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January 31, 2012

Istanbul Archaeological Museum: Sculptural Reliefs Portray the Deceased on the 2,000 year old Tombs of Palmyra, Syria

Funerary art from Palmyra, Syria/
Photo by C. Sezgin
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Today's afternoon story in The New York Times, "Fighting in Syria Escalates as Opposition Rejects Russian Plan" reminds me of the beautiful funeral monuments I saw earlier this month on display from Palmyra, Syria, at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

Palmyra, located more than 200 kilometers northeast of Damascus, was a thriving Roman city in the First, Second and Third Centuries AD, a midpoint for caravan traders between Persia and the Mediterranean.

In 108 AD, a rich Palmyrene named Yarhai, used limestone blocks to construct tombs for 219 people. More than 100 people were interned in this one kilometer long necropolis called the Valley of the Tombs over 130 years.

Burial slots were designed as drawers stacked in up to six rows, similar to the Panthéon in Paris or even the mausoleum at Our Lady of Angels, the contemporary Roman Catholic Cathedral in Los Angeles. The exciting feature is that the deceased were represented by sculptural portraits projecting from the surface of the graves, giving "the impression of looking out of a window" (Istanbul Archaeological Museum placard).

'ABD' Astor and his son Maqqai/
Photo by C. Sezgin
Inscriptions in Ancient Greek and the language of Palmyra (Aramaean and Arabic) on one-third of the tombs reveal "the identity of the person who has ordered the tomb to be built; the common tombs shared by the family or the relatives; and the distribution of the tombs in the 1st-3rd centuries AD" (Istanbul Archaeological Museum placard).

Merchants, army commanders and high ranking officials and priests of Palmyra were buried in these tombs (Istanbul Archaeological Museum placard).

The original reliefs on display at Istanbul's Archaeological Museum were separated from their tombs and are arranged according to their style and chronologically (Istanbul Archaeological Museum placard).

Salmat and her daughter Hagge/Photo by C. Sezgin
Two of the reliefs are related, one is of "ABD' Astor and his son Maqqai and the other is of his daughter Salmat and her daughter Hagge. As with many of the objects in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, I am humbled by their beauty and have an increased awareness of the tenacity of the Syrian people.

You may read more about Palmyra and its history here at UNESCO's World Heritage Site page.  The city thrived until the 16th century.  Other funerary art from Palmyra may be found at the British Museum.

Here's the page on the website of the Istabul Archaeological Museum on the Palmyran Tomb Chamber.


This raises an important issue about cultural property and modern nation states. Objects from parts of the former Ottoman Empire were displayed in Istanbul. But places such as Palmyra, Kameiros as well as sites on Crete are no longer in the territorial boundary of modern Turkey.