A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why is Palmyra Where it Is?

Though the mission of this blog is "Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context" (it says so right up there under the banner), this week's posts have been dominated by current developments in Egypt. So it's time to change the pace a bit, By, oh, 18 centuries or so.

Ruins of Ancient Palmyra
If you've ever visited the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert, one of the things you are likely to remember from the trip is, well, the Syrian desert. Lots and lots of Syrian desert. It lies out in the desert between the major cities of Syria to the west and the Euphrates to the east. Yet Palmyra (Tadmur in Arabic and other Semitic languages; Palmyra is the Greek name) was a major city, a key post on the desert trading route, a link between the Mediterranean world and the Euphrates and therefore Mesopotamia. But Palmyra seems at best a small oasis to have supported a major city and a local kingdom that, under its Queen Zenobia, even established a short-lived Middle Eastern empire that challenged Rome. How did a major city sustain itself so far from abundant water supplies?

Well, according to this piece at Archaeology News Network,  (Hat Tip: Diana Buja) Norwegian researchers led by Jørgen Christian Meyer think they have discovered some of the answers as to how the ancient Palmyrenes stored water and supported a major city deep in the desert.

Read the story, but here are some of the key points:
Professor Meyer and his colleagues came to realise that what they were studying was not a desert, but rather an arid steppe, with underground grass roots that keep rain from sinking into the soil. Rainwater collects in intermittent creeks and rivers called wadi by the Arabs.

The archaeologists gathered evidence that residents of ancient Palmyra and the nearby villages collected the rainwater using dams and cisterns. This gave the surrounding villages water for crops and enabled them to provide the city with food; the collection system ensured a stable supply of agricultural products and averted catastrophe during droughts.

Local farmers also cooperated with Bedouin tribes, who drove their flocks of sheep and goats into the area to graze during the hot season, fertilising the farmers’ fields in the process.
To return to the contemporary scene, Tadmur, the modern town adjacent to the ancient ruins, has reportedly suffered considerably during the current Syrian troubles. It is not only surrounded by desert but also by Syrian military bases.

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