The historic city of Palmyra in Syria has fallen to the Islamic State—known as ISIS or ISIL—after a seven-day siege, according to reports. Located in the Syrian desert 134 miles northeast of Damascus, ancient Palmyra, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, sat along important trade routes.
The city of Palmyra is called by its Semitic name, Tadmor, in early historical records. In the early-second millennium B.C.E. Mari tablets, the oasis is referenced as a caravan stop.
Palmyra’s historical importance is summarized in the July/August 1999 issue of Archaeology Odyssey:
From 1900 to 100 B.C.E., Palmyra served as a stopover for caravans making their way from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. After the Roman invasion of Syria in 100 B.C.E., it became a prosperous Roman colony; merchants from all over the Eastern Empire traveled there to trade in spices, perfume, silks, glassware and objets d’art.
The city’s floruit continued until 270 C.E., when the brilliant and powerful Syrian Queen Zenobia spearheaded a disastrous insurrection against Rome. No match for the mighty legions of the Emperor Aurelian, Zenobia’s armies were crushed; the Syrian queen was arrested and Palmyra was stripped of its riches and transformed into a drab imperial garrison.
During the Roman imperial period, the city of Palmyra grew into a prosperous settlement, boasting walled fortifications, a temple to Bel, a theater, an agora, colonnaded streets and urban quarters. The splendor of the once-thriving ancient city is apparent in the monumental ruins that remain—for now.
ISIS seems to have taken control of major facilities in Palmyra, the Guardian reports. Local residents have been evacuated from the area, and, according to the BBC, hundreds of statues have been moved to a secure location. In the last year, the extremist group has looted and destroyed major historic archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, including Aleppo, Nineveh and Nimrud.
Trafficking in antiquities has been compared to other lucrative criminal enterprises, including the drugs and arms trade. Read more about the antiquities market in “Sold to the Highest Bidder: Antiquities as Cash Cows.”
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