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The Quest to Understand Haliphat’s Speaking Handshapes

The Quest to Understand Haliphat’s Speaking Handshapes


Over three decades ago, walking up a wide and elegant marbled staircase passageway in a museum, a funerary relief bust of Haliphat in a secluded alcove first caught my eye. From that moment I was bemused by her uniquely intentional and well-formed hand shapes. I was hooked! For years, working in museums, I had seen and analyzed numerous statues and busts, but rarely had I ever come across anything like these lifelike hands which had been frozen in time some 1,790 years ago.

I wanted to know what messages are contained within the curious shapes of Haliphat’s hands. As much as I’d like to, I’m aware that I can’t possibly apply our current finger alphabets to understanding her ancient hand shapes, and I won’t be able to decipher them until I someday locate a credible source revealing their meaning. I’ve been searching earnestly for additional information about Haliphat, but sources about her are quite scarce. I have however found another way.

What Makes Haliphat’s Hand Shapes So Unique?

Because American Sign Language (ASL) is my first language, I may be biased. Nevertheless, my analysis has focused on the detailed and perfectly carved hands that are evidenced in this ancient limestone relief. They are exceptionally lifelike, down to the millimeter, in contrast to most ancient hands found on various statues and funerary relief busts. Although Haliphat has been frozen since 231 AD, she amazingly emits her whole naturalness through the use of her hands and seems at home with their shapes.

It’s all in the detail. The index finger and middle finger of her right hand can be seen extended and resting gently on her cheek just below her right eye, rather than pressing heavily on her cheek. The softly bent third and fourth fingers of the same hand, rest ever so lightly on her jawline, rather than being clenched down awkwardly on her cheek and jawline. Her left index finger and fourth finger extended, middle finger and third finger together bent downward touching her thumb tip to create a hole through which to pull a loop of her shawl, resting it ever so delicately on her midsection. It’s almost as though her hands had been signing all her life.

Although Haliphat has been frozen since 231 AD, she amazingly emits her whole naturalness through the use of her hands. (Freer Gallery of Art / Smithsonian Institution)       

This delicate and intentional use of her hands leads me to believe that she had friends with whom she signed with ease. When posing for a social group photo, deaf friends get together and use their diverse handshapes to convey messages. Could it be that she even signed with the sculptor she sat for? Or that the sculptor knew sign language, enabling him to carve her hands into limestone which such incredible and lifelike precision?

What could Haliphat be trying to communicate with her uniquely intentional hand shapes? (Freer Gallery of Art / Smithsonian Institution)

What could Haliphat be trying to communicate with her uniquely intentional hand shapes? (Freer Gallery of Art / Smithsonian Institution)

Certain hand shapes and gestures are universally understood, such as pointing at someone or something. The handshapes of sign language, however, are beyond gestures and not everyone can easily understand them. Sign language a language in and of itself, and learning it is just as complex as learning another language. Could it be that Haliphat is speaking to us in sign language, communicating something about who she was? Were Haliphat’s handshapes part of a group message at her family tomb.

How was the Funerary Relief Bust of Haliphat Acquired?

In a 2015 article about Palmyra published in Washington City Paper, Kriston Capps explained that back in 1908 Charles Lang Freer bought the funerary relief bust of Haliphat in Aleppo from a dealer named Joseph Marcopoli, before gifting the sculpture to the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C..

Before being sold, the funerary portrait was originally from Palmyra, in modern-day Syria, where it was positioned at the end of Haliphat’s sarcophagus, or stone coffin, within her family tower, or loculi, where stone shelves held the remains of her family members. Here the norm was that each sarcophagus included a funerary relief bust, a style of portrait art, of the deceased relative.

Around the time of her sale, Haliphat’s funerary relief bust was chiseled off from the end of her sarcophagus and taken away from her loculi, along with at least 3,000 more funerary portraits known to have been chiseled off and taken away. To put this into context, this is an act akin to taking a headstone with a headshot photo of the deceased relative away from a family cemetery. 

Staff from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., known controversially as keepers of the world’s history, translated the transcription carved in Palmyrene Aramic from Haliphat’s funerary relief bust. This enabled them to identify her as Haliphat who died in 231 AD, a daughter of Ogalta. It’s a simple and straightforward record, but that’s it. There’s nothing more.

Haliphat’s Hometown: Palmyra, the City of Palms

According to Richard Kurin, writing in Smithsonian Magazine, the city where Haliphat was buried, pre-Islamic Palmyra, “was a wealthy Roman trading center in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent.” At the crossroads of trade between Southeast Asia, ancient Iran, the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, the residents of this cosmopolitan oasis city built a plethora of monuments, temples and impressive tombs. Haliphat may have lived her whole life in Palmyra, probably for 50 or 60 years, under the governance of the powerful Roman Empire, possibly from 171 AD through 231 AD. Considering how well Haliphat was dressed for her funerary relief bust, her father must be a successful merchant.

In the 1761 book, The Ancient Ruins of Palmyra Otherwise Tedmor, Robert Wood explains that an ancient legend claimed that Tedmor was first established as a small Semitic settlement in the Syrian wilderness, a palm oasis established by King Solomon. In that pre-Islamic era, Solomon as a Jewish King, had a royal harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines. Originally a trading town under the pre-Byzantine Empire, under the Roman Empire the name “Tedmor” was Latinized to Palmyra which meant the same thing, “a city of Palm trees”. This was a thriving caravan city in a beautiful oasis amidst an unforgivable desert of Syria that was on the Silk Road stretching from China through to the present Middle East.

The ancient ruins at Palmyra, the city where Haliphat was buried. (waj / Adobe Stock)

The ancient ruins at Palmyra, the city where Haliphat was buried. (waj / Adobe Stock)

Did Sign Language Exist Before Haliphat’s Time?

In a word, yes. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, discussed the sign language of the deaf people in his Craylus, written in the 5 th century BC, where he writes: "If we hadn't a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn't we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?” Then there’s nothing more, nothing whatsoever, until the 5th century AD.

According to existing sources, education for people who were deaf began with the Cistercian monks and nuns in the 5 th century AD, who used monastic sign language during their vow of silence. Haliphat was born in the third century, meaning that there is huge chasm of information in relation to education and sign language for deaf people for which there is no record. Was education for deaf people really nonexistent? I, for one, very much doubt it. Records about it may however have been lost, or overlooked.

In an archival study about the deaf men working in the palaces and temples of the Hittite Kingdom in Anatolia (now Turkey) during the 13th century BC, M. Miles introduces bibliographical evidence, as well as additional notes, on signing and deaf people's activities in the ancient and medieval Middle East. There was clearly a good deal of travel, trade, correspondence and exchange of ideas across the region through many thousands of years, so odd “spots” of evidence about deaf people and their lives in one place can serve to illuminate the way this community lived and communicated in other locations.

Setting the Scene: Early Christianity in the Time of Haliphat

Based on the average lifespan of those living in the Roman Empire, around sixty or seventy years, experts believe that Haliphat was probably born around 171 AD, and she lived until 231 AD, as clarified Haliphat’s funerary relief bust. This was a time of instability within the Roman Empire. During her lifetime Haliphat lived under fifteen Roman Emperors, twelve of whom were assassinated, murdered, or executed, and one of whom died of the Antinone Plague. The despised Roman Emperor Elagabalus, for example, was executed in 222 AD, nine years before Haliphat died. 

According to Joshua Mark’s 2014 article on Ancient Syria, “the first major center of Christendom rose in Syria, at Antioch [in modern-day Turkey], and the first evangelical missions were launched from that city.” The spread of Christianity in Syria and beyond was obviously formative long before Haliphat was born. Andreas Kostenberger’s 2014 article, claims that Jesus died on April 3, 33 AD, a full 138 years before Haliphat was born.

Returning to the subject literally in hand, Haliphat’s well detailed hand shapes remind me of those seen in Eastern Orthodox Christian paintings and mosaic art of Jesus. In an article on chironomia, from the Trinity Iconography Institute, about the art of hand gestures and their meaning, the extended index finger and middle finger in images of Jesus Christ and the Saints convey the message that “the speaker is going to say something important.” Based on the sources about the spread of Christianity in Syria, I believe Haliphat’s hand shapes announced that she was a Christian.

The miniature Haliphat which was used by the Smithsonian to convey the message that the future of Palmyra’s cultural heritage is in all of our hands. (Freer Gallery of Art / Smithsonian Institution)

The miniature Haliphat which was used by the Smithsonian to convey the message that the future of Palmyra’s cultural heritage is in all of our hands. (Freer Gallery of Art / Smithsonian Institution)

The Future of Palmyra is in Our Hands

In 2014, ISIS militant fundamentalists looted historic monuments and museums throughout Iraq and Syria, in their attempt to wipe out pre-Islamic history, as well as looting in order to sell valuable artifacts and generate funds. They burnt books in libraries, destroyed statues, and even blew up archaeological remains at Palmyra. In response, the Freer Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art, decided to put the bust on display in 2015 for the first time since 2006, along with engravings and photographs of Palmyra from the 18 th and 19 th centuries.

In order to “heighten awareness of the devastating loss of cultural heritage” caused by ISIS, the Smithsonian decided to scan Haliphat and create a life-sized 3D copy. They then led talks at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Switzerland, where they distributed miniatures of Haliphat’s funerary bust. The message they wanted to share with the world was that “the future of Palmyra’s cultural heritage, and indeed the world’s history and art, is in all of our hands.”

The preservation of the cultural artifacts at Palmyra has long preoccupied scholars. According to Kropp and Raja, in 2012 a group of scholars came together to develop a database recording as far as possible every funerary portrait of Palmyra found outside of Syria. A staggering 3,000 of them can be found scattered around the world. Palmyra Portraiture Project (known as PPP) is the name of their ongoing database, which they hoped would be accessible to the public by 2015. The war in Syria pushed back the deadline, but in 2021 Julia Steding wrote about the ongoing work of the Palmyra Portrait Project.

The quest to rescue the remains of Palmyra from oblivion continues. Maura Heyn, a professor at the University of North Carolina, has developed a database of gestures, hand shapes and identity in Palmyra portraiture art. Meanwhile, Julia Weingarten, a scholar who blogs about her archaeological work at various ancient sites including Palmyra, published an article in 2010 which does a detailed job of describing hand shapes.

View of the entire funerary relief bust of Haliphat. (Freer Gallery of Art / Smithsonian Institution)

View of the entire funerary relief bust of Haliphat. (Freer Gallery of Art/Smithsonian Institution)

My Incredible Journey to Understanding Haliphat

I find this particular journey incredible. It is almost as though I had been preparing throughout my life for my encounter with the funerary relief bust of Haliphat. Beforehand, I knew very little about Palmyra in Syria. I was born in the Southern Bible Belt, I took linguistic course on American Sign Language and the English language, majored with a BA in History, took courses in Art History, History of Art History, Museum Studies, Arab Studies, Comparative Religion courses and Textile. Last but not least, I used to work in the Smithsonian Museum.

On that particular “twilight” day over 30 years ago, the simple decision to take the stairs rather than the elevator, led to my fateful encounter with Haliphat which led me down a 30-year rabbit hole in search for information on the messages contained in her lifelike handshapes. I feel an indescribable relation to the naturalness of her handshapes and envision Haliphat as a governess teaching deaf children, a sign language interpreter, or quite possibly someone with a deaf family member who she wanted to communicate with. No one knows for certain.

Top image: The journey to understand the handshapes in the Haliphat funerary relief bust from Palmyra. Source: Freer Gallery of Art / Smithsonian Institution

By Patricia Raswant


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Patricia Raswant's picture


Patricia Raswant earned a BA in history from Gallaudet University. In 1995, she completed the consortium course, the Arab Studies, at George Mason University. The Arab studies course was the very first time she came across a respectful book, The... Read More

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