Tetradrachm of Volusianus (


Roman fort at Shanaeh

Cairns at Jebel Mehra, coin of Volusianus (251-253) from Twehina, fort at Shanaeh.

Photo/drawings: Jørgen Christian Meyer ⓒ




The Palmyrena project ended 30.6.2013. Publication of results will continue over the next few years. Publication list and contact information will be kept up to date. Apart from that this site will no longer be updated.


Palmyrena: City, Hinterland and Caravan Trade between Orient and Occident aims to shed light at the relationship between the oasis city of Palmyra, its surrounding territories, neighbouring empires and systems of long-distance exchange. This is to be achieved through one archaeological and one historical sub-project: Palmyra and the surrounding territory and Palmyra between Orient and Occident.

Concession area

Concession area, distances in km.


Palmyra and the surrounding territory

(Jørgen Christian Meyer and Nils Anfinset)

The project has a permit for a joint Syrian-Norwegian archaeological surface survey in a 30 x 120 km area between Palmyra and Isriyeh. Sites of interests are selected and registered utilizing satellite imagery, arial photographs, field reconnaissance, local guides, interviews with local population, results of earlier archaeological work in the region, cartographic sources and premodern travel-descriptions. The survey focuses on the following problem complexes:

Water management and subsistence strategies: Palmyra is often called “the Bride of the Desert”. This is a misnomer, as the region around Palmyra is strictly speaking not a desert, but a dry-steppe, or “badiya” in Arabic. Rain falls every winter, and in wet years precipitation approaches values necessary for dry farming. This allows a range of subsistence strategies from the nomadism prevalent through most of the Islamic period over occasional agriculture as a supplement to pastoralism to permanent agriculture including barley, terebinth and probably olive trees. These can be traced though systems of water management, water harvesting and irrigation, and pollen and plant remains from mudbricks present at several sites gives a possibility to study past economy, climate and vegetation.

Land use: Communication lines and prominent geographical features are marked by large concentrations of cairns, associated with animal pens, flint debris and traps known as “desert kites”. These signify extensive economic activity, but what kind of societies left these traces? Should they be connected with pastoral nomadism or permanent settlements? The project will register and map the position of such features in order to compare the use of the landscape across time and the interaction between different types of economic activity and settlement.

Agricultural settlement: In the Roman and early Islamic periods, the area NW of Palmyra was settled by villages, at least two of which have already been identified by the project. How widespread was this form of settlement? What role did they play in the economy of Palmyra? Our hypothesis is that they were centres of agriculture combined with intensive animal-husbandry. Local informants and 19th-early 20th century travel literature reports the presence of olive presses connected to such settlements. If they can be found, it will considerably broaden our understanding of the regional economy in the preislamic period.

Military activity: Several small forts and waystations have been registered and more sites of this nature will be investigated in the future. Some are placed at important routes and junctions, other at major sources of water. The identification, registration, dating and mapping of defensive installations can not only help us identify routes of communication, but also has bearings on our interpretation of the relationship between the city of Palmyra and the nomadic population outside the urban centre.


Camels in Wadi Abyat

Wadi Abyad, April 2009. Photo: Eivind Heldaas Seland


Palmyra between Orient and Occident

(Jørgen Christian Meyer and Eivind Heldaas Seland)

Palmyra was never on the shortest, nor on the easiest route for the long distance trade between the Indian Ocean region and the Mediterranean. Routes, water and protection had be organized trough the progressively more arid landscape southeast of Palmyra, and relations had to be established and maintained with the nomadic population. The rise of Palmyrene trade seems to be connected with the incorporation of Syria into the Roman empire in 64 BCE, which coincides with the starting architectural monumentalization of the city. The record of inscriptions mentioning Palmyrene participation in caravan trade starts in the first century CE. In the second century, a Palmyrene diaspora is already established in various cities along the Euphrates and in southern Mesopotamia, and in the third century Palmyrene merchants are heavily involved in the commerce on the Red Sea.

Palmyra’s role in the trade between Orient and Occident is often explained with its position on the border between the Roman and Parthian empires. Although the city was a part of the Roman Empire, it retained a distinct cultural identity visible in language, sculpture and religion, and a military organization seemingly only partly integrated in the Roman system of border defense. In some respects it seems useful to analyse Palmyra as a Roman client-state rather than a standard provincial city. Palmyra was able to utilize this position in order to serve as a commercial link between empires which were frequently in a state of war, conflict or at least mutual suspicion. This explanation, however, opens two important problem complexes, which will be analysed during the project and which together contributes to our picture of the role of Palmyra on the regional and global level:

Palmyra between empires: Palmyra’s role in the interaction between the Roman and Parthian, later Sassanian empires is still poorly understood. Which possibilities could conflict between empires open? How did military activity influence the choice of routes? To what extent was Palmyra drawn into campaigning and warfare, which for the most part took place for relatively short periods at a time and along routes to the north of Palmyra? How was the relationship between the Parthian central power and the regions of Mesopotamia through which the trade of Palmyra passed?

Palmyra between Orient and Occident: The route through the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia across Palmyra to the Mediterranean was not the only, and probably not even the main route taken by commerce between Orient and Occident. The Indian Ocean - Red Sea passage shortened the need for overland transport, and downriver transport on the Nile was presumably easier and more cost-effective than upriver transport on or along the Euphrates. The Northern land routes through central Asia, later called the Silk Road were also in use in the period. How was the relationship between these routes, and what was Palmyras role in this respect?How can we explain the Palmyrene presence on the Red Sea in the third century?

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