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Palmyra: 2000 BC - AD 634

As an oasis in the desert between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, Palmyra is a place of importance from early times. But its prosperity increases greatly when spreading empires encourage greater use of the trade routes.

Greek control of the entire Middle East, after the conquering expedition of Alexander the Great, provides secure caravan routes between Mesopotamia and Anatolia from the 3rd century BC. Stability in the 1st century BC, in the Roman, Persian and Chinese empires, makes possible the Silk Road.

From the 1st century AD Palmyra is effectively within the Roman empire, but in the 3rd century a local Arab dynasty becomes increasingly independent. The most famous ruler of this dynasty is a queen, Zenobia. She extends her power so effectively (conquering Egypt and much of Anatolia) that the emperor Aurelian eventually marches against her. He captures Palmyra in 272 and takes Zenobia back to Rome, to be displayed in his triumph.

The impressive ruins of Palmyra, with ceremonial avenues, senate house and theatre, are those of a rich Greco-Roman town. More unusual are the numerous inscriptions providing valuable evidence about the commercial life of this trading oasis.

The inscriptions in the market place at Palmyra reveal that the caravans are financed by rich merchants, whose statues also grace the scene. Palmyran troops police the surrounding desert. In each important town on the trade route there are settlements of Palmyrans to check the goods through. Ships from India unload spices, jewels and fabrics at the mouth of the Tigris, now in the Parthian empire, to be brought on camels to Palmyra and beyond. Silks arrive, again through Parthia, on caravans from the east.

The Romans levy a large tax, probably about 25%, on all goods crossing the frontier from Parthia. But the value added on the journey is sufficient to leave plenty of profit for the local merchants.

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