A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Ironies of ISIS at Palmyra: What would Zenobia Say?

As I have said many times, expressions of concern over ISIS' destruction of antiquities in no way is intended to underplay or undervalue their toll in human lives; on the contrary, the concerns over their destruction of heritage sites help generate attention to the human toll.

A denarius of Zenobia
There is an irony in the Islamic State's latest conquest: that a movement not known for its respect for women finds itself in possession of a site associated with one of the strongest female figures of antiquity. Second in fame only to Cleopatra (but unlike her, not in the shadow of a Caesar or an Antony), Queen Zenobia of Palmyra challenged Rome, ruled both the Levant and Egypt until he Emperor Aurelian brought her to heel.

The Palmyrene Empire
When her husband King Odenathus died in AD 267, she became Queen Regent for her minor son. She then proceeded to expel Rome from Egypt and invade Anatolia, ruling over a short-lived but extensive empire until defeated by Aurelian and carried off to Rome in 273.

Renaissance interpretation by Michele Tosini
She seems to have fascinated the Romans, and in subsequent centuries would inspire paintings, sculpture, novels, operas,and much romanticization of her story. In Arab tradition she is Zaynab and remembered in folklore. I thought the Renaissance Italian portrait by Michele Tosini at right, believed to be of Zenobia, would be particularly upsetting to ISIS, so I chose it.
She was the last queen of Palmyra and ruled the city at the moment of its greatest splendor. She saw the very ruins ISIS threatens today before the city's fall. What, indeed, would she think of ISIS?

Personal photos from a trip to Palmyra in 1972, over 40 years ago. I haven't been back since, having assumed it would always be there:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

She'd probably say, "Hold your nose, arm Bashar so he can deal with ISIS"