Funerary Stele of a Palmyrean Couple
Highlighted Works of Art - 2005 Summer
"But the lost jewels of ancient Palmyra..."
(Charles Baudelaire, Benediction)
Palmyra, the largest oasis of the Syrian Desert, lies halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Euphrates. Cuneiform texts from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC already mention the area, inhabited since the 7th millennium BC, as Tadmor, a name known from the Bible and used even today. A widespread interpretation holds that this refers to the date palm, as does the Greek-Latin expression Palmyra. Owing to its bountiful springs and the surrounding plain (Palmyrene), which provided its inhabitants with a rich livelihood, Palmyra steadily grew in importance in the Hellenistic age (3rd-1st century BC), becoming the most significant settlement on the desert routes leading to the Euphrates, as well as a hub of ancient intercontinental relationships. From there one could reach India and China both by land (along the Silk Road) and by sea (across the Persian Gulf). Through commerce designed to meet the demands of the wealthiest, both east and west were able to obtain the commodities they considered luxuries. This is proved by Roman glassware found in the Far and Middle East, as well as by the abundance in those regions of red slip pottery (terra sigillata) mass-produced in the Roman Empire. In the Mediterranean world the greatest demand was for Chinese silk, rare spices and precious stones. Through its luxury commerce, which yielded an estimated hundredfold profit, Palmyra achieved almost unimaginable wealth. At the end of the Hellenistic age the city was under Roman rule. It reached the zenith of its power in the middle of the 2nd century AD; around this time Palmyra had a population of some 200,000 people. From 230 it played a prominent part in the war between two giant empires, Rome and Sassanid Persia, up until 273, when Rome captured and sacked the rebellious city. Palmyra never recovered, and its ancient history ended with the Arab conquest in 634.
After this conquest, Palmyra became a tiny village, and its rediscovery began only in the seventeenth century, when its ruins first amazed European visitors. Palmyra was all the more attractive since its culture was both familiar and alien: it presented completely unique versions of motifs known from Greek and Roman art and architecture. (One example is sufficient to demonstrate this point. Although the temple of Baal, one of the religious centres of the town, followed the plans of the temple of Artemis in Magnesia, it also boasted typically oriental features that would have been inconceivable in classical architecture: its roof was flat and its entrance was positioned on the long side of the building.) Palmyra was established at the meeting point of two worlds: the Mediterranean and the Orient. Not only was its population mixed (Aramaeans and a growing number of Arabs, as well as Greek and Roman inhabitants), but also its religion (besides the temples of Greek, Roman and Syrian gods, it had a synagogue and a Christian church) and its language, as well. Most inscriptions preserve Palmyrean writing, a version of the Aramaic consonantal script. Palmyrean was the first dead language to be deciphered (in 1754).
As opposed to what was formerly assumed, it is not the all-vanquishing power of classical culture to which the Graeco-Roman elements defining Palmyrean art attest. Instead, they prove its ability to provide other civilizations with artistic forms for the expression of their own ideas. As was often the case when two ancient cultures met, Palmyra took only what it felt to be valid from the vast offerings flowing in from the West. Even though a Roman citizen visiting Palmyra might easily have felt at home in the city, the most important elements of Palmyrean culture (caravan trade, market-gardening based on the resources of the oasis, nomadic animal husbandry, the predominance of the hunter-warrior-merchant) recall the later, Arab civilization rather than that of Greece and Rome.
The limestone relief acquired last year is an excellent example of the intercultural character of Palmyrean art. The main figure is a man lying on an ornate bed and holding a cup in his left hand. He is wearing the typical Parthian attire of his time: sandals, trousers (the folds are seen above the sandals) and a garment that is splendidly woven. A mantle is wrapped around his waist in Greek fashion. A woman is sitting at his feet on a pair of cushions; she is wearing a chiton and earrings. Her mantle is fastened with a round fibula, and her left hand pulls her shawl, wrapped around her head, before her face in a typical gesture of mourning. Between the two figures there is a young man in Greek clothing, resting his left hand on the shoulder of the man as a sign of affection. The frontal composition of the relief and its linearity prevailing over plasticity represent general characteristics of Palmyrean art.
|On the right|
An Aramaic inscription runs on both sides of the figure of the young man. In the interpretation of Géza Komoróczy, this reads as follows: The proper names are typically Palmyrean. Abdibol (Greek Abdibolos): "servant of (the god) Baal"; Bar'a' (Greek Bareas): "son of (the goddess) Athe /Anat"; Marti (Greek Marthis): "mistress" (nickname) / "my mistress".
|On the left|
The relief was thus the funerary stele of a couple. Collective tombs are quite characteristic of the necropoli of Palmyra. Above ground the tomb complexes were marked by towers or (in subsequent periods) had house-like superstructures.
The subterranean sections cut into the rocks had galleries opening into each other, the walls of which were lined with pre-cut niches, much like catacombs. The dead were interred in these niches, which were then closed using rectangular limestone reliefs. In all probability the Budapest stele had such a function (it was made narrower in the modern age to decrease its weight). In harmony with the social concepts of the age, it is the husband who appears as the protagonist of the scene. The deceased banqueting surrounded by his loved ones was the emblematic expression of a manly life in Antiquity, irrespective of time and place-be it Hellas, Italy or Mesopotamia. Thus the relief might have offered a message equally acceptable for viewers familiar with the Greek symposion, Latin convivium, or the marzeah widespread in oriental cultures.
Reliefs representing the funerary banquet constitute one of the main subjects of Palmyrean funerary sculpture. Based on its style, the form of the letters, and other, analogous examples, the Budapest stele is datable to the beginning of the 3rd century.
In the 1930s the relief, which had been pieced together from fragments, was in the collection of Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. It was later sold and ended up in Budapest by way of the international art trade.
Árpád Miklós Nagy