Friday 31 May 2013

The Other Ruler of Syria

Bring Back Hellenised Syrian Multiculturalism!

As this week the world watched  Bashar al-Assad dig his country into an ever deeper hole, I found myself celebrating a more appealing ruler of Syria on BBC Radio 4’s academic chat-show In Our Time. But we ran out of time, so please excuse me if I add the two points I really wanted to make.

Zenobia, who led the attempt of Syria to get the eastern part of the Roman Empire to break away between 267 and 272 AD, was a model of intercultural tolerance. She was herself probably of mixed Arab and Macedonian ancestry, but her city worshipped hybrid gods from west and east and at her court she welcomed thinkers from every intellectual tradition. 
More appealing than Al-Assad?
She protected Paul of Samosata, a working-class boy who had grown up to be an independent-minded Christian bishop (he heretically thought Jesus was mortal). She learned rhetoric from Cassius Longinus of Emesa (Homs), a brilliant Platonist, lover of liberty, and possibly the Jewish author of the dissertation On the Sublime still fundamental to literary criticism. She certainly helped some other Jews get asylum.

In European art and literature, Zenobia has predictably been reduced to an erotic figure over whose affections Persian and Roman male rulers struggled. The fact that one ancient source said she was led in chains through the streets of Rome by the Emperor Aurelian got the neoclassical and Victorian imagination over-heated. But to many Arabs, especially women, she is a heroine—a pre-Islamic role model who rode camels, read philosophy and ran an empire as well as being a good mother.  There is a charming Lebanese musical about Zenobia on youtube.

Mustafa Tlass
I am a bit disconcerted to find that my admiration for Zenobia is even shared by the Syrian former Defence Minister and deputy Prime Minister, General Mustafa Tlass, a tycoon who wrote a biography about her as national heroine in 2000. That was before al-Assad booted him out and he went to live in Paris. Who says ancient history doesn’t meet the modern world?

Speaking of which, the Researcher on the project Classics and Class has persuaded me to take Twitter seriously. I have always believed I was temperamentally unsuited to it. I like using longer prose periods than fit into a tweeting box and often get tired and emotional. I have actually had a twitter account under the name of an obscure avatar for some time, but couldn’t even work it. So just to prove I’m no Luddite, even though I am now tempted to call myself @ZenobiaAugusta, I’m about to start tweeting more sedately as @edithmayhall  as soon as I can locate this thing my family tell me is called an app.


  1. I'm embarrassed to say I'd never heard of her, despite speaking Arabic. And, sadly, it turns out her write-up on Arabic Wikipedia is about a quarter the length of that in English. (Hardly a scientific barometer, I know, but a test I've been inclined to apply to subjects overlapping both Western Classicism and the modern Arab World since sitting an Arabic reading comprehension test in which the sample text was, by chance, the Wikipedia entry on Babylon - a miserable two paragraphs, though it's since grown slightly.) In the introduction to Zenoba's Arabic-language page, she also shares the billing somewhat with her husband:

    "Zenoba or [al-Zaba?] (240 - circa 274) was a Palmyran queen, she led with her husband [Udhayna] a revolt against the Roman Empire, succeeding [dual, so presumably 'Zenoba and her husband succeeding'] in the course of it taking contol of most of Syria. After the death of her husband she led the Palmyran Empire to the brief conquest of Egypt before the Emperor Aurelien took her captive, to Rome, where she soon died of mysterious reason."

    Perhaps I shall have to read some of the scholarly treatments to see how folkloric her treatment is in Arabic compared to English (or vice versa, though I suspect the former).

  2. Thanks, Matt. I wish I could read Arabic to do some investigating of her in Syrian sources today...

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