Ancient Palmyra has gripped public imagination since its picturesque ruins were “rediscovered” in the seventeenth century by western travellers. The most legendary story of ancient Palmyra is that of Queen Zenobia ruling over a thriving city in the Syrian Desert who dared to challenge the Roman Empire but ultimately got defeated. Her kingdom was subjugated, and the city was reduced to a small settlement without any wide-ranging importance. This has only recently been overshadowed by the catastrophic events of the Syrian Civil War that saw the archaeological site and the museum plundered and many monuments destroyed.
Now, scientists from Aarhus University and the University of Bergen are questioning the historical narrative about the final blow given to the city solely by the Roman invasion in 272/273 CE.
Dr Iza Romanowska, one of the authors behind the new study.
The interdisciplinary research team reconstructed the hinterland of ancient Palmyra – the area around the city that could provide it with basic foodstuff – and used modern land-use models developed for dry and semi-dry environments to estimate the maximum productivity of the land. They then ran the model against existing climate records to determine how much food could be produced at different points in Palmyra’s history and with what reliability. In order to do this, archaeologists, ancient historians and complexity scientists joined forces to unleash the knowledge locked in the otherwise impenetrable data. The results showed that a long-term climatic shift towards drier and hotter climate caused a gradual decrease in agricultural yields, reaching levels barely sufficient to feed the budding population of Palmyra around the middle of the third century.
Co-author Professor Rubina Raja, Aarhus University’s chair of classical archaeology and director of the DNRF-funded Centre of Excellence for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet) heads the Carlsberg Foundation-funded project “Circular Economy and Urban Sustainability in Antiquity” from which the study stems.
The study sets up a research pipeline, including computer scripts and detailed instructions, that will enable other researchers to analyse other ancient cities and determine how often and under what circumstances food security played a key role in shaping historical trajectories of past peoples.
“This kind of study showcases that many challenges which our societies face today had equivalents in the past. Contrary to the often-repeated trope that humans never learn from history, we can and we should learn lessons from the past,” says professor in Global History at the University of Bergen and one of the study’s authors, Eivind Heldaas Seland. (KA/Newswise)