Friday, July 22, 2011

Zenobia... Queen of the Desert

In Syria there is a beautiful oasis (or remnants of one) with a spectacular ancient city surrounding it. Palmyra, or Tadmor as the locals call it, was a trading route which flourished from the 1st to the 3rd Centuries AD. It had been in existence prior to this but was allowed special trading status under the Romans. I spent time there during the mid-season breaks with my dig team. It covers a vast area and is covered with amazing architecture and ruins. It could be mistaken for a Spielberg set as it has funerary towers sitting on a plain with an Arab castle atop a massif overlooking the city. The third image shows some of these structures which could easily reach twelve metres tall filled with niches to bury the deceased. I climbed up in one with Judith Littleton (an anthropologist from ANU) and we examined some of the scattered bones. She could even tell the sort of health problems which had impacted on the lifespan of the ancient citizens.

The Temple of Bel (Baal) had been a Hellenistic temple, expanded to a huge religious complex, and was eventually relegated to being a fortress. It has beautiful Christian paintings on the walls of the cella. Not far from this spot is an elegant Roman Theatre, a unique piece of design owing to it having five doors on the stage. My friends and I spent an evening there with no tourists anywhere to be found under the light of a shimmering full moon. This city acquired it's notoriety under the rule of the rebellious Queen Zenobia. Her beauty, intelligence and wit, were measured against the might of the Imperial Legions. Needless to say the Romans eventually won!

I know people often wonder about the association between my work and my previous life as an ancient historian. I guess the two are reconciled by the fact that beautiful design from the ancient world had a profound impact on how I see forms. Although they too had many types of decoration on their objects, the shapes themselves were simple and exquisite. A legacy which I strive to capture with my work... and one which reflects the efforts of potters from the previous millennia. 

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