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Pearl of the Desert: A History of Palmyra

New monograph by Centre Director and Professor Rubina Raja published by Oxford University Press.

Urban Palmyra and the desert city's cultural, social and mercantile networks are explored in a new book. Based on years of research into the archaeology and history of Palmyra, Rubina Raja unfolds the story about the famous oasis city, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’. Many chapters take their point of departure in her research on the Palmyrene funerary portraiture, adding entirely new knowledge about this nodal point in the Syrian steppe desert.

In the monograph, Raja lays out the history of Palmyra through its archaeology and the written sources, from its prehistoric periods until the destructions during the civil war in Syria. The first three centuries CE were the heydays of Palmyra – a time in which the city flourished immensely and to which most of the evidence dates. The city was under Roman rule, and the rich archaeological record, specifically the corpus of funerary sculpture collected within the framework of the Palmyra Portrait Project since 2012, and the many ancient written sources make it possible for Raja to narrate Palmyra’s development and the history of its Roman-period inhabitants in a new light. Though the city was an urban island in the middle of the Syrian desert, it was also an important node in an extensive network: Caravan trade across the vast desert went through Palmyra, and the Palmyrene elite was pivotal in the organization of both camel caravans and oversea trade. As Raja points out in her new book, the inhabitants had their own way of life deeply embedded in local traditions and culture, despite – or perhaps exactly because it was situated between large and powerful empires. At the same time, the Palmyrenes were agile to adopt cultural norms from the surrounding world.

With this book, awareness is also raised of the importance of cultural heritage and its preservation in conflict zones and how archaeology has and still is used politically. Palmyra is an evident example of this.


More information about the book

The book has just been published in the USA. It is also available as a kindle version and as an audio book recorded by Professor Christopher Hallett (UC Berkeley), UrbNet’s guest professor in the academic year 2020/21.


Full reference:

Raja, R. (2022). Pearl of the Desert: A History of Palmyra (New York: Oxford University Press).



On Google Books it is possible to get a preview of the book.


Research projects on Palmyra

Palmyra Portrait Project (2012–2020). Funded by the Carlsberg Foundation.

Archive Archeology: Preserving and Sharing Palmyra’s Cultural Heritage through Harald Ingholt’s Digital Archives (2020– ). Funded by the ALIPH Foundation.

Circular economy and urban sustainability in Antiquity (2020– ). Funded by the Carlsberg Foundation and the Augustinus Foundation.