Sometimes you come across a beautifully illustrated, well-written, and very interesting article, that I cannot get my eyes off. This article is about the extraordinary beautiful jewelry of the women in Palmyra/Syria, quite a few years back in time. I spend some time in gorgeous Palmyra in the nineties and walking through the ruins and temples you can imagine how life was in the Roman time there. Knowing that a lot is destroyed by ISIS, I wanted to show you how it was in better times in Syria. Mariah Morales wrote this article for her thesis and she allowed me to copy it for this blog post.
Adornment and Identity in Palmyra
The identity of Palmyra as a city was quite unique compared to other cities nestled in the Fertile Crescent. The caravan city of Palmyra had a near-perfect Goldie Locks Zone of a geological niche. This intriguing city was located in the middle of the Syrian Desert and near enough to the Euphrates River to foster its growth into becoming one of these regions’ biggest and most influential trading cities.
The Palmyrenes’ trade industry grew regionally and internationally due to Rome’s patronage and protection. The Roman Empire seized control over Palmyra in order to use the city as a tactical shield against the strong Parthian Empire located to the East. The map below illustrates Palmyras position between the Roman empire and the Parthian empire, and also Palmyra’s pivotal connection to the Silk Road.
Palmyra and her jewelry and fashion
The Roman Empires’ presence in Palmyra did not deter the flow of trade coming from the strong adversarial Empire of Parthia. Many factors transformed this little caravan city into a very diverse yet at the same time a city populated by a people that expressed no reservations or conservations in the art of self-expression through their use of jewelry, and adornments.
Palmyra was unique in the way that it adopted and altered certain different aspects of the cultures that it came into contact with. Certain fashions were also taken back to the city of Palmyra. The fashions that were mostly adopted by the Palmyrenes were from Greece, Persia, and Parthia. The Palmyrenes could have wanted to show their identity through their choice in popular fashion and flaunt to other cities their far-reaching trade relations. These savvy fashion statements are depicted in the figures above.
Learning about Palmyra using funerary reliefs
Unfortunately, the passage of time and unscrupulous factors has made learning about these uniquely fashion-conscious ancients quite difficult. However, the time has not been completely cruel and has allowed some of Palmyra’s funerary reliefs to survive to provide the world with a minute glimpse into their past. These funerary sculptures allow people of today to see the fashion differences that existed between Palmyra and the other surrounding ancient civilizations.
There are many factors behind the lack of Palmyrene jewelry surviving the journey through time. The trading groups drifting in other profitable directions taking with them their wealth may have led to the final collapse of the caravan trade. The city then lay empty and unprotected from grave robbers and illegal art dealers. The tombs were left open and were used as temporary shelters for Bedouin tribes so many burial goods were taken or ruined by outside elements. Just recently ISIS has destroyed many monuments and other artifacts in this region to accomplish its objectives.
Jewelry in time
The jewelry of Palmyra can be seen in three different phases, however, some styles tend to come back or mix with another phase. In the first phase, around A.D. 150, jewelry was very minimal (Mackay 1949, 162-63). The common pieces that were depicted were a tiara, fibula, earrings and finger rings. The fibula acted as a brooch, and it fastened the fold of the cloak in the front of the left shoulder.
The fibula could be simple in decoration depending on the choice of the woman. The fibula is made up of two parts. The head of the fibula could either be flowers or an animal’s head. The second part of the fibula was usually trapezoidal in shape and could have loops at the end to hold other crafted pendants the wearer would display to show a bit of their own individuality. The figures above are the first-period expressions of style.
Influence by trade
The trade coming from all different countries heavily influenced the second period of jewelry for the Palmyrene women around 150-200C.E. The trade from India and China increased with the growing demand in the Roman Empire for luxurious goods. Some women from this time period held on to the traditions of past styles of jewelry. Those women that seized this new influx of wealth and exchange in goods began wearing new adornments such as bracelets and crotalia.
Bracelets could be fastened by a hinged clasp at the other end, or by elaborate twists in wire. Gold was the main precious metal used for jewelry but silver jewelry began growing in popularity during the second period. Silver necklaces at various lengths called baaltayā, which was taken from the Indian fashion called yakšis. The crotalia earrings consist essentially of a crossbar soldered to an S-shaped hook, two or three small pear-ended pendants attached by little rings to the crossbar. The jewelry above is a few of the meager remaining examples left from the second phase.
The third period began in A.D. 210, and this phase consisted of multiple necklaces being worn at different lengths to show off each one. The first necklace was worn close to the throat and it was either made from pearls or small glass beads. The next necklace was a pendant type, and the kind most commonly seen on funerary reliefs during this time is an amulet to protect against the ‘evil eye’. The pendant was simple crescent-shaped; occasionally there is a ball between the horns of the crescent. The examples above illustrate the apex of Palmyrene’s expression of identity through their unique jewelry and adornment choices.
Expression of individuality is not shaped by succumbing to powerful influences however navigating deftly through a compressing political tug of war and surfing a sea of trade results in some of the most individual stylized adornments displayed by indomitable peoples such as the Palmyrenes.
Although the Palmyra jewelry is fantastic, I doubt whether a modern lady would wear these. Not only because all this jewelry belongs to the Museum, but also because the style and maybe the material is not ‘wanted’ anymore by modern women. Wearing jewelry is not only the emotion and memories of the person who gave us the jewelry, but we also want to look astonishing with it. Do you know what jewelry looks best on you? Do you know what jewelry accentuates your best features and maybe camouflages your minor ones?
FlorenceJewelshop published a brand new PDF with all the answers to the questions above, and much more. It is free of charge. Just let me know where I can send it to.
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