Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Annie Sartre, Maurice Sartre, Palmyre. Vérités et légendes. Paris: Perrin, 2016. Pp. 259. ISBN 9782262066154. €14.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Rubina Raja, Aarhus University (Rubina.Raja@cas.au.dk)

Version at BMCR home site


Palmyra has become a renewed focus of research in recent years due to interest in subjects outside the core regions of Rome and the Roman Empire; the massive destruction of Syria's rich cultural heritage has also spurred a renewed interest in the site. Palmyra has also been in the spotlight due to the use of the site in Syrian state propaganda, and because it was a stronghold of the rebels and ISIS from May 2015 until spring 2016, when the city was recaptured by the Syrian state forces. The public beheading of the Director of Antiquities in Palmyra, Khaled al-As'ad, shook the world and the colleagues, who had known and worked with him for several decades. In the wake of this event several conferences and publications were dedicated to his memory and the book by Annie and Maurice Sartre is also to be seen as a product of the growing public and political attention given to the site. Much attention has been given to discussions about the potential reconstruction of the damaged and looted monuments. Since Palmyra is a World Heritage site, UNESCO has taken a particular interest in developing plans for the restoration of the unique oasis city, and scholars have begun to discuss the future of the site should the situation in Syria at some point allow for further work at the site.

Annie and Maurice Sartre's Palmyre is one of these studies, which on the one hand aims at giving the general public an insight and understanding of this unique site and on the other hand presents the potential pitfalls of massive reconstruction without detailed planning and involvement of the scholarly community. Furthermore, parts of the book, where nine of the 29 short chapter open with quotes from the 2015 publication by Paul Veyne Palmyre, l'irremplacable trésor, can also clearly be read as a critical response to Veyne's narrative of Palmyra, where he argues that the city was not as influenced by Greek and Roman domination of the region as the Sartres argue. The Sartres do not agree with his interpretations of the sources, obviously to an extent that they decided to focus on deconstructing large parts of his argumentation in their concise chapters.

Annie and Maurice Sartre have published extensively on the history of the site in recent years, including their two popular books Palmyre, la cite des caravans (2008, second edition 2016) and Zénobie, de Palmyre à Rome (2014). The present book is aimed at the general public and non-specialist scholars, and presents information about the site and its history spanning from the earliest history of the site mentioned in second millennia BC sources to Palmyrenes abroad to the current situation in Syria and the destruction in Palmyra. The Sartres have a mission. They want us to understand that Palmyrene society was well integrated into the Greek world and that the longue durée, which Maurice Sartre has advocated most prominently in his seminal work D'Alexandre à Zénobie. Histoire du Levant antique (IVe s. av. J.-C. – IIIe s. ap. J.-C.) was a reality that was also reflected in the culture of Palmyra. Other scholars, most prominently and convincingly Fergus Millar in The Roman Near East, 31 BC – AD 337 (1995), have argued for an almost complete cultural amnesia that made the Near East a clean slate for developments in the Roman period. The Sartres argue for the continuity of Greek civic traditions and organisations into the Roman period. Demonstration of the interplay between local society and the ruling forces stands at the centre of most of the chapters.

The 29 chapters are presented with short quotations taken from other publications (including their own) with which the Sartres do not always agree. Nine of the chapters open with quotations from Paul Veyne (Palmyre, l'irremplacable trésor [2015]). The Sartres disagree with his interpretations of the sources to the extent that they focus on deconstructing large parts of his argumentation. The chapters take us through an array of themes from the first sources mentioning Palmyra, to the ethnicity of the people of Palmyra, the trade routes of the Palmyrenes and their networks, nomads and the sedentarisation of the site, religion, tombs and their decoration, and the developments of the recent years during the conflict in Syria, just to mention a few.

Five chapters are dedicated to various aspects of the history and reign of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, about whom the Sartres have already written. 1 The Sartres also recount the history of the rediscovery of Palmyra in chapter 25. The site was visited by British travellers in the 17th century, but only truly came to the attention of the Europeans after the visit by Richard Dawkins and James Wood in 1751. An account was published by Wood in 1753, and in 1758 the painting depicting the discovery of the Palmyra by Dawkins and Wood by the artist Gavin Hamilton (now on display at the National Gallery in Edinburgh) was finished.

In chapter 13 the art of Palmyra in the public, private and funerary sphere is addressed, and funerary sculpture depicting the deceased, is briefly explained. While it is true, as the Sartres state, that women are not shown reclining on Palmyrene sarcophagus lids together with their husbands or other family members, it should be noted that we know of three examples where women are shown reclining on the so-called larger banqueting reliefs, also displayed prominently in graves.2 While representations of individuals alone were the most common, but couples were not infrequently depicted together, and the variety of configurations was much larger than hitherto thought.3 While in some ways, one might claim, as the Sartres do, that the loculus reliefs seemed more "Romanised" than the later sarcophagi, it also must be underlined that the portraits, usually showing the representation of the individual until the area of the abdomen, seem to have been a Palmyrene invention of the 1st century CE. 4 Yet while the funerary sphere displays an immense amount of variety, the evidence found in the few houses excavated in Palmyra, displays an affinity for Graeco-Roman themes, as the Sartres outline.

Much more at home in the epigraphic evidence, the Sartres give us a compact tour de force of the pantheon and religion of Palmyra and the variety which it shows. In chapter 13 they revisit epigraphic evidence and show in which ways statements such as those telling us that Palmyra did not import any Greek or Roman deities are difficult to upkeep. They argue convincingly that we must imagine Palmyrene religion as a dynamic system consisting of a variety of cults, some of which could accommodate to changing political circumstances, which often brought with them new religious ideas.5 The last four chapters are dedicated to a description of the developments since the conflict in Syria broke out. They are soberly written and give a clear insight into the many interests of different parties. It is clear that the Sartres, who have been conducting fieldwork actively for decades, have an immense knowledge about Syria and the political situation. One feels their despair between the lines, also about the way in which media communicate about the situation of the cultural heritage in the country as well as the accounts in the media in 2015 and 2016 about restoring Palmyra to its former state as soon as possible as a joint project between the Syrian state, the Russians and UNESCO.

Overall the book gives a solid introduction to the archaeology and history of Palmyra. It is a book clearly aimed at the general French-speaking public and non-Palmyra specialists. However, one wishes for further references in the short bibliography at the end of the book, including more recent publications, which are not all in French.


1.   Maurice Sartre, "Zénobie dans l'imaginaire occidental" in The World of Palmyra edited by Andreas Kropp and Rubina Raja. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letter: Copenhagen, 2016, 207-221. [[2 ]] Three banqueting reliefs showing women reclining alone on a kline are preserved. Locations are: Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, inv. 37/180 (Mackay 1949, 164, pl. LIII.1); National Museum of Damascus, inv. 2153 (Colledge 1976, pl. 107; Tanabe 1986, 464, pl. 438; Chehadé 1987, 194, abb. 1) and Palmyra Museum, inv. CD 9/CD 49 (Michalowski 1962, 158-159, no. 29, fig. 173).
3.   As demonstrated by the Palmyra Portrait Project based at Aarhus University.
4.   Andreas Kropp and Rubina Raja The Palmyra Portrait Project in Syria 91, 2014, 393-405.
5.   The standard work of recent times on religion in Palmyra remains Ted Kaizer's study published in 2002 The religious life of Palmyra. A study of the social patterns of worship in the Roman period. Franz Steiner Verlag: Stuttgart. 2002. Ted Kaizer's book is also one of the only two non-French publications cited in the book.

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