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David Nightingale: Zenobia (240 - 275?)

This essay is about Queen Zenobia of Syria.

The setting is Palmyra, a beautiful city on an oasis at the edge of the Syrian desert. While there is a Palmyra on the Erie Canal in NY State, not far from Rochester NY, the Palmyra that Zenobia grew up in is situated between a mountain and the Orontes river -- with a pleasant climate, palm trees, and fertile land for such crops as barley, olives, figs, pistachios.

Like her distant ancestor the beautiful Cleopatra, Zenobia may have been Egyptian on her mother's side. She was attractive, with a dark complexion and bright dark eyes, and very intelligent. With a reputation for extreme chastity, apparently lying down with her husband only once a month for the purpose of procreation (ref.1, p. 298) -- although how her biographers would know that from 2000 yrs ago seems obscure -- she was fluent in Greek, Aramaic and Egyptian. She was a noted horse rider and hunter, and was respected for riding into battle beside her husband, the King of Palmyra, King Odenathus. However, after 3 years of marriage the king was assassinated, in AD 258, leaving her with their small son Vabalathus. After just a few years peacefully ruling Palmyra and its surroundings, she and her trusted general, General Zabdas, invaded Egypt, where she declared herself Queen of Egypt, and had coins struck in her and her son's name. After her invasions she marched her army north, into Anatolia, as far as modern day Ankara, and the map of her empire in those years includes much of the Near East -- in other words present-day Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and the eastern part of Turkey.

Claiming loyalty to the Roman empire, and seeing herself as the 'eastern emperor', she felt that while Rome was busy quelling European revolts and troubles, her eastern conquests would be seen favorably. However, Emperor Aurelian did NOT see it that way, and left Europe to meet her in battle outside Palmyra -- actually not far from Antioch in the S-E corner of Turkey. She and her army lost, and, in short, she was taken to Rome, where, according to the writer Trevor Bryce (ref.1, p.316) she was paraded in gold chains in front of Aurelian's victory march there.

Around those times, the major gods that people worshipped, before Christianity had taken hold, included the god Baal (or Bel) -- god of storms and fertility and often depicted between its peers the sun god and the moon god. In Palmyra beautiful columns and walls were built, and the imposing tower of Bel has been photographed many times. Palmyra's main street has majestic colonnades and was probably used for ceremonial occasions, as well as serving as a market. Travelling merchants passed through Palmyra because it was on the famous 'Silk Road' between Europe and India.

In 2015 Isis blew up the 2000 yr old tower of Bel. A month prior to that they had beheaded the 82 yr old scholar and keeper of Syria's ancient artefacts, Khaled al-Assad, because he had refused to tell them where many of Syria's treasures were kept. Needing to steal such treasures, the Isis vandals accused him of apostasy, of abandoning the so-called 'correct' brand of Islam by his representing Syria at international 'infidel' conferences. They hung his body from a column in one of Palmyra's public squares.

Finally, 2 millennia ago, the Romans apparently spared Zenobia her life. While some sources say she was killed, others say she was ultimately treated well by Aurelian, in circumstances befitting her royalty. It is also said (ref.1, p.317) that she married a senator, and lived out her life in the hills of Tivoli, just inland from Rome.

Thus the links between Zenobia, Palmyra and Isis.

1. "Ancient Syria", by Trevor Bryce; Oxford University Press, Gt Clarendon St., Oxford OX2 6DP, UK (2014)
2. "Ancient Antioch", by Glanville Downey; Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ (1963)

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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