The Ruins of Palmyra Still Speak

17 oktober 2012 Harold Cook Nederlandse geschiedenis en cultuur

A large color photograph of four tall, thin, ancient stone columns, standing in the midst of a desert and glowing in the orange evening sunlight, caught my eye. It filled half a page in the NRC Weekend edition on 23 September (in the section on ‘Wetenschap’).

It filled half a page in the NRC Weekend edition on 23 September (in the section on ‘Wetenschap’). The fascinating story beneath the picture was on recent archaeological finds about the ancient city of Palmyra, once a very important place on the caravan route between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. In ancient times called Tadmor, the Bible reports that it had been established by King Solomon. Recently, archaeologists have discovered a series of ancient underground cisterns that once allowed a large population to live there. Sadly, even as a ruin it is now caught up in the fighting within Syria.

Ruins of Palmyra, from Cornelis de Bruyn's Reizen [...] door de vermaardste deelen van Klein Asia, 1698

Ruins of Palmyra, from Cornelis de Bruyn's Reizen [...] door de vermaardste deelen van Klein Asia, 1698

But I just seen another, older illustration of Palmyra, with the same columns standing upright! It was a painting by Hofsted van Essen, now in the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam when not being exhibited elsewhere in the world. The painting used to overlook the meeting room used by the UvA for doctoral promoties, so the ruins of Palmyra must have been at the back of the minds of generations of graduates. It came to Amsterdam via the legacy of Gisbert Cuper, a burgermeester of Deventer and representative of Overijssel to the States General and an authority on antiquities. The Dutch consul in the important trading city of Aleppo, Coenraad Calckberner, knew of Cuper’s interests, so following an expedition to Palmyra in 1691, he sent him Van Essen’s painting, some ancient coins, and a copy of a report on inscriptions found among the ruins. A photograph of the painting appeared in an account of Cuper written by Bianca Chen, which was published in a collection of papers on Double Agents (published by Brill in 2011). I had been reading it not long before I picked up the paper.

Sometimes the juxtapositions between fragments from distant places and distant times imply connections. It was undoubtedly a simple coincidence. But I will long remember the way in which Palmyra announced itself, with its echoes of charismatic power and fabulous trade, hidden sources of water, and images of broken buildings. Let us hope that their columns remain standing. Cuper’s heirs may want to see it for themselves one day.