Zenobia in Damascus: The Role of Classical Archaeology in Syrian Politics

ANEE publishes a series of blog posts on decolonization of the ancient Near East, produced in cooperation with Finnish Institute in the Middle East.

On 6 September 2015, in Damascus’ Umayyad Square, a flatbed truck offloaded a larger-than-life brass statue of Zenobia, the queen of the city of Palmyra who briefly led a revolt against Roman rule from 267 to 273 AD. Russian TV cameras recorded the arrival and unloading of the statue, part of a larger display which featured a mock royal carriage and several authentic Palmyrene reliefs. A promised statue of the archaeologist Khaled Al-Asa’ad, who had been executed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria the previous month, never appeared. The display, dubbed “From Palmyra to Damascus,” stood in the square for four days.  


This event may have seemed strange to those outside Syria, but within the country the symbolism of merging of Umayyad Square – home to the Ministry of Defense and other symbols of regime power and the scene of pro-Bashar al-Assad rallies in 2011 – with the ancient queen whom the ruling Ba’ath party had long promoted as a national heroine, was obvious. 

While Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez refrained from the kind of ancient artistic kitsch for which Saddam Hussein was famous, the Ba’ath government of Syria has used archaeology as a political tool throughout its rule. Studying how they did so reveals a dark side to post-colonial archaeology, in which archaeology becomes a weapon wielded by totalitarian regimes in support of nationalistic and irridentist policies. 

Syria’s unsuccessful union with Egypt from 1958-1961 left the country’s religious minorities wary of pan-Arabist political projects, which would inevitably empower the Sunni Muslim majority. After Hafez al-Assad took power in the so-called “Corrective Movement” in 1970, he relied on his own Alawite community for political support. Assad turned Syria away from pan-Arab nationalism and instead chose to align the Syrian Ba’ath Party with the theories of Lebanese political writer Antun Sa’adeh and his Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Sa’adeh himself had been executed in 1949 after a failed attempt to overthrow the government of Lebanon. Still, his party retained significant influence in Syria and counted influential people such as Assad’s brother-in-law Muhammad Makhlouf among its members.  

Sa’adeh believed that a shared language, religion, or history were unimportant to the formation of a national identity. He instead argued that national identity was rooted in geography alone. Syria’s natural borders, he argued, covered the entire ancient ‘fertile crescent’ from the Taurus Mountains to the Zagros and south to the Sinai and the Red Sea, encompassing all of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan, and the former British Mandate of Palestine. The geography and climate of this region created a common life experience, which in turn created a common national identity of ‘Greater Syria.’ Sa’adeh blamed foreign imperialists for preventing the emergence of Greater Syria, arguing that as early as the Roman and Parthian empires, foreign powers had divided Greater Syria among themselves and prevented the emergence of a unified identity. 

Sa’adeh’s secular Greater Syria ideology proved useful to Hafez al-Assad, who used the opportunity to unify the religiously divided country around a geographic ideal. Assad frequently cited the doctrine to justify Syria’s 28-year occupation of Lebanon. He declared in 1976 that the Golan Heights are “in the middle of Syria and not on its border,” and in 1981 began calling for the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy and the absorption of Jordan into Syria. 

The significant flaw in this theory was that, despite its allegedly natural borders and Sa’adeh’s seemingly deterministic relationship between geography and identity, a political entity with the borders of Greater Syria had rarely existed. There were only two periods when the region had been united under rulers based inside the borders of the modern Syrian state: the Umayyad caliphate from 651 to 744 AD, and the short-lived empire of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, who briefly united much of Greater Syria in revolt against Rome from 267 to 273 AD before being defeated by the emperor Aurelian.  

The Syrian government under Hafez al-Assad heavily promoted Zenobia and the story of her revolt against Rome. As a leader from pre-Islamic times, promoting her avoided the complex sectarian issues raised by embracing early Islamic history. When classical Arabic historians such as al-Tabari discussed Zenobia, they omitted any mention of Rome and presented her as a treacherous participant in a series of tribal blood feuds. Greco-Roman sources such as the Historia Augusta portrayed her as an exotic eastern queen whose revolt challenged the masculinity of Rome’s third-century emperors. This depiction could easily be flipped to portray her as an anti-colonial figure struggling against European domination. The classical Zenobia of the western imagination became a heroine for anti-colonial Arab nationalist and feminist authors in the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  

At the same time, Zenobia’s links to the Roman empire continued to interest western audiences. She was depicted in neoclassical art as an exotic yet familiar figure, with Palmyra linking western civilization with the east. In 1929, during the time of French colonial rule over Syria, the archaeologist Henri Seyrig began excavations at Palmyra. The excavators relocated the entire population of the town, which had been continuously inhabited since ancient times. The monumental ruins of Zenobia’s Palmyra which have been on display since then, were uncovered by removing most structures built on the site after 273 AD.

In Syria under the Assads, the government heavily promoted Zenobia as a national heroine. Her image adorned the Syrian 500-pound banknote, dramas depicting her life aired on government television, and Hafez al-Assad’s longtime defense minister Mustafa Tlass published a biography (later translated into French and English) which explicitly compared her struggle against Rome to Syria’s conflict with Israel. Zenobia became a symbol of Assad’s vision of Syria, presenting the modern nation-state as a continuation of its past while equating its modern enemies with the enemies of past ancient civilizations.  

Palmyra therefore became a symbolic target for those opposed to the Ba’ath Party and the Assads. Among Syrian Islamists, the modern city was also well known as the site of Tadmor Military Prison. At this notoriously brutal detention facility, on the 27th of June 1980, troops under the command of Hafez al-Assad’s brother Rifaat massacred over a thousand prisoners suspected of links to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of a failed assassination attempt against the president.  

After the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured Palmyra on 21 May 2015, they quickly demolished the prison and documented its destruction in a propaganda video. They would later destroy the temples of Bel and Baalshamin, as well as several tombs, the triumphal arch erected by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, the central tetrapylon and many artifacts on display in the Palmyra Museum.  

ISIS’s destruction of ancient sites has often been misunderstood as simple iconoclasm, but this fails to consider the full range of meanings that the group attached to the word shirk, often translated to mean “idolatry.” ISIS judged obedience to any ruling authority which commanded adherence to laws other than the group’s strict interpretation of Islamic law to be a form of worship and therefore idolatry. The group’s leaders frequently denounced alternative political ideologies such as Ba’athism or democracy and loyalty to secular nation-states as shirk. The group’s propaganda magazine Dabiq denounced the display of archaeological artifacts, saying that such displays promote a “nationalist agenda that severely dilutes the walā’ [loyalty] that is required of the Muslims towards their Lord” and that the display of artifacts as part of the cultural heritage of a nation-state turned them into idols. 

By destroying ancient artifacts, ISIS saw themselves as destroying symbols of the Syrian nation-state – symbols promoted and maintained by the Ba’athist government. Conversely, Palmyra became a potent symbol for Bashar al-Assad’s government as he sought to retain power and eventually re-establish international legitimacy. The Assad government used the fall of Palmyra as an opportunity to present itself as a defender not only of Syria’s cultural heritage but also of the entire world. Press releases from the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) shifted from warning about threats to the cultural heritage of the Syrian people to emphasizing the multicultural tolerance of ancient Palmyra. After recapturing Palmyra in 2016, Russian and Syrian classical musicians staged a televised concert in the theater to an audience of soldiers and foreign journalists. Russian and Syrian government media have run hundreds of stories emphasizing the destruction of cultural heritage by ISIS and Russian-aided efforts at reconstructing ancient sites.  

News stories also regularly commemorate the execution of Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asa’ad. Al-Asa’ad had been appointed as director of Palmyra’s museum shortly after the Ba’ath Party took power in 1963, a position at which he served until his retirement in 2003. He was arrested by ISIS and later beheaded on 18 August 2015. The standard story, which was promoted to western media by sources within DGAM, is that he was killed after refusing to divulge the location of hidden antiquities. But this martyrdom story has always been suspect, and his sons Waleed and Muhammad have contradicted it publicly. Nevertheless, the official account became the basis for the 2019 feature film Dam al-Nakhl (“Blood of the Palm Tree”), in which a spectral Zenobia appears at crucial points to guide or comfort Khaled al-Asa’ad’s character.  

The Syrian government continues to lean heavily on archaeology as a propaganda tool. This past October, Syrian government sources brought in many foreign journalists to view a large Roman mosaic uncovered in the town of al-Rustan depicting scenes from the Trojan War. The mosaic had been discovered by a Syrian rebel group in 2017, who attempted to sell it to fund their operations. The excavation which further exposed it was funded by the SSNP, which worked with the Syrian government to publicize the find in western media.  

Syria’s rich Greco-Roman history provides especially fertile ground for the Syrian government as it attempts to use archaeology to launder its international reputation. Western audiences perceive the Greco-Roman world to be part of the cultural heritage of the west, bolstering the Assad government’s claim to be at the forefront of defending the world’s heritage against barbarism. Yet that heritage was targeted for destruction in the first place due to its close historical association with the regime and its ideology. The Assad government’s recent claims to be a protector of universal heritage should be critically questioned in light of its history of using cultural heritage for political ends. 

Further Reading: 

Jones, Christopher W. “Understanding ISIS’s Destruction of Antiquities as a Rejection of Nationalism.” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 6, No. 1-2 (2018): 32-58. 

Mulder, Stephanie. “Imagining Localities of Antiquity in Islamic Societies.” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 6, no. 2 (2017): 229–54. 

Zisser, Eyal. “Who’s Afraid of Syrian Nationalism? National and State Identity in Syria.” Middle Eastern Studies 42, no. 2 (2006): 179–98. 

Winsbury, Rex. Zenobia of Palmyra: History, Myth and the Neo-Classical Imagination. London: Duckworth, 2010. 

Woltering, Robert A. F. L. “Zenobia or al-Zabbā': The Modern Arab Literary Reception of the Palmyran Protagonist.” Middle Eastern Literatures 17, no. 1 (2014): 25–42.