Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mirage, Syrian desert and Zenobia’s Zeitgeist

IT was the closest thing to the mirage I have ever seen and remains seared in my mind. A white Mercedes speeding down a straight black tar road cutting through a barren almostwhite limestone and flint desert. Two parallel ranges of equally stark and monochromatic mountains marching alongside for miles and miles. In fact the mountains dog us for quite a bit of the 100 miles that we venture into the Syrian desert on a typically cloudless day in June.

Then the mountains veer away into the horizon while the road continues to make an unhindered beeline for the horizon. There, at that point where the gravelly earth meets the azure sky, arises the crown of a palm tree. And another, and another. Then, amazingly, a building emerges from the desert, whiter than its limestone surroundings, framed by wavy palms and lowspreading shade trees. It is long, seemingly low, and flanked by c o l o n n a d e d
paths. I could well imagine traders two millennia ago standing still with astonishment, just like we were, at this grand mirage on the Silk Route....

Only it wasn’t -- and isn’t -- a mirage. It was and is exactly what it seemed, a city amid the palms, Palmyra. Often dated to around 1800 BC, legend has it that Palmyra was built by King Solomon himself though there is but one mention of the city in the Old Testament. There is no doubt, however, that as trade between the European empires and those of the east, Mesopotamia, Persia, India and China increased, Palmyra also rose to prominence as a caravanserai along the busy Silk Route. As it was blessed with plenty of water -- and plenty of its trademark palm trees -- Palmyra was the favourite stopping off point, halfway between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean .

Unsurprisingly it therefore also caught the attention of Imperial Rome. Mark Antony is said to have raided it but it became an adjunct of that great empire much later. Palmyrenes, though, claimed descent from a number of other great civilisations including Egypt and Assyria. When the Roman emperor Caracalla (infamous for murdering his brother and co-ruler) declared it a “free city” it set the stage for Palmyra’s greatest moment, under the great queen Zenobia who ruled on behalf of her minor son in the third century AD. Under her Palmyra not only asserted its independence, it also saw a flurry of building activity that led to the creation of her grand palace that so transfixed us nearly 2000 years later.

Roman and Greek ruins are not uncommon in Europe and West Asia, so I’d seen those pillars and arches in places as far apart as Bath in central England and Istria on the Black Sea. But something about Palmyra was different. Perhaps it was due to its unlikely location, plumb in the middle of a trackless desert. Perhaps it was the stories that I had read about the beauteous and brave Zenobia, who claimed des cent from another legendary ancient queen Cleopatra but did not have her fickle heart when it came to matters of love....

Whatever it was, I approached Palmyra with a mixture of awe and wonder. What gumption it must have taken for a desert queen to bump the Roman emperor Aurelian’s name off the coins of the realm and put her own likeness and that of her son; not to mention cobble together an army and conquer the neighbouring areas to bolster her independence. It is but a matter of detail that like so many other spirited queens from Razia Sultan to Mary Queen of Scots, her ascendence was brief if glorious. Zenobia, the fluent speaker of Palmyrian, Greek and Egyptian, the prescient politician and patron of philosophers and theologians was defeated by Aurelian and taken in chains to Rome where she died or else faded into oblivion.

Still, the magnificence of Palmyra remains an eloquent testament to those tumultuous times and a brave warrior queen and I eagerly walked down the long colonnaded avenues imagining how it must have been 20 centuries ago. The soothing waters from the Afqa spring (said to have curative powers) would have drawn diverse communities to the city now called Tadmor, which also means city of palms. Today the ruins of building and amphitheatres, baths and temples, great halls and palaces lie scattered over six fascinating kilometres.

Now variously dubbed ‘the Congress Council’, the “Straight Street’ , the ‘Arch of Triumph’ etc, the limestone pillars and walls, cornices and roofs stand austerely against a flawless sky. My eyes were particularly drawn to the Temple of Baal, one of the biggest ruins in the region after Baalbek. What fascinated me was the detailing on the walls of the temple. I could have sworn that the motifs were replicas --or precursors! -- of the typical designs seen on the border of the Bengal cotton sarees from Tangail. The combination of geometric shapes and curvaceous swirls were all too familiar....

Could this have been part part of the cultural give and take along the Silk Route? Could there actual be a link to my homeland? It was a delicious prospect and it persisted in swirling round in my head as I went on to the other buildings in the lost city. Of course the main temple to Bel resembled nothing remotely Indian, and came up at a time when no legible inscription of comparable antiquity in India can be cited as proof. Even so, I felt a strange connection. I’m still convinced that surely somewhere in India, yet to be unearthed, is some more evidence of a confluence of ancient cultures.

Like our Harappan cities, Palmyra was laid out in a grid, but Mohenjo Daro does not boast of the impressive Tetrapylon, or the brilliant Corinthian temple. And of course, there’s to compare with the 375 columns of the main boulevard marching down the gravelly landscape, framing what was part of the old caravan route.But the temple to Malak-Bel, the sun god of Palmyra again made me think of India. From the chariot temples of Hampi and Konark to the mysterious Suraj Kund near Delhi, sun has been India’s leitmotif after all. Yet this grand temple in the middle of the Syrian desert predated them by 1000 years. Flanked by porticoes and an embellished gate, the inside was another revelation. Many of the niches were crowned by another very Indian symbol -- the lotus.

A visit to the museum told me that P a l m y r e n e m e r c h a n t s went far and wide, so it was not inconcievable that the current links Syria has with India, via the o r t h o d o x church, are but the logical continuation of a link with a city for long lost in the sands of time. Many Indians before me must have stopped and marvelled at Palmyra in its prime, conducted commerce with its inhabitants (I bought knick-knacks too!), talked of Zenobia and current affairs and then continued on their way. When the sands shift in India too, maybe forgotten connections will suddenly come to light. I hope so!

Roashmi Dasgupta (Times)

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