Researchers solve mystery of Palmyra's location
|Palmyra’s main street was one of the longest and most monumental in the eastern Roman Empire [Credit: J.C. Meyer]|
New research using modern archaeological methods
The Bergen-based archaeologists approached the problem from a novel angle – instead of examining the city itself, they studied an enormous expanse of land just to the north. Along with their Syrian colleagues from the Palmyra Museum and aided by satellite photos, they catalogued a large number of ancient remains visible on the Earth’s surface.
“In this way,” explains Professor Meyer, “we were able to form a more complete picture of what occurred within the larger area.”
The team detected a number of forgotten villages from ancient Roman times. But what finally solved the riddle of Palmyra was the discovery of the water reservoirs these villages had utilized.
Not a desert
Professor Meyer and his colleagues came to realise that what they were studying was not a desert, but rather an arid steppe, with underground grass roots that keep rain from sinking into the soil. Rainwater collects in intermittent creeks and rivers called wadi by the Arabs.
|The archaeologists located this and other reservoirs used nearly 2 000 years ago [Credit: J.C. Meyer]|
Local farmers also cooperated with Bedouin tribes, who drove their flocks of sheep and goats into the area to graze during the hot season, fertilising the farmers’ fields in the process.
Safe trade route
Palmyra’s location also had a political foundation. Important east-west trade routes, including along the Euphrates River to the north, were not under the control of the Romans to the west or the Persians to the east. Local lords and chieftains demanded high fees for passage.
This practice of extortion translated into a tremendous opportunity for the Palmyrians; they joined forces with the Bedouins to provide security, beasts of burden and guides through the desert.
“Tradesmen from Palmyra made the most of the city’s unique location to build up a comprehensive trade network,” says the professor. “This explains much of the city’s prosperity.”
Arable land in this time of need
The solution to the mystery of Palmyra can also teach us something today. As the world seeks arable land to feed its billions, we can learn from the Palmyrians’ experience. If they were able to cultivate the desert soil almost 2 000 years ago, surely we can do the same with all the available modern aids and methods.
“Occasionally an enormous amount of rain falls in the desert,” says Professor Meyer. “Anyone can see how green the desert becomes after the rain. The Palmyrians must have realised the potential of this type of land, which covers large areas of our planet.”
Authors: Bård Amundsen/Thomas Keilman | Source: The Research Council of Norway [June 14, 2012]