Sunday, April 30, 2017


Andreas Kropp, Rubina Raja (ed.), The World of Palmyra. Scientia Danica. Series H, Humanistica, 4, vol. 6; Palmyrene studies, 1. Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2016. Pp. 246. ISBN 9788773043974. 220 DKK (pb).

Reviewed by Maria Teresa Grassi, Università degli Studi di Milano​ (

Version at BMCR home site

This book is the first volume of a new series (Palmyrenske Studier/ Palmyrene Studies) published by the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, and includes the proceedings of the conference organized in Copenhagen under the auspices of the Palmyra Portrait Project in December, 2013.

The Palmyra Portrait Project was set up in 2012 by Rubina Raja and Andreas Kropp.1 As Syria has been in a state of war since 2011 and all field investigations have been interrupted, it is now undoubtedly the most interesting ongoing project focused on Palmyra. It consists of the compilation of a database of all known Palmyrene portraits scattered across the world, which is, unbelievably, still missing,2 and of the publication of Harald Ingholt's archive and diaries, which hold important information about his excavation in Palmyra in the 1920s. Ingholt pioneered the study of Palmyrene sculpture in 1928, when he published Studier over palmirensk skultpur, which still stands as a milestone in this field.

Following an introduction by Andreas Kropp and Rubina Raja ("The World of Palmyra at Copenhagen"),3 the volume includes 15 articles relating to and expanding on the purpose of the Palmyra Portrait Project, involving different "methods, approaches and areas of interest." In keeping with the main purpose of the Project, seven articles concern Palmyrene portraiture and give an excellent overview of traditional and new approaches to the subject.

Kiyohide Saito and Takahiro Nakahashi's contribution ("Facial Reconstruction of YRHY and R4-2 Skulls from Tomb C at the Southeast Necropolis in Palmyra") provides additional data to the results produced by the Nara-Palmyra Archaeological Mission, which has worked on the site for over 20 years. Between 1990 and 2005 research was carried out on the Southeast Necropolis, where the excavations of six tombs have clarified some aspects of local burial practices, for instance the use of the loculus, where more than one person could be buried. The excavations of the Syro-Japanese team have also shed light on the generalized lack of grave goods that characterizes most Palmyrene burials.

The excavation of Tomb C gave the opportunity to compare the facial reconstruction of two well-preserved skulls pertaining to skeletons found in two different loculi. Each loculus was sealed by a bust-type sculpture, one bearing the name of the deceased, YRHY, the other named after the position of the loculus in the tomb, R4-2. These reconstructions at last shed light on an enduring question about Palmyrene funerary reliefs: are they really portraits?

The faces, reconstructed with different techniques by a Japanese sculptor and by anthropologists of the Russian Academy of Science, show common characteristics but also some differences in the rendering of the nose and eyes, due to the lack of evidence. Overall, however, the facial features broadly correspond to the sculpted images of YRHY and R4-2, although the deceased are represented as younger than the occupants found in the loculi were at the time of their death. Nonetheless, the results show that these are realistic representations of YRHY and R4-2; this outcome has proved, once more, how careful we must be in using terms like uniformity and standardization when studying Palmyrene sculpture.

Michal Gawlikowski ("The Portraits of the Palmyrene Royalty") addresses the problem of the iconography of Septimius Odainat and his family by discussing the identification of four male heads as Odainat's portraits. He concludes that only two out of these four are real portraits of Odainat. Both are oversized marble heads. One was found in 1940 near the Agora, while the other, whose find spot is unknown, was kept in the Museum of Palmyra; one wears a tiara of west Asian origin, while the other has a Greek royal diadem. The comparison with some lead and clay tesserae that show the same iconographic types, along with the information given by some inscriptions, support the identification. The lack of documentation for the "Royal Family" of Palmyra is remarkable, particularly in terms of the visual evidence. By integrating his visual analysis of the eastern and western Odainat portraits with historical and epigraphic data, Gawlikowski situates them in the complex cultural world of Palmyra.

Tracey Long ("Facing the Evidence: How to approach the portraits") deals with funerary portraits from Palmyra, sketching a brief history of ancient portraiture and exploring the new methods of studying such a large collection using the database created by the Palmyra Portrait Project team. Long presents a broad and somewhat superficial overview of the topic, starting from the classical period, proceeding on through the Renaissance, and arriving finally at feminist gender theory. An important drawback of the article is that crucial works on the topic written in Italian are completely ignored.4 With regard to the database, Long properly emphasizes the revolutionary perspectives that this new technological tool allows us to reach in the study of Palmyrene portraiture and art. Previous studies have focused on selected examples or peculiar iconographical traits. However, the on-line availability of thousands of records now opens new perspectives, such that new questions can be posed and new answers expected. The approach to the Palmyrene portraits will be revolutionized by these new technological tools, thus going beyond the limits of the book format.

The traditional approach to the portraits by Fred C. Albertson ("Typology, Attribution, and Identity in Palmyran Funerary Portraiture") remains, however, fruitful. The accurate comparison of some reliefs, combining the same typology and a peculiar choice of forms, allows the attribution to the same artist (or workshop?), but also enlightens us as to the intentions of the commissioner and his identity. Thus, the portraits of Amri and Malku, carved by the same workshop, differ in hairstyle: the eastern fashion of Malku, with a cluster of snail-shell curls framing his face, defines his role in Palmyrene society and thus his identity, though that identity remains difficult to understand. (Does the coiffure suggest a connection with caravan riders? Does it have a religious connotation?)

When dealing with identity in Palmyra, it is impossible to avoid the family, as shown by the inscriptions that proudly recall parentage. The bonds with past generations, and the identity within the family, are displayed through the choice of styles and forms. The multifaceted world of Palmyra well reflects the complexity of the issue of identity, as proved, for example, by the intriguing difference within the Bar'a family between male and female portraits: the first are retrospective and traditional; the second, non-traditional and receptive to external influences.

Dagmara Wielgosz-Rondolino ("Palmyrene portraits from the temple of Allat. New evidence on artists and workshops") presents some sculptures found during the Polish excavations of the temple of Allat. These include three unpublished female funerary portraits, two male heads from honorific statues and other parts of architectural decoration. In defining the workshop activity in the first century AD, it is worth noting the broad range of sculpture produced, which pertains to architectural decoration, honorific and funerary statues.

Using the database of the Palmyra Portrait Project, but still following the chronologies and typologies of Ingholt and Colledge, Signe Krag ("Females in Group Portraits in Palmyra") analyzes a large number of group portraits in loculi reliefs and sarcophagi and banquet reliefs, focusing on females and exploring their gesture, position, attributes, clothing, and hairstyles, in order to understand their social status and identity. This is not an easy task, due to the broad variety of compositions which do not allow for generalization, even if, undoubtedly, they give cause for reflection.

Maura K. Heyn ("Status and Stasis: Looking at Women in the Palmyrene Tomb") sketches diachronically the changes in female portraiture during the first three centuries AD, relying on Ingholt's classifications. Noteworthy in this article is the continued reference to Roman portraiture, which is sometimes overlooked in studies concerning Palmyrene portraiture. Female portraiture changes drastically in the third century AD with the disappearance of "domestic" items (spindles and distaffs, etc.) and "religious" gestures (palm out), replaced by other gestures (raising the hand to the face) and the impressive display of jewels. The meaning of such changes is connected with the growing importance of the family as a whole in Palmyrene society. In this process, Heyn takes local jewelry production into account, thus adding another original feature to her article.

The second component of the Palmyra Portrait Project is presented in the articles of Annette Højen Sørensen ("Palmyrene Tomb Paintings in Context") and Jean-BaptisteYon ("Inscriptions from the necropolis of Palmyra in the diaries of H. Ingholt"), which focus on the Ingholt archive and excavation diaries, and show the great potential of this unpublished material. Sørensen recovered new data from these diaries and reestablished the context of the tomb of Hairan, giving the exact position of the paintings published by Ingholt in 1932, while Yon points out the advances, but also the continuing difficulties, in the field of epigraphy (for instance, the presence of different copies of the same text, and missing photographs and drawings).

Exceeding the Palmyra Portrait Project's aim, but following the wide scope of the conference, the remaining 6 articles bear witness "to the vibrancy of studies on Palmyra."5 Some of them are of particular interest for their stimulating and up-to-date treatment of historical, religious, and social themes.

The composite and dynamic world of Palmyra stands out in Ted Kaizer's article ("Divine Constellations at Palmyra. Reconsidering the Palmyrene 'Pantheon'"), appearing clearly in the wide analysis of the various divine constellations constructed by the worshippers. Palmyrene deities were often grouped together, as proved by inscriptions and sculptural assemblages. Yet the lack of literary sources frustrates any attempt to understand or reconstruct a logical system or a "Pantheon," as the examples discussed by this major scholar of religious life in the Near East demonstrate.

Tommaso Gnoli ("Banqueting in honour of the gods. Notes on the marzēaḥ of Palmyra") approaches the cultic meals in Palmyra and their social and political role by collecting and connecting a wide range of data. It is of great interest for its analysis of the sacred meals of the Manichean Church and its persuasive comparison with the Palmyrene marzēaḥ.

In its legal language, too, Palmyra reveals a host of different influences, as illustrated by Eleonora Cussini ("Reconstructing Palmyrene Legal Language"). Furthermore, the examined texts record the only surviving data of original documents, written on perishable material and now lost, concerning some aspects of Palmyrene daily life which are still relatively unknown, such as sale contracts, covenant, inheritance and testamentary bequest.

Udo Hartmann ("What was it like to be a Palmyrene in the age of crisis? Changing Palmyrene identities in the third century AD") deals with the difficult task of describing Palmyrene identity in the third century AD. The new status of Roman colonia granted by Caracalla in 212 AD strongly affected it, as is clear for example from honorary inscriptions emphasizing civic offices. The Palmyrene elite exhibit a growing engagement in the imperial aristocracy, portraying themselves as Roman knights or senators and giving up the traditional framework of self-representation. Finally, the core of the latest Palmyrene identity is loyalty to the dynasty of Odaenathus and to the new orientalizing monarchic constitution of the city.

The many "millennial" field projects devoted to the site and its territory are well represented by Jørgen Christian Meyer's article ("Palmyrena. Settlements, Forts and Nomadic Networks"). The Syrian-Norwegian survey project in the area north of Palmyra has expanded on and nuanced the pioneering work by Schlumberger, highlighting the intensive exploitation of the landscape, in ways not related only to the caravan trade or confined to the Roman imperial period. 6 The complex relationship between the city, the villages and the nomadic groups is extensively investigated, with particular attention paid to the water resources, and their management and control, which have been underestimated in past research.7

At the end of the volume, Maurice Sartre ("Zénobie dans l'imaginaire occidental") outlines another multifaceted portrait, that of Palmyra's most famous historical figure, queen Zenobia. Through visual, literary and musical works dating from the 14th century until the present day, artists have created many Zenobias, variously presented as a female hero, a tragic heroine and an oriental queen. Not only in the Arabic world (see, for example, the lavish and successful musical "Zenobia" by Mansour Rahbani), but also in the West, Zenobia continues to fascinate.

The book ends with a somewhat redundant collective bibliography, which repeats the bibliographies presented at the end of each article, and extremely useful indices. ​


1.   Palmyra Portrait Project.
2.   See, e.g., Jean Leslie Howarth, A Palmyrene Head at Bryn Mawr College, in AJA 73.4 (1969), 441-446.
3.   Note that the exhibition Zenobia. Il sogno di una regina d'Oriente, was held in Turin at the Palazzo Bricherasio, not in Milan.
4.   It is recorded only in Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli (not Ranuccio Bandinelli), Rome, The Centre of Power. Roman Art to AD 200, London, 1970.
5.   Compare Ted Kaizer, The future of Palmyrene studies, in JRA 29 (2016), 924-931.
6.   Palmyrena.
7.   See Manar Hammad, Palmyre. Transformations urbaines. Développement d'une ville antique de la marge aride syrienne, Paris, 2010. ​

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