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The Arch of Triumph or Arch of Septimius Severus, Palmyra, Syria, 2005

Gone Forever? The History and Possible Future of the Recently Destroyed Monumental Arch of Palmyra

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The story of this famous arch has painfully revealed the weakness of the world, lack of authority of UNESCO, and helpless hands of thousands of archaeologists around the world. The arch of Palmyra, which remembered the reign of the great emperor Septimius Severus, was destroyed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or Daesh) in 2015.

Imagine a great excavation site that covers over 40 hectares of sandy land. The remarkable artifacts, hidden for centuries, became fascinating ancient treasure during the 20th century. The ruins of the city became the destination of pilgrimage for thousands of people fascinated by history. Sadly, due to the beginning of the war in Syria, the site was in danger. It suffered due to attacks in the area and was devastated by terrorists. However, groups around the world will in time come together to try to bring back the glory of this monumental city.

The Monumental Arch of a Living God

The Monumental Arch of Palmyra was created during the reign of the Emperor Septimius Severus, whose rule included the completion of many remarkable constructions. He was the same ruler who brought the world the wonderful ancient city called Leptis Magna. The arch in Palmyra was created between 193 and 211 AD and was connected with the famous street known as the ‘Colonnade’. Moreover, it was linked to the Temple of Bel, which was also destroyed recently.

Bust of Septimius Severus (reign 193–211 AD).

Bust of Septimius Severus (reign 193–211 AD). ( Public Domain )

The Monumental Arch was created to connect separate parts of the Colonnade. Its construction changed the orientation of the street by thirty degrees. Researchers spent many years analyzing ancient writings searching for the reason to build such an expensive and breathtaking monument. The most convincing explanation seems to be related to a victory over the Parthians. It was perhaps inspired by the famous Arch of Hadrian, whose structures commemorating his achievements are some of the most impressive around the world.

Aerial View of the ancient city of Palmyra (Tadmur), 2008, showing the now destroyed Temple of Bel complex, the Colonnade, and the Monumental Arch.

Aerial View of the ancient city of Palmyra (Tadmur), 2008, showing the now destroyed Temple of Bel complex, the Colonnade, and the Monumental Arch. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The Shadow of a Ruined City

The first known depiction of the arch comes from the British traveler Robert Wood, who went to Palmyra in the middle of the 18th century. He spent some time among the ruins of the ancient city a long time before the first expedition of archaeologists. He drew the engravings and published them in 1753 in a book titled ''The ruins of Palmyra; otherwise Tedmor in the desert''. Another visitor also described the arch. Sadly, we will never see what French architect and artist Louis-François Cassas described in 1785 , during his visit in Palmyra:

''Arriving in Palmyra on either May 22 or 23, 1785, Cassas assiduously worked to record the immense quantity of ruins scattered across the landscape until departing a month later with a caravan of 500 camels heading on to Baalbek in modern-day Lebanon. Aspiring to surpass earlier publications on Palmyra, Cassas wanted to awe and inspire his European audience by lavishly documenting this great Greco-Roman city lost in the desert. His panoramic etchings conform to the voyage pittoresque tradition, inviting the viewer to simultaneously marvel at the grandeur of antiquity and lament its inevitable decay. An amalgamation of orientalism and antiquarianism, the prints made from his drawings show local Bedouins inhabiting a dramatic landscape strewn with antique blocks, Corinthian columns, and monumental doorways. His primary objective to systematically record the artistry and ingenuity of a vanished civilization is evident from Cassas's numerous technical renderings of the imposing civic and religious architecture. Floor plans and reconstructed architectural elevations are complemented by details of ornamental features.''

Palmyra, Syria. Arch of Septimius Severus and Decumanus Maximus ('long street').

Palmyra, Syria. Arch of Septimius Severus and Decumanus Maximus ('long street'). ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

This landscape was changed by the future work of archaeologists and other kinds of researchers, who entered the site in the 19th century. In 1930, the Monumental Arch was restored for the first time. As time passed, more researchers wanted to work in Palmyra. This site became one of the most fascinating location for generations of archaeologists. Similar to Egypt, Palmyra became a dream destination and an inspiration to become a researcher in the field of history.

The arch, similar to the Leptis Magna, was included as part of the World Heritage created by Septimius Severus. Researchers noted that the reliefs included on the arch seem to be unique and they helped to deduce what typical Palmyrene art looked like. Moreover, the arch from Palmyra was an example of typical buildings characteristic to Severus' times.

The Great Colonnade and Monumental Arch, night view.

The Great Colonnade and Monumental Arch, night view. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The Future for an Eternal City of Middle Eastern Roman History

When Palmyra collapsed under the destructive powers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, millions of people cried. It seems that people haven't been so touched by the loss of an ancient monument for many decades. One of the victims of this attack was the Monumental Arch of Septimius Severus. Although it is ruined, researchers have already started to work on recovering it from the ashes and rubble.

The first step in achieving this is a 3D reconstruction. 3D monuments appeared in several cities around the world including London, Dubai, and New York. Moreover, in the case of the real arch, researchers seem to be optimistic. After the return of research groups to Palmyra, they found that there are still many stones from the original arch. Due to this fact, reconstruction is more feasible than it was believed before.

Apart from the Monumental Arch, the famous temples of Bel and Baalshamin will also be recreated using the remains that survived the attack. It sounds unbelievable, but despite the Arch of Triumph of Septimius Severus being in ruins, someday it will stand in Palmyra once again.

Top Image: The Arch of Triumph or Arch of Septimius Severus, Palmyra, Syria, 2005. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Kevin Butcher, Roman Syria: And the Near East, 2005.

Richard Stoneman, Palmyra and Its Empire: Zenobia's Revolt Against Rome, 1992.

Kazimierz Michałowski, Palmyra, 1968.

Palmyra – Monumental Arch by Daniel Demeter, available here.

Palmyra – The Colonnade, available at:

https://web.archive.org/web/20151210155655/http://romeartlover.tripod.com/Palmyra3.html

Legacy of ancient Palmyra, available at:

http://www.getty.edu/research/exhibitions_events/exhibitions/palmyra/index.html

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