Gazing pensively into the distance, the subject of this relief is identified as “Haliphat, daughter of Ogalta, son of Harimai.” Dressed in her fineries, the elegant, bejeweled figure has gently raised two fingers to her cheek, a gesture that may suggest her modesty and virtue. According to the Aramaic inscription behind Haliphat, she died in 231 CE, when Palmyra, “city of palms,” was part of the eastern regions of the Roman Empire.
An ample water supply allowed Romans to transform Palmyra from a modest caravan oasis to a bustling trading center that linked the Mediterranean world to ancient Iran and South Asia. As Palmyra prospered, its inhabitants used their wealth to construct impressive colonnades, temples, an agora, and a theater. Many of these majestic structures still stand today and bear witness to a rich and vibrant culture that flourished in the Syrian desert almost two thousand years ago.
The affluent residents of Palmyra also built elaborate tombs outside the city walls. Some 150 tower tombs, underground tombs, and house or temple tombs are known. Emulating Roman practices, the openings to tombs were adorned with funerary portraits, similar to the one of Haliphat. These reliefs also incorporated Eastern features, such as Aramaic inscriptions and hand gestures that seem particular to sculptures from Palmyra.
The oasis of Palmyra offers an invaluable glimpse into the world of its former residents who, individually and collectively, contributed to a remarkable legacy, one that was built on an already rich past and continued to inspire subsequent generations. In the face of current tragic upheavals in Syria and Iraq, every brick, arch, and carved relief plays a greater historical and cultural role than it has in the past. Much like this relief of Haliphat, each stone marks the identity of a people, both individually and collectively, and serves as a reminder of who they are.