Magazine article The New Yorker

Homage to Zenobia

Magazine article The New Yorker

Homage to Zenobia

Article excerpt


The battle in May over the Syrian town of Palmyra was notable for being ISIS's first major military victory against the forces of the Assad government. The Army fled, leaving the jihadis in control of sizable gas reserves, the brutal prison where thousands of Islamists and political dissidents had formerly been held (which ISIS blew up), and the ruins of a fabled dominion that was once ruled by a queen named Zenobia, who dared to threaten the power of imperial Rome. Zenobia's empire reached across Egypt and through much of modern-day Turkey. Her city's remains are now in the hands of a force that wages war on civilization, both modern and ancient.

"Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex," Gibbon wrote in an awestruck account of her brief reign. "She claimed her descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt, equaled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity and valor." The only contemporary representation we have of Zenobia is on a coin, which makes her look rather witchlike, but Gibbon's description of her pearly-white teeth and large black eyes, which "sparkled with uncommon fire," cast a spell over future historians, both in the West and in the Arab world, who quarrel over nearly everything having to do with Zenobia and her confounding legacy.

She was probably in her twenties when she took the throne, upon the death of her husband, King Odenathus, in 267 or 268. Acting as regent for her young son, she then led the army in a revolt against the Romans, conquering Egypt and parts of Asia Minor. By 271, she had gained control of a third of the Roman Empire. In the absence of reliable histories, legends of her rule tend to reflect the prejudices of the authors. Gibbon sometimes portrays the warrior queen as a kind of well-schooled Roman society matron. "She was not ignorant of the Latin tongue," he writes, "but possessed in equal perfection the Greek, the Syriac, and the Egyptian languages." Palmyra's abundant wall inscriptions are in Latin, Greek, and an Aramaic dialect, not Arabic. But to Arab historians, such as the ninth-century al-Tabari, Zenobia was a tribal queen of Arab, rather than Greek, descent, whose original name was Zaynab, or al-Zabba. Among Muslims, she is seen as a herald of the Islamic conquests that came four centuries later.

This view, popular within the current Syrian regime, which boasts Zenobia on its currency, also resonates within radical Islamic circles. Glen Bowersock, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, says, "I suspect ISIS believes Palmyra to be somehow a distinctively Arab place, where Zenobia stood up to the Roman emperor." Indeed, ISIS fighters, after seizing Palmyra, released a video showing the temples and colonnades at the ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site, intact. "Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it," an ISIS commander, Abu Laith al-Saudi, told a Syrian radio station. "What we will do is pulverize the statues the miscreants used to pray to." Fighters then set about sledgehammering statues and shrines.

Zenobia's nemesis was the Roman emperor Aurelian, who led his legions through Asia Minor, reclaiming parts of the empire she had taken. Near Antioch, she met him with an army of seventy thousand men, but the Roman forces chased them back to their desert stronghold. …

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