The busts of Palmyra – social media over 2000 years ago?

Youssef Kanjou

The city of Palmyra in what is now Syria was famous for a cultural blending of East and West throughout its long history. This is evident in the architecture and in the different religions. Perhaps most important is the tradition of burial rituals in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (about 200 B.C. to 300 A.D.).

Even before death, a statue was created for each person by skilled sculptors. The statue is limited to the upper half of the person and should be similar to the person as much as possible. This bust should correspond to the natural size of the person and show the traditional style of clothing, ornaments and jewelry for both women and men. As a rule, artists try to portray the persons more beautiful than they really are. The headgear of the three-dimensional statue often indicates the profession of the owner. There are also different methods of hair styling with curling and braiding methods for both men and women. These statues are placed in front of the grave and show the name and age of the deceased owner as an inscription.

Traditionelle Darstellung eines Palmyra-„Leichenschmaus“: Der Verstorbene speist inmitten seiner hinterbliebenen Verwandten. Foto: tünews INTERNATIONAL / Youssef Kanjou.

The intention in Palmyra was to create a realistic portrait with the busts. The sculpture workshops, which were widespread in the Roman era, played the same role as photographers today. Compared to today, this is similar to a passport photo or a profile picture on social media. Did the Palmyrians anticipate the advent of social media? Or were the statues works of art meant to portray people accurately and at the same time beautified—as a result of social competition in society? The Palmyrians assumed that a person’s identity lies in their face, so they just made a bust of them.

To confirm this hypothesis, a team of Japanese scientists conducted a study on the correspondence of the statue with the deceased person by reconstructing the face quite realistically on the basis of the preserved skull and comparing it with the statue. Data from museums around the world were also used for this purpose.

There were also widespread family tombs, especially among the upper classes. Dozens, if not hundreds, of graves were preserved and used for several generations. Sometimes the grave could be sold by one family to another. Most tombs also contained sculptures of “funeral meals”, depicting the deceased father with surviving family members while lying on a bed and eating the funeral feast.

There are more than 3000 statues in many international museums, whether in Britain, Denmark, France or Japan. They are like ambassadors of Palmyra-Syrian civilization. Today, due to the war in Syria, Palmyrians are spread all over the world—and these statues can give the feeling that Palmyrians are not alone. Perhaps this is one of the positive aspects of the presence in international museums of Palmyra statues that came illegally from Syria. Will they one day return to Syria together with the refugees? Additional Information:


Das Foto zeigt von links eine russische Rekonstruktion, die originale Büste aus Palmyra, die japanische Rekonstruktion und dann den originalen Schädel und den durch Rekonstruktion ergänzten Schädel. Foto: tünews INTERNATIONAL / Youssef Kanjou.

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