Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


By the second century A.D., the oasis empire of Tadmor, Syria (Roman Palmyra) had eclipsed Nabataean Petra to the south in Jordan as the premier trading conduit for the exotic goods of Asia, India, and China as they found their way by caravan and ship to the hungry markets of the West and Rome. Palmyra functioned as the only viable source of water, salt, and pasture for all large trading expeditions as they ventured across the Northern Syrian Desert to the Mediterranean ports of Antioch, Tyre, Sidon, and Aleppo. Sensuous silk was among the most prized of the exotic goods these brave entrepreneurs transported along the dangerous routes from the East to the ports of the Levant.

The exact date at which silk first appeared in the caravans heading west from China, India, and Persia is open for debate. One thing however is certain. If silk crossed the northern deserts of Greater Syria, it was forced by geography and climate to pass through the ancient emporium of Tadmor, renamed “Palmyra” by the time of Roman annexation.

The extant physical evidence for silk at Palmyra dates primarily from remnants discovered and utilized as funerary offerings and mummy wrappings for the bodies of the wealthy citizens interred in Palmyrene tower tombs. These types of tombs date from the first century B.C. to the second century A.D. (See Figure 1). They contrast architecturally from the later underground hypogea and temple tombs that developed under Roman influences from the second century A.D. until the destruction of Palmyra by the Emperor Aurelian in A.D. 242/243. 2 These time periods, however, represent a unique era in world history when the stability of the caravan routes was improved in the West by the rising political power of Rome and its client provinces in the Near East, while in China, the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) brought political unity and improved security to many regions in the East. Additionally, the kingdom of Gandhara controlled many of the routes of Central Asia in Afghanistan and parts of India. These political events conjoined to bring more Asian silk through Palmyra on its way to destinations in the markets of the Mediterranean Basin, but silk was especially sought after in the streets of imperial Rome.

While the impact of silk on Rome itself has often been a focus of previous studies, there are many questions that remain unanswered concerning the effects of the silk trade on the indigenous textile industries of the eastern caravan emporiums themselves and specifically upon the famous desert kingdom of Palmyra. Did the silk trade influence the adaptation or adoption of Oriental textile patterns and processes within indigenous Syrian workshops? How deep was that penetration? Did the silk trade impact economic incentives related to the production of local Syrian textiles such as those of the ancient and long established industries of wool and linen production? Since women produced many textiles, how did the silk trade affect their status and the nature of their indigenous craft industries?

Palmyra provides us a unique opportunity to explore some of these questions. The wealthy entrepreneurs of Palmyra used their vast caravan wealth to create lavish tombs that acted as perceived conduits of resurrection to the next life. For the individual Palmyrene, social status revolved around not only clan and tribal affiliation but also religious membership in the major pagan cults of the city and the ability to provide one’s family with a lavish house of residence for the eternities. As previously mentioned, Oriental silks were utilized especially in Palmyrene funerary contexts where they were cut into long strips with which to wrap individual mummies. These bodies had been chemically treated with bitumen and spices to preserve the flesh and the outward appearance of the deceased for as long as possible. While the chemical composition of the Palmyrene mummification process differed from that of the Egyptian, many Palmyrene mummies remain viable in their preserved state today. Additionally, the Palmyrenes created beautiful funerary portraits with accompanying genealogies to honor their deceased ancestors and speed their way to immortality (Figure 2). In the Palmyrene cosmos these portraits were essential to the resurrection ceremonies of many cults of the city and associated with the eternal status of the soul. Most importantly, these portraits today represent the only extensive surviving collection of community funerary portraiture with accompanying inscriptional genealogies extant from a tribally based urban context in the ancient classical Near East. Significantly, the women’s portraits in Palmyrene tombs are the more lavishly attired, far surpassing their male counterparts.