West and East, the third century CE, Rome and the Parthians, then the Sasanians, their roiled history, politics, and art. And thinking, always, about the incredible but true story of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who united almost the whole of the Eastern Empire under her rule and nearly succeeded in breaking free of Rome.

The Dead Speak

Among the many fascinating aspects of Palmyran funerary portraits (such as that of Ummayat, daughter of Yarhai [above]) -- with their lavish details of clothing, jewellery, accessories, and indications of changing fashions -- are the varied hand gestures made by the deceased. The great majority of female figures, for example, are posed like Ummayat with one hand raised to chin or collarbone level.  This gesture never occurs among males so it is a clear marker of gender.

Raising the hand to the face or veil is similar to the woman's gesture of modesty and fidelity (pudicitia) well known in Roman funerary statuary.  

Had it the same meaning in Palmyra?

Perhaps, but more may lurk behind this gesture than first meets the eye.  Zenobia examines what hand and finger gestures mean in a two-part post, 'The Secret Language of Palmyra': Part I and Part II:

As their souls might say, Blessings! May evil eyes not be cast here

I wish you the same in 2013 CE.


Bust of Ummayat, daughter of Yarhai, Second half of 2nd century CE. Near Eastern Antiquities, Louvre Museum, Paris. © 1997 RMN / HervĂ© Lewandowski

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