Online Review: Book

L'Agora de Palmyre

Susan B. Downey

112.3

By Christiane Delplace and Jacqueline Dentzer-Feydey. Based on the work of Henri Seyrig, Raymond Duru, and Edmond Frézouls, in collaboration with K. Al-As’ad, J.C. Balty, T. Fournet, T. M. Weber, and J.-B. Yon. Pp. 393, figs. 486. Institut Ausonius, Institut Français du Proche-Orient, Bordeaux-Beirut 2005. €75. ISBN 2-35159-000-7 (cloth).

Palmyra, an important city on the Syrian steppe between the Mediterranean coast and the Euphrates, was discovered by Europeans in the 17th century. Excavations began only in the late 1920s under the French mandate, with the removal of the Arab village that had been established in the sanctuary of the god Bel, the chief god of the city. These excavations included the complex labeled the “agora” to the south of the major colonnaded street that ran through the city.

This impressive, well-documented volume on the agora of Palmyra and adjacent buildings is in itself a salvage operation, in the sense that the authors are publishing the reports of the original French excavators of the complex (Seyrig and Duru), with commentary. However, in their analysis of a group of major civic buildings at Palmyra, the authors go well beyond the simple publication of those manuscripts. They include analysis of the architecture and its decoration, as well as publication and interpretation of the many inscriptions from the complex. In addition, there is a report on the more recent Syrian excavation of a large building to the east of the agora (the so-called salle annexe, perhaps a basilica-market).

The first two chapters report on the early knowledge of these buildings and the excavations by Seyrig, who identified the colonnaded court as the agora of Palmyra. The identification is based on its large size, prominent position, and similarities to other agoras, such as that of Cyrene. Furthermore, as is common at Palmyra, many of the columns had consoles that carried statues of important citizens. In this case, a large number of columns had more than one console, suggesting that as time went on, more and more citizens wished to be commemorated in the agora.

The function of a small structure in the northeast corner of the agora is uncertain. In its earliest phase, it was open to the colonnaded space, but later, benches were added, so that it looks like one of the many dining rooms that are common in the major sanctuaries of the city. Nonetheless, Balty identifies the building as the curia, or senate house of the city. The large number of inscriptions by, or honoring, major figures in Palmyrene society could support this suggestion, but I am somewhat skeptical. It is in any case clear that important citizens made dedications and had statues of themselves erected in the agora. The statues do not survive, but the inscriptions, some only in Greek and others bilingual in Greek and Aramaic, are well published, with useful commentary, by Delplace and Yon. Interestingly, only one dedication in the agora was made by a woman.

A large building next to the agora, excavated by Syrian archaeologists, is interpreted as a basilica-market. Unlike the agora, it has no colonnades and may have been unfinished. That it may also have had an official function is suggested by the discovery of a fragment of the so-called fiscal law in its entrance. That law, established under Hadrian and inscribed on stone, records the taxes to be paid for imports into Palmyra. The bulk of the document was taken to St. Petersburg, but the findspot of the fragment suggests that the inscription was affixed to the facade of the salle annexe. Nonetheless, the authors suggest that this open court functioned primarily as a market. A line in the inscription prescribing that the “ancient law” be set up on a stele in front of the temple of Rabbasiré has naturally set off a search for that temple, so far without success. A sondage to the south of the entrance to the complex did produce a sculptured niche of a type known in the sanctuary of Baalshamin at Palmyra that would probably have held an image of a divinity in high relief. The iconography is complex and, as Dentzer-Feydey notes, the identification of the deities represented is uncertain. Stylistically, the relief resembles others that date to the first centuries B.C.E./C.E. Whether such a relief would have been suitable for a civic complex is open to question, and that it was buried under the entrance may suggest that it had gone out of use and simply served as fill.

Dentzer-Feydey contributes a detailed analysis of the architectural decoration of these buildings, including the capitals of the columns as well as the consoles supporting the statues. These observations are very useful for dating. She also publishes the sculpture found in the two complexes. Many of these are fragments of statues of individuals. It is interesting to note that most of them wear Graeco-Roman rather than the Palmyrene dress that is more common on statues in the tower tombs and hypogea of the city. Perhaps the civic function of these images explains the difference.

In sum, this book represents an important contribution to our understanding of the civic buildings of Palmyra and their sculptural decoration. The authors are to be commended for their efforts in publishing the reports of the early excavations of this important site and for adding new insights based on later finds.

Susan B. Downey
Department of Art History and Archaeology Program
100 Dodd Hall
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1417
downey@humnet.ucla.edu

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1123.Downey

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