Family portraits

Palmyrene people in their homes for eternity

Palmyra’s funerary portraits are perhaps its most famous relics and numerous specimens can be admired in museums throughout the world.

Once within their family tombs – their “home for eternity” – the people of Palmyra were in the company of all their ancestors: the greater their number, the more complex their relations, both inside and outside the family; the older their lineage, the more powerful was the family.

Female portrait from Palmyra (© Comune di Milano – Civico Museo Archeologico)

History and archaeology cannot reveal these individuals’ feelings, but we can certainly imagine the pride which belonging to a great family bestowed upon them, and the consolation and awareness as they departed this world of being part of a collective memory that was destined to last “in eternity”.

A feast for the family head 

The founder of the tomb is shown reclining at a feast. He is clad in sumptuous oriental robes featuring a long-sleeved tunic, soft pants narrowed at the ankle (anassiridi), short leather boots and a richly decorated cloak. On his shaven head he wears a cylindrical hat crowned with flowers – in all probability fashioned from precious metal.

He dominates the scene, being closest to the observer and larger than the other figures. His wife and children are smaller not only because of the perspective, but for hierarchical reasons.

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Funerary relief of the Taibol family (© National Museum of Damascus)

The priests

Some of the male portraits distinguish themselves clearly: they depict men with shaven heads and no beards wearing tall cylindrical hats (sometimes crowned), a tunic and short mantle secured at the shoulder by a round clasp.

Portrait of a priest from the hypogeum of Barikai (© Museum of Palmyra)

These are priests which was a ‘profession’ practiced by members of Palmyra’s great families. They are preparing an offering to the deity as witnessed by the vessels they hold in their hands: an alabastron (a small, elongated vessel for oils, often made of alabaster) and a cup containing incense grains.

The lords of Palmyra

In funeral portraits, women are depicted wearing eastern robes: a tunic and wide mantle, and the majority bear a turban and veil.

A conspicuous development of female costumes took place between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD characterised by a progressive and spectacular increase of the jewellery worn.

Jewels served not only an ornamental purpose, but they also denote the wealth and power of the family. The recurrence of certain connotations and decorations amongst the women of the same family may also constitute a distinct sign of belonging.

Whilst scholars are still hotly debating to what extent these portraits had concrete connotations or whether their value was purely symbolic and spiritual, the gazes of the Palmyrene people remain profoundly arresting. It is on their serene faces that the signs of violence wreaked by a new generation of iconoclasts are now visible.

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