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Zenobia Queen of Palmyra and the Ancient Kingdom of Saba


The city of palm trees

King Solomon was the founder of Palmyra: “After 20 years, Solomon had built the Lord's temple and his own residence, he also rebuilt the cities that Hiram had given him and installed the Israelites there. Then he marched against Hamat and seized it. He built Palmyra in the desert and all the localities serving as warehouses in the land of Hamat ”(2 Chronicles 8, 1-4). Located halfway between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, the “city of palm trees” quickly became an important stage on the caravan routes since it was at the crossroads of the mechanisms of exchange between East and West. Palmyra is mentioned for the first time in 41 BC, when Mark Antony sent his cavalry to the city to steal money for his troops. Indeed, as Pliny the Elder recalls in his Naturalis Historia, “the city of Palmyra is famous for its location, the richness of its soil and the quality of its water. All around stretches the sandy desert. The city has cultivated land and is therefore an exception in these areas. Mistress of her own destiny, she is the primary concern of the two great empires that surround her, Rome and Parthians, in the struggle they are waging. ”

Queen Zenobia of Palmyra

The dream of the mythical Queen Zenobia

The names of the kings of Palmyra have only come down to us through a few rare fragments. Sepulchral epigraphs teach us the names of Vaballathus, Hairan or Odaenathus: during the latter's reign, Palmyra extended its power over Syria, Mesopotamia and part of Arabia. Also at the same time it took on a leading role in the East, and became one of the most powerful and feared cities. In 267 AD, when Odaenathus died during the war against the Goths, the scepter passed into the hands of his second wife Zenobia, one of the most famous heroines in history. Her image is interwoven with legends and traditions and she represents the perfect feminine power. During her reign, indeed, diverse cultures and religions coexisted in Palmyra in all harmony, without conflicts or confrontations.

According to the historian Gaius Asinius Pollio, Zenobia was “the most beautiful and the most chaste of all the ladies of the East; her complexion was tanned, her eyes bright, and her teeth were so perfect that many thought they were pearls and not teeth.” Her skill and cruelty in combat also contributed to her legend: she considered battles above all as opportunities to extend her power to other territories and, in fact, she managed to extend it to Egypt and part of Asia Minor. Her thirst for conquest even led her to proclaim herself Septimia Zenobia Augusta and to name her son Augustus. In so doing, she directly challenged the Emperor Aurelian.

The Romans were therefore forced to attack Palmyra and the daring queen was defeated not without having given a hard time to the soldiers of the Emperor Aurelian. The latter, perhaps a little embarrassed to fight against a woman, wrote an emblematic missive to the Roman Senate: “I can say that it is thanks to this woman, careful in her advice, persevering in her designs, severe towards soldiers, inexorable when discipline requires, that her husband Odaenathus succeeded in weakening the Persians and reaching the walls of Ctesiphon. I can say that this woman inspires so much terror in the Orientals and the people of Egypt, that neither the Arabs, the Saracens, nor the Armenians will dare to rise against her any more. ”

The decline of a legend

After a few defeats on the battlefield, Zenobia shut herself up in her oasis of Palmyra, certain that she could resist the besiegers for a long time. The reality was quite different and the great fighting queen was arrested by the Romans on the banks of the Euphrates as she tried to escape east. She was taken to Rome and forced to walk barefoot in front of the emperor's chariot. Perhaps she owed her glorious past to be saved. But she was condemned to a golden exile near Rome. In 272, Palmyra, which had revolted against the Roman yoke, was set on fire and to blood and all the inhabitants were massacred. Aurelian describes this tragic event as follows: “It is useless for the swords of the Roman soldiers to continue to strike. The massacre of the inhabitants of Palmyra has lasted long enough. We have not spared women, we have murdered children and strangled old people (...) I want the temple of the Sun god, ransacked by soldiers of the Third Legion and by others, to be rebuilt Alike."

However, Aurelian's desires could not resist the devastating action of time: little by little, the sand invaded the great Palmyra and the story of Queen Zenobia became a legend.

The fabulous riches of the Queen of Sheba

The Queen of Sheba is not just a seductive myth realizing the link between religious tradition and the imaginary, she is above all a kind of pagan “icon” harboring symbolic values that the millennia have not changed. The Old Testament confirms this: “She arrived in Jerusalem with a large suite, camels laden with spices, and a large quantity of gold and precious stones.” (1 Kings, 10, 2) The Yemenis define themselves as Arab al Areba (the purest of men) and claim to have a genealogy which goes back to Elam (himself descendant of Shem, eldest son of Noah), father of 'Abd Shams, known de facto as Sheba and chief of all the tribes of northern Yemen. The definition “Arabia Felix”, which designates a land populated by myths, ancient Arabia, with immense and variable borders according to interpretations, a kind of earthly paradise full of riches, is certainly not without foundations, but the fruit of '' a refined taste which reveals an extraordinary community between the models typical of Arab culture and those characteristic of the classical tradition. Harmony torn from the earth little by little, thanks to the archaeological excavations systematically set up from the 1980s. By observing the works of Yemeni art, one naturally comes to see the astonishing degree of perfection achieved. One of the most remarkable examples is a fascinating and somewhat disturbing series of alabaster sculptures. Around Marib, located at the extreme south of the Arabian peninsula, archaeologists have discovered the ruins of Haram Bilqis, a famous place of worship in the kingdom of Sheba. The area as a whole has restored evidence suggesting a historical relationship with the mythical kingdom of Sheba. This is the place from which the no less mythical Queen of Sheba left to visit Solomon. The traditions from the Bible were probably inspired by the prodigious wealth of the kingdom of Sheba. In the Middle Ages, a legend even wanted Balthazar (one of the Three Kings) to come from the mythical country, which we already knew was one of the main stages of the incense route. The kingdom of Israel was formed at the extreme north of this capital road which guaranteed to the sub-Arab countries a comfortable well-being. It therefore seems logical that the Queen of Sheba went to Solomon to deal with the wise sovereign of the commercial terms and possibly the acquisition of toll rights to enjoy this absolutely basic route. According to the Bible, the meeting ended in the payment to Solomon of “120 talents of gold, a large quantity of perfumes and precious stones. Never again has there been such a quantity of herbs like that which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon ”. The myth of the wealth of the kingdom of Sheba entered history.

Hatra: the lost city

Like Palmyra, the mythical city of Hatra, where the Parthians had built their temple to the Sun god, lost its size after reaching the summit of glory in the 2nd century AD. In this place lost in the deserts of Mesopotamia, the Parthians defeated the Romans in 117 and 198 AD : thanks to their courage and strength, they made Hatra one of the most flourishing centers of worship and commerce in the Middle East. However, the defeats inflicted on the Romans did not represent a guarantee for the future. In 240, the Sasanian king Shapur 1 took the city, sacked it and devastated it.

Archaeologists have only been trying to bring it to light for half a century, but the fragments that the sand restores are straws compared to the grandeur of the past. Until today, Hatra therefore continues to be a lost city, whose true face will remain, perhaps, a mystery forever.