In the 1800’s, an Italian scholar amassed quite an impressive collection of antiquities, not only from Rome but from other ancient civilizations farther east. He probably never imagined in a million years that in a century to come, extremists would destroy many of the artifacts he didn’t manage to bring to Rome–and brutally murder at least one eminent archaeologist who vainly tried to protect and preserve them.
These carvings are from the ancient city of Palmyra, which today is located in Syria. Founded thousands of years ago and located along important international trade routes, Palmyra developed its own sophisticated culture–assimilating many features from Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Romans and other national/ethnic groups whose traders routinely passed through its borders. In the first century A.D., Palmyra came under the control of the Roman Empire… but in the 200’s it rebelled and asserted its independence once again, under the leadership of the legendary Queen Zenobia. It was more or less during her reign that these reliefs were carved and placed on the tombs of prominent Palmyrenes.
For generations, the ruins of ancient Palmyra have been cared for by local archaeologists, and studied by scholars from around the world. But sadly, we all know what’s been happening in Syria in recent years: not only have violent extremists seized control of various parts of the country, but they have also damaged and even destroyed countless historical treasures, which they deemed “heretical” and “idolatrous.”
A famous Syrian archaeologist named Khalid al-Asaad appears to have hidden many ancient statues and other antiquities somewhere in Palmyra, to keep them out of the hands of these madmen. The extremists tried to force him to reveal where they were hidden, and ended by publicly beheading him, then hanging his body from a traffic-light for everyone in Palmyra to see. You can read more about al-Asaad’s courageous stand and his tragic fate here.
This makes the carvings from Palmyra that are here in Rome all the more significant. If our Italian collector hadn’t taken them away from the region two centuries ago, they may have been destroyed too! And the curators of this small museum in Rome are not unaware of al-Asaad’s heroic attempt to save his national heritage. This part of the museum has been dedicated to his memory.