Recent news reports have brought us alarming news about the incursion of the “Islamic State in Syria” (ISIS) into Palmyra, their barbaric slaughter of the locals, and the dangers that now threaten the site’s priceless relics from the Roman era.
The name Palmyra may not be one that resonates for many of us today, but it once evoked an aura of legendary romance as a desert kingdom that challenged the mighty empires of Rome and Persia.
And we should not be surprised to learn that there were distinctly Jewish aspects to the saga of Palmyra. The archaeological remains include a carved text of the “Sh’ma‘ Yisra’el” and other biblical passages on structures that might have been synagogues or private dwellings.
In Hebrew and Arabic—as in the Aramaic that its ancient inhabitants spoke—the land in question was known as “Tadmor.” A locality of that name is mentioned in the biblical book of Chronicles, where it states that King Solomon “built Tadmor in the wilderness and all the storage cities which he had built in Hamath.” A similar report appears in the book of Kings—except that Tadmor is grouped there with cities that are located closer to Jerusalem.The consonantal Hebrew text in Kings (as distinct from the traditional vocalized reading) is “Tamar.” It has been remarked that this Semitic word for a date-palm, would provide a plausible source for the evolution of the Latin “Palm-yra.”
From very early times Tadmor was a thriving oasis town, the "jewel of the desert" on the trade route to Damascus. Its importance increased dramatically from the first century C.E. as the normal paths of international commerce were obstructed by a state of ongoing conflict between Rome to the west and Persia to the east. Initially Palmyra maintained political neutrality while controlling a commercial empire that extended from China to Arabia and Asia Minor. The Palmyran leader Odenathus later allied himself with the Romans against the Sassanid Persians and was officially recognized as Rome’s “Emperor of the Orient.”
Indeed, the Palmyran leader who is known in Latin and Greek as [Publius Septimius] Odenathus is mentioned a few times in the Talmud and Midrash under his Aramaic name “Bar Naṣer.” Some Jewish sages, especially those who believed that the disintegration of the evil Roman empire or its defeat by Persia heralded imminent redemption, combed the Bible for prophecies about Tadmor and its rulers. Thus, when expounding Belshazzar's apocalyptic dream of symbolic beasts in the book of Daniel, rabbis from the land of Israel identified one of the horns that sprouted from the fearsome creature as a reference to Bar Naṣer.
In a similar vein, the words of the divine blessing to Abraham “thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies” inspired some rabbis to declare “fortunate is the one who witnesses the downfall of Tadmor,” or that Israel would declare a feast to celebrate its destruction. It has been suggested that this hostile sentiment might have been inspired by the Jews’ disappointment in Odenathus’s role in saving Rome from a longed-for defeat at the hands of the Persians, which they hoped would usher in the messianic redemption. They apparently projected their criticisms of contemporary Palmyra back onto earlier times, remarking (without any obvious biblical basis) that Tadmorite forces, especially archers, had participated actively in the destructions of both the first and the second Jerusalem Temples and had come to the assistance of Edom / Rome.
A passage in the Babylonian Talmud discussed the status of Jewish women who were taken captive by foreign soldiers or by brigands, observing that they might have been actually offering them assistance in hope of being carried away by the swashbuckling bandits. The rabbis noted that there was a distinction to be drawn between the ladies’ attitudes toward normal soldiers and toward bandits, which they illustrated by invoking the example of the warlord Ben Naṣer, whose forces could legitimately be regarded either as soldiers of a royal army, or as an irregular band of outlaws.
A tradition preserved by Sherira Ga’on in his Epistle on the history of Talmudic literature stated that Ben Naṣer was responsible for the destruction in the year 259-260 of the city of Nehardea, one of the foremost Babylonian centres of Jewish learning, forcing its scholars to reestablish their academy elsewhere. Although such an incursion might make some sense in the context of a Palmyrene attempt to rid themselves of a major commercial rival (including an active community of Jewish merchants), that early date preceded Odenathus’ rise to military or political strength. Scholars therefore are in dispute whether to emend the date or to ascribe the event to a different Ben Naṣer.
A somewhat different historical question arises when it comes to assessing Jewish attitudes toward [Julia Aurelia] Zenobia, Odenathus’ widow and successor. This fabled Warrior Queen declared Palmyra an autonomous empire that ruled over extensive territories from 267 to 272. Her realm included Palestine and Egypt, which she claimed in part on the basis of her alleged descent from Cleopatra. She was ultimately defeated by the Roman emperor Aurelian who had her taken in gold chains to Rome as a prisoner.
The Jerusalem Talmud tells about two rabbis who negotiated with Zenobia regarding a Jew who had been kidnapped by Palmyrans. The queen told them that was aware that Jews were accustomed to having their creator perform miracles on their behalf and advised the rabbis not to importune God unnecessarily in the present case. Nonetheless, they were able to procure a mini-miracle when a Saracen opportunely showed up holding what he claimed was the sword with which Bar Naṣer had slain his brother. This was enough to persuade Zenobia to have the prisoner released. (In fact, there are some who suspect that it was Zenobia who was behind the assassination of her husband Bar Naṣer / Odenathus.)
Several historians quoted that anecdote as evidence that Zenobia was sympathetic to the Jews. To understand why they would want to draw such a tenuous conclusion we should note some early Christian writers claimed that the queen was actually Jewish, or at least a “Judaizer”; that is to say, one who adopted some Jewish beliefs and practices. As a matter of fact, the religion of Palmyra was highly syncretistic, borrowing freely from many traditions and incorporating several recognizably Jewish motifs.
A synagogue inscription discovered in Egypt consisted of an edict “by order of the queen and king” restoring the right of asylum that had been granted to that synagogue by King Ptolemy Euergetes in the third century B.C.E. Here as well, a dominant trend of historical scholarship once insisted on identifying the inscription’s unnamed queen and king as Zenobia and her son Vahaballat; but very few scholars still support that theory. Be that as it may, Zenobia became a popular name for Jewish women—and we even know of a male Jew who was named Zenobius.
The twelfth-century traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Tadmor and was impressed by the city’s walls and its structures constructed from huge stones. He described the two thousand Jews who lived there as bold warriors who would battle against Christians and Arabs, but chose to support their Ishmaelite neighbours.
A similar formula of courage, independent spirit and generosity is one that could offer some hope for safeguarding the people and the historical legacy of contemporary Palmyra.
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