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The Palmyrene Funerary Portraits: A Portrait Habit between East and West

Summary of lecture by Professor Rubina Raja at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 26 April 2017. Written by students Nathalia B. Kristiansen and Jesper V. Jensen.

Loculus relief of a figure sporting the distinctive headwear of a Palmyrene priest (Copyright: Palmyra Portrait Project).

By students Nathalia B. Kristiansen and Jesper V. Jensen

Rubina Raja, director of the Palmyra Portrait Project and professor in Classical Archaeology at Aarhus University, gave an interesting lecture on the project at Humboldt University in Berlin. She presented the modern history of Palmyra – from its rediscovery to the Palmyra Portrait Project as well as how the project was initiated and its research goals then and now.

Palmyra has always held a special position in the reception of Antiquity through literary sources. Especially the Palmyrene queen Zenobia was present in paintings, music and literature as a romantic heroine, but it was not until 1751, when James Dawkins and Robert Wood – both wealthy British aristocrats – rediscovered the city itself, that the architecture of Palmyra became extremely popular and influenced the modern architecture of the day. Several semi-legal excavations were conducted and funerary portraiture was spread to museums and private collections all over the world. The largest museum collections outside of Syria are located in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and the National Museum in Istanbul.

The collection in Copenhagen, the Glyptotek itself as well as the Carlsberg Foundation were founded by the Danish brewer Carl Jacobsen, who had a great passion for ancient sculpture. He saw the Palmyrene portraits as something special and therefore amassed the large collection. In 1889, he commissioned Rabbi David Simonsen to make the first catalogue of the portraits.

In the 1920s, the Danish philologist Harald Ingholt conducted several excavations in Palmyra which led to the discovery of about 40 graves. The excavations were financed by the Carlsberg Foundation, and some of the portraits he found were added to Jacobsen’s collection. Ingholt likewise made an extensive paper archive of the known portraits of the time and their location. In 1928, he published the book Studier over Palmyrensk Skulptur in which he created a typology and chronology of the Palmyrene portraits based on iconography and the many inscriptions seen on the funerary sculpture. To this day, his book is still the main work on Palmyrene sculpture.

The collection in Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and Ingholt’s archive, which was gifted to the museum after his death, formed the cornerstone of the research conducted by the Palmyra Portrait Project. The online database, the main purpose of the project, holds more than 3200 portraits, which is more than twice the number first anticipated. This enables us to make more detailed statistical analyses of the portrait corpus. It likewise becomes more clear how the portrait reliefs are comprised. The main forms are loculus reliefs, sarcophagi, banqueting reliefs and stelai. Both men, women and children are depicted and can be placed together and individually. The men are often depicted in a more Greaco-Roman fashion in the loculus reliefs in contrast to the banqueting scenes where they are shown in Parthian clothing. The women are almost exclusively depicted in the local dress of Palmyra, which is especially visible in the headdress. It is clear that Palmyrene portraiture is a unique Near Eastern tradition and not a product of Roman influence. 

The Project will be completed in 2019, but the database will open up for new research and discussions about the Palmyrene and Near-Eastern funerary portraiture. Prof. Raja’s lecture sparked a lively discussion on the portraits.