A Testament to Love: Palmyra in the North of England

Limestone bust of woman.
Funerary relief bust; Syria, 231 CE; Limestone; Freer Gallery of Art; F1908.236

It’s frequent we hear of yet more monuments in Palmyra being destroyed. It’s daily that we hear of the plight of migrants from Syria seeking a new life in Europe.

Our sculpture of Haliphat, a Palmyrene lady who died in 231 CE, gives us a glimpse of one side of that cosmopolitan and wealthy caravan city. Our copy of Robert Wood’s The Ruins of Palmyra (1753) reminds us of the impact that images of Palmyra had on Europe and this country in the eighteenth century: The book’s depiction of an eagle sculpted on a temple in Palmyra was the model for the eagle on the seal of the United States. And you need go no further than the north entrance of the Freer Gallery to see the imprint of Palmyrene architecture: Look up and you will see a coffered ceiling inspired by the ceilings of Palmyra.

I have been moved to discover an object that brings together the topics of migration and Palmyra. It is a tombstone, dating from the second or third century CE, that was found in the Roman fort of Arbeia, a few miles from Newcastle-on-Tyne, in the north of England. It records the death of a lady called Regina.

Regina was originally from a major tribe in the south of the country, but she was enslaved—we don’t know how or when, but it’s easy to imagine she was a victim of fighting. Her master freed her, and they married. Regina died, though, at the age of thirty, and her husband lovingly had an effigy of her sculpted, seated full frontal under an arch.

The effigy’s style has echoes of sculpture from Palmyra. This is understandable, as her husband records his name as “Barates the Palmyrene.” The inscription below the seated Regina is bilingual—Latin, written in a formal style of capital letters, and Aramaic, written in a cursive Palmyrene style. According to one reading, Barates ended the Aramaic inscription with the poignant exclamation, “Alas!”

We know from his own tombstone, found nearby at Corbridge, that Barates made standards for the Roman legions. How and why he moved from the desert oasis of Palmyra to the windy climes of the North Sea, we may never know. Regina’s tombstone, however, reminds us that affection can bridge the gap between cultures and triumph over the traumas of war and dislocation.

Our Palmyra installation remains on view through December 14, 2015.

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