Summary of the conference “Revisiting the Religious Life of Palmyra“

By PhD student Sara Ringsborg and scientific employee Christian Svejgård Lunde Jørgensen.

2017.10.04 | Christina Levisen

Eivind Heldaas Seland giving his paper. Photo: Sara Ringsborg.

Maura Heyn giving her paper. Photo: Sara Ringsborg.

By PhD student Sara Ringsborg and scientific employee Christian Svejgård Lunde Jørgensen

On September 21st and 22nd, The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in Copenhagen hosted the conference “Revisiting the Religious Life of Palmyra”. The conference was organised by Professor Dr. Rubina Raja from Aarhus University, who is also director of the Palmyra Portrait Project, which have run since 2012 and is generously funded by The Carlsberg Foundation. The aim of the conference was to present and discuss various aspects of religious life in ancient Palmyra, and therefore, several prominent scholars were invited to contribute.

On the first day of the conference, Ted Kaizer from Durham University gave the opening paper with the title “Patterns of worship at Palmyra: methods and approaches” introducing the participants of the conference to previous and ongoing research on religious life in Palmyra. Among other things, he urged to avoid generalisations, especially concerning terminology: religious life involves worship, whereas religion is concerned with the deities themselves – one needs to distinguish between cultic activity and religion. Furthermore, he emphasised how the meaning of objects will evolve over time and how context is crucial when dealing with religious aspects: for example, the evidence show that the funerary cult was organised by the individual families and was therefore not a civic concern.

Session 1 consisted of two speakers giving papers on the topic “Gods in Palmyra”.

The second speaker of the day was Maurice Sartre from Francois-Rabelais University, Tours, who gave the paper “Greek gods in Palmyra”, which presented several examples of religious reliefs and wall-paintings representing images of Tyche, Nemesis, Dionysus and Heracles. The discussion touched upon the fact that the amount of material from Palmyra is not great, and it is therefore not possible to detect changes over time in the representations of Greek gods. Again, terminology was discussed: what did ‘Greek’ mean in the Near East, because these gods surely became local over time. Finally, one must consider how one uses these ethnic labels, but the question is what are the alternatives; local and less local?   

Tomasso Gnoli from University of Bologna also gave a paper, on representations of gods, focusing on the military aspects, with the title “Les dieux armés in Palmyra: Religious, iconographic and ethnic considerations”. Many examples of armed Palmyrene gods in military garments were presented, which showed that more or less all deities have representations with arms. However, no army objects have been found in Palmyra and very few inscriptions are mentioning soldiers.

Session 2 consisted of papers under the topic “Participation in the religious life of Palmyra”.

The next speaker was Signe Krag from Aarhus University who gave a paper on “Women and religion in Palmyra”. The paper focused on altars dedicated by women and altars where women were recipients and showed that women might have played an active role in the religious life; however a secondary role, as this sphere was controlled by men. The altars dedicated by women consist of 8.8 % out of 320 altars, where most were dedicated to “He whose name is blessed”. The paper revealed how the increase of female religious dedications rose in the 2nd and 3rd century match the increase in reliefs from the funerary sphere. However, the altars mostly consist of inscription only and not figurative reliefs of women.

Maura Heyn from The University of North Carolina, Greensboro, contributed with a paper regarding funerary representations of women depicted with their right palm turned forward, the so-called orans pose. Hands are depicted on altars from Palmyra and men, and only very few representations exist of women on these altars with both hands raised. The paper and the following discussion involved identifying the meaning of this specific orans pose. Many suggestions and questions came up: does the Palmyrene right-hand-forward pose of women refer to activity outside the tomb? Worship? If this is the case, it is the only religious act depicted in the funerary reliefs. Is the pose only of symbolic meaning as a reference to the afterlife, to modesty? Was the pose it a symbol or power or merely a greeting to the relatives visiting the grave?

The two next papers focused on the epigraphy of religion: the first speaker was Eleonora Cussini from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, who gave a paper with the title “Images of individual devotion in Palmyrene sources”. Cussini wished to investigate the evidence by microhistorical approach, therefore examining many different types of altars of which some had incense bowls on top of them, reliefs and/or inscriptions. From time to time, the inscriptions contain grammatical errors, and what does these errors say about the dedicator? Furthermore, Cussini emphasised how the altar inscriptions are not banal texts due to their repetitive form.

The last speaker of the day was Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider, who gave a paper with the title “Bel the Merciful”. The god Bel was often referred to as “the merciful” in Palmyrene dedicatory inscriptions, which was unique to Palmyra; however, comparisons were drawn to Babylonian traditions. Kubiak-Schneider asked the question on how the Palmyrenes understood the “mercy” of Bel, and some of the answers were that Bel held a prominent position in the Palmyrene pantheon, and that the Palmyrenes hoped for positive answers to prayers.

The second day of the conference opened with session 3 called “Movement of religious culture” consisting of four papers.

The first speaker of the day was Jean-Baptiste Yon from Laboratoire HiSoMA, Lyon, who gave a paper with the title “Foreigners and outsiders: The religious life of Palmyra seen from the outside”. Yon began with a concretisation of his materials under study, namely examples of dedicatory practices of Palmyra and other materials from the diaspora, and how it relates or differs from habits outside the region. Yon showed evidence for Palmyrene religious dedications and activity outside of Palmyra through inscriptions from Hatra, Dacia, Rome and Dura-Europos. Yon also pointed out that there is a lack of precisely dated inscriptions, which hinders the possibility of observing developments in the religious life. However, one fruitful way is to compare the practices of different regions. Yon took us through a variety of types of dedications; veterans, merchants and the elite. Yon emphasised that the bilingual inscriptions provides us with a rare glimpse into the links between Palmyra and Palmyrenes living abroad, namely because we know the family names and their tribes. We can follow family member travelling and the way that the religious practices changes abroad.     

Nathanael Andrade from Binghamton University gave a paper from New York through a skype connection with the title “Palmyra, the Acts of Thomas, and the movement of religious culture through Asia”. Andrade’s paper revolved around a popular Latin martyr act, named The Acts of Thomas that circulated throughout the Mediterranean during the fourth and fifth century CE. By the time the text was being read, however, the text had been circulating for hundreds of years. The text describes how the apostle Thomas travelled to India and encountered a king named Gondophares. Andrade surmised that the Palmyrenes deserved the credit for enabling such a king to appear in the narrative. Previously, the research on this topic has focused on the premises of an apostle’s reported mission to India. However, Andrade stressed that we should focus on how the Palmyrenes created social and commercial networks that connected the Levant to North India and transported religious culture. This transport does not solely mean a transportation of religious practices or ideas, which were of importance to the Palmyrenes, but also forms of culture that other people charged with these networks.

Rubina Raja from Aarhus University took us back to the funerary sphere with her paper called “The so-called curtain of death in the Palmyrene funerary sculpture”. She presented a large variety of the known 247 reliefs depicting the so-called dorsalium, a cloth hanging behind the portrait(s). The cloth was depicted hanging in the background being pinned by buttons or medallions from which leaves occasionally projected upwards. This cloth has long been attested to be an allusion of the afterlife and to indicate who the deceased person is on the funerary object if more than one individual was portrayed. However, we have no evidence of the Palmyrenes believing in an afterlife, and research done by Raja has shown that mourning mothers could have a “dorsalium” hanging behind them, while none was rendered behind their probably deceased son over whom they mourned. The 18 dated reliefs with the cloth are dated to the 2nd and 3rd century, and we primarily see these clothes on loculus reliefs and not so much on banquet reliefs, sarcophagi or wall-paintings. One interesting aspect is that very few priests are depicted with this clot,h and no tesserae are found depicting this cloth either, underlining its non-religious character: the so-called dorsalium merely functioned as an attribute of death.

The last speaker of session 3 was Eivind Heldaas Seland from University of Bergen, who gave a paper with the title “Portable religion and the Palmyrene diaspora”. Portable religion means religion being practised anywhere, and Seland showed limestone slabs from the hinterland of Palmyra, possibly set up by shepards, soldiers or traders. Furthermore, Seland presented evidence on the role of religion when Palmyrenes travelled, arguing for the maintenance of group cohesion among Palmyrenes abroad.

The last speaker at the conference was Lucinda Dirven from University of Amsterdam, who gave a paper in session 4 called “Religious visual language”. The title of Dirven’s paper was “Images as windows into the religious life of Palmyra”. Dirven wished to investigate representations of deities as a main source for reconstructing the religious life of Palmyra. She stressed that religious images were more than mere illustrations of religious ideas. She pointed out that they were “active” objects in the sense that they expressed ideas on behalf of their makers and the public: they were glimpses into the religious mentality of the Palmyrenes. She also touched upon the adaption of classical style in the iconography of Palmyrene gods. Dirven argued that the influence was relatively limited, but when it occurred, the emerging iconography was a transformation of both local traditional styles and of the Greco-Roman styles. This does not correspond with resistance towards Graeco-Roman forms, but instead, the mixture of styles points towards how well the Graeco-Roman gods were integrated in the city.

All papers will be published in Palmyrenske Studier, founded by Rubina Raja and published by The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. Finally, we would like to thank all the speakers for their contributions and The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in Copenhagen for 

Conference, History and achaeology