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Palmyra (Syria)

Roman Empire Trading Center in the Syrian Desert


The crossroads plaza in Palmyra

The crossroads plaza in Palmyra

Diane Jabi
Dromedary Camel at the Archaeological Site of Palmyra

Dromedary Camel at the Archaeological Site of Palmyra

Massimo Pizzotti / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Palmyra was an important trading link between the Roman empire and the ancient civilizations of India and Pakistan, and all points in between. The site is located in what is now the Syrian desert on long-established caravan routes between Damascus and the Euphrates rivers.

Fully 200 kilometers from the Euphrates, Palmyra was first occupied during paleolithic times. Beginning in the first century BC, Palmyra was a stopping point for caravans on the shortest route of the Silk Road between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. Trade at Palmyra included cloth, oils, salt, spices, perfume, ivory, silk, and glass from far flung places in its trade network.

Romans at Palmyra

During the first three centuries AD, Palmyra became an important center under the Romans, who used its location to help them maintain their empire in the region. The Roman occupation changed Palmyra from a small but thriving homebase for a conglomeration of tribes, into a Roman city, with state-funded urban projects such as colonnaded streets and enormous limestone monuments.

The Roman emperor Pompey began the Roman occupation of Syria in the first century, but Hadrian [ruled AD 117-138] gave Palmyra free status: Palmyra didn't become a full colony until AD 217. Palmyra's buildings included rich residences, a theater, banqueting halls, baths, and a market place. Temples for the various religions of the residents of Palmyra were built and maintained.

By the third century AD, Palmyra was one of the largest cities in the Roman empire, with an estimated 150,000-200,000 people in residence. At the same time, stability in the Roman Empire had begun to wane: Palmyra's main cultural and trade connection was the Parthian empire, and a flood of people and money flowed into the city at that time. Evidence of the Parthian connection is seen in the hundreds of Parthian-style relief busts used to seal burial niches within tombs. A total of 150 tombs have identified in Palmyra, including tower, underground and temple tombs.

Between AD 268-272, Queen Zenobia of Palmyra instituted a revolt; and the Romans under Diocletian retaliated, sacking the city in 273 to the point where it never recovered.

  • Read more about Queen Zenobia, Sue Sefscik at Women's History
  • Hadrian from N.S. Gill, Guide to Ancient History

Pre-Pottery Neolithic at Palmyra

Recent work by a Syrian-Norwegian team has identified extensive use of the desert around Palmyra, with at least sixteen sites dated to the Pre-Pottery and Pottery Neolithic. Many of these sites have springs, small aqueducts and wells, allowing these sites to grow: many of them are still used by Bedouin nomads.

Archaeology at Palmyra

Many recent scholarly projects have been (and are still being) conducted at and around Palmyra. A study led by the Deutches Archeologische Institut has focused on textiles. A joint Syrian-Finnish excavation has focused on the earliest occupations. Excavations by the Palmyra Investigation Team at Nara University in Japan have concentrated on the 150 or so burial tombs identified so far at Palmyra. And Palmyrena is a Syrian-Norwegian research project examining Palmyra and its hinterlands.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Roman Empire Ruins, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Anfinset N and JC Meyer. 2010. The hinterland of Palmyra. Antiquity Project Gallery. Free online.

de Voogt A. 2010. Mancala players at Palmyra. Antiquity 84(326):1055-1066.

Genequand D. 2008. An Early Islamic Mosque in Palmyra. Levant 40:3-15.

Heyn MK. 2010. Gesture and Identity in the Funerary Art of Palmyra. American Journal of Archaeology 114(4):631-661.

Sweetman R. Palmyra 2008.  In: Pearsall DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 887-897.

Yoshimura K, Nakahashi T, and Saito K. 2006. Why did the ancient inhabitants of Palmyra suffer fluorosis? Journal of Archaeological Science 33(10):1411-1418. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2006.01.016


Also Known As: Tadmor (modern name)

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