Ruins of Palmyra seen from the air. Photo: Jørgen Christian Meyer ⓒ
Palmyrena: City, Hinterland and Caravan Trade between Orient and Occident is a four year (2009-2012) joint Syrian-Norwegian research project on the relationship between the ancient city of Palmyra and its hinterland. The project is funded by the Norwegian Research Council. Palmyra is situated at the oasis of Tadmor in the Syrian semi-desert, between the fertile valleys of the Orontes and the Euphrates. Through most of its pre-modern history, the village of Tadmor had a population ranging into the hundreds or thousands. In the first centuries CE the settlement grew into a city with an estimated population of 150.000 - 200.000, establishing it as one of the largest and most important cities of the Roman Empire in the mid-third century. A city the size of Palmyra depended on large quantities of water, food, fuel and building materials. In the ancient period most of these resources had to be secured within the distance of a few days travel. In the case of Palmyra, these surroundings were constituted by the precarious environment of arid steppes and mountains, inhabited by nomadic pastoralists both before and during the peak of Palmyrene urbanity. An important aim of our project is to understand how the oasis-city utilized its territory for agriculture, pastoralism, water harvesting, transport and defense. This is the subject of a joint Syrian-Norwegian archaeological survey between Palmyra and Isriyeh. The first season was conducted in 2008, and the survey will also cover pre-historic and Islamic periods.
The hinterland of Palmyra is interpreted not only as the city’s immediate surroundings, but also its powerful neighbours and the commercial systems it was a part of. Long distance trade was an important source of Palmyrene prosperity. Situated between the Roman Empire and the Parthian and later the Sassanian Empire, Palmyra was in a position to establish itself as a key actor in the maritime and overland networks that conveyed textiles, aromatics, spices and gems from China, India, Arabia and Africa in exchange for metals, glass, wine and money from the Mediterranean. The fact remains, however, that Palmyra was never on the shortest, nor on the most convenient route between Orient and Occident. Through most of recorded history, commerce and travel from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean was mainly conducted by the shorter and better watered Aleppo corridor, further north. For the Indian Ocean commerce the Red Sea - Nile route offered less expensive maritime and downriver alternatives to the long overland and upriver journey from the Persian Gulf, along the Euphrates and to Antioch by way of Palmyra. The second main objective of our project is to analyse the role of Palmyra in context of her position between powerful neighbours and in the wider setting of the Indian Ocean and Orient-Occident commerce.