Distant Deities, Central Places

Conference Paper

Session 3: Comparative Angles
Friday 2023-04-07
13:30 | 18:00

The legendary gardens near Palmyra as sacred space

Eris Williams-Reed (Warwick University), 2023-04-07, Time: 14:10 - 14:50


To what extent does the term ‘extra-urban’ devalue sanctuaries that centre on and stem from the specific ecological features of their immediate environment? This paper will explore this question by focusing on the ‘sacred garden’ of Palmyra, a site located in modern-day Syria that flourished during the first three centuries AD. Epigraphic and sculptural evidence suggests that the garden was one of the most important sacred spaces in Palmyra: two of the city’s leading gods were worshipped in the garden and it was one of only four so-called ‘tribal sanctuaries’ where notable citizens were honoured with statues. The establishment of a ‘sacred garden’ in Palmyra is unsurprising, as the city itself was founded on an oasis with springs and trees, and it was supported by a vibrant agricultural hinterland. Yet, despite its importance, the garden remains largely absent in scholarly discussions of Palmyra’s religious and social history, with the term ‘extra-urban’ (and the connotations surrounding it) reinforcing the garden’s relegation to the physical and conceptual ‘fringes’ of the city. This paper will demonstrate the importance of recentring the sacred garden in our understanding of Palmyra and will make a case for foregrounding the human-environment relationship in our understanding of extra-urban sanctuaries.


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