So long, Bel

In memoriam, Palmyra (6 April 32 – 28 August 2015)

Translation from the French version : «Bel est bien mort»

«But that temple, so magnificent and so large, not to mention the wonderful structure of the roof, and the many brass statues, now hid in darkness out of the light of the sun, is quite perished. »

Libanius, Oration 30: For the temples (Pro templis) (4th c. AD)

Fig. 1 : Le temple de Bel en 2007, depuis le sud-est (cliché Ifpo).

Fig. 1: The Temple of Bel in 2007, from the south-east (photo: Ifpo).

Since the monumental arch in Palmyra has, in its turn, just been reduced to dust, a new and dismaying stage in the systematic destruction of the remains of this ancient city, we would like to review the rich and complex history of one of the previous victims of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS), namely the Temple of Bel. Almost 2000 years old, the main sanctuary of the ancient city has recently gained posthumous notoriety, when IS destroyed it, with the use of much explosive, after most probably having stripped it of its transportable and saleable sculptures. It was the jewel of Palmyra’s monuments, and one of the best preserved ancient temples in the Near East (fig. 1). If the media gave this destruction wide coverage and insisted on the monument’s importance for ancient history, few highlighted the fact that, over the course of its twenty centuries of existence, it had known several lives. Originally a pagan temple, it was transformed into a church and, a few centuries later, changed into a mosque, a function it served for the next 800 years or more. It is an irony of history that it was the transformation of this monument according to the needs of the dominant cults that allowed it to cross the centuries and reach down to us in such good condition – that is until its utter destruction on the 28th August 2015.

Fig. 2 : Le temple de Bel à Palmyre, de Henri SEYRIG, Robert AMY et Ernest WILL. Monographie publiée par l’Ifpo (alors IFAPO) en 1968 (album) et 1975 (texte et planches), dans la Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique (BAH 83).

Fig. 2: Le temple de Bel à Palmyre, by Henri SEYRIG, Robert AMY and Ernest WILL. Monograph published by Ifpo (then IFAPO) in 1968 (album) and 1975 (text and plates), in the Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique series (BAH 83).

In the introduction to the monograph dedicated to the temple published by the Institut français d’archéologie du Proche-Orient (IFAPO), Ernest Will wrote: “The work of the unknown master who conceived the edifice and of the artisans and workers who gave it shape, has received recognition worthy of their efforts in this book of plates (…). It alone would suffice to guarantee the survival of the monument.” The director of IFAPO did not think his words would ring so true and the two volumes of Le temple de Bel à Palmyre (1968 and 1975, BAH 83) stand today as the best witness to the majesty of this edifice (Fig. 2).

The house of Bel, Yarhibol and Aglibol (1st–4th centuries AD)

During the first part of its history, the monument was dedicated to the divine triad of Palmyra: Bel, the supreme god, Yaribol, the sun god, and Aglibol, the moon god. Remains of this edifice dated to the first centuries AD, but an older sanctuary already used this place in the Hellenistic period. Excavations by the Syrian archaeologist Michel Al-Maqdissi on the man-made hill (tell) on which this sanctuary stood, show that this was probably already a sacred space as far back as the 2nd millennium BC.

Fig. 3 : Proposition de restitution du temple de Bel à Palmyre, vue perspective depuis l’angle sud-ouest de la cour (SEYRIG, AMY, WILL 1975, pl. 141).

Fig. 3: Suggested reconstruction of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, perspective view from the south-west corner of the courtyard (SEYRIG, AMY, WILL 1975, pl. 141).

Between 1929 and 1932, two archaeologists working for the Service des Antiquités de Syrie et du Liban, Henri Seyrig and Robert Amy, undertook a detailed study of this exceptional monument. An inscription discovered during their research places the date of the temple’s consecration – or perhaps simply of one if its cultic niches (thalamos) – to the 6th April 32 AD. It also became clear that the various elements of this architectural complex had been built and modified many times between the beginning of the 1st and the 3rd century. The Roman-era sanctuary consisted of a temple placed in the centre of an immense courtyard of four hectares, adorned with porticoes. Surrounded by a typically Greco-Roman peristyle, the temple’s core consisted of a cella whose design, by contrast, was clearly dictated by Semitic cultic practices. This hybrid temple, which combined Mediterranean architectural models from the Roman period with traits of more ancient local influence, was one of the most beautiful examples of the syncretism that can be seen in many Near Eastern monuments. By destroying its main building (Fig. 3) – the cella of the temple, in which the statues of the divinities would originally have been housed – IS has also caused the loss of numerous, often exceptional, decorated blocks (representations of gods, processions etc.), which taught us about life and religion in ancient Palmyra.

Saint-Mary-of-Palmyra? (6th-8th centuries)

Fig. 4 : Vestiges de la grande scène figurative chrétienne sur le mur intérieur ouest du temple de Bel (photo A. Schmidt-Colinet, in JASTRZEBOWSKA 2013, fig. 7).

Fig. 4: Remains from the large Christian figurative scene on the interior of the west wall of the Temple of Bel (photo A. Schmidt-Colinet, in JASTRZEBOWSKA 2013, fig. 7).

At the end of the 4th century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In the decades and centuries that followed, some pagan temples were destroyed while others were transformed into churches as a way of imposing the new religion and of reusing large, disused monuments in the towns and villages. Such was the case for the Temple of Bel, which went through a phase of Christian use between the 5th–6th century until the 8th century. Remains of coloured frescoes, probably dating to the 6th century, were still visible on the walls of the ancient temple, along with two crosses. The south lodge of the ancient cella seems to have been transformed into a choir. On the west , a figurative scene depicted five carefully painted people (Fig. 4). According to archaeologist E. Jastrzębowska, it represented the Mother of God holding the divine child on her knees, surrounded by an angel and two saints. One of the two saints could perhaps have represented Saint Sergius, a young martyr venerated in the area, particularly by the Arab tribes. There were inscriptions engraved on the ancient cella walls, including one in which a certain Lazarus “servant of God” greets the “Holy Mother of God, full of grace”. E. Jastrzębowska therefore suggests that the church had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

A mosque eight centuries old (12th–20th centuries)

For four hundred years, between the 8th and 12th centuries, the monument seems to have been abandoned. Then in 1132–1133, following the take-over of the town by the Muslim dynasty of the Burids, the enclosure wall of the ancient sanctuary was fortified, and its temenos, the ancient sacred enclosure, became a fortress. It is perhaps at this time that, inside and in the immediately surrounding area, a proper village began to develop. The central edifice, then still standing, sheltered a mosque within its walls (Fig. 5). It is thought that its installation here was the work of Abul Hasan Yusuf, son of Firuz, the representative in Palmyra of the princes of Damascus, who was also responsible for transforming the ancient sanctuary into a fortress. This mosque was rebuilt once or twice over the course of its long existence. Several Arabic inscriptions were discovered in the edifice, two of which, dated to the 12th and 13th centuries, indicate these restoration works. The ‘third life’ of the monument, during which it served the Muslim religion, lasted more than eight centuries. It ended only with the beginning of the archaeological excavations by the Service des Antiquités de Syrie et du Liban in 1932.

Fig. 5 : Coupe longitudinale sur le temple de Bel, mise en évidence des réoccupations médiévales dans les portiques et la cella (d’après WIEGANG 1932, p. 83).

Fig. 5: Longitudinal cross-section of the Temple of Bel, showing the medieval reoccupations in the porticoes and cella (after WIEGANG 1932, p. 83).

1930: the death of a village and the birth of a historic monument

The creation of the Service des Antiquités de Syrie et du Liban was a direct consequence of the establishment of the French Mandate in Syria in 1920. In order to begin archaeological excavations in the temple enclosure the Department decided, in 1929, to remove the inhabitants of the village, whose houses were crowded around the temple, and rehouse them in a modern village built to the north of the ancient city walls. The temple, which was already clearly visible, had previously been the object of a monographic study, beginning in 1902, the monumental work Palmyra. Ergebnisse der Expeditionen von 1902 und 1917 (Th. Wiegand, Berlin, 1932). The drawings and photographs presented in this work are, with a few photos from the collection of old photographs kept in Ifpo, the only evidence of the medieval structures in the sanctuary of Bel. The intention behind the destruction of the village in the temenos was to restore the monumentality of the original sanctuary and, for the same reason, the renovations of the temple when it was converted to a mosque were also dismantled.

In addition to the works of Wiegand, the publication by Henri Seyrig, Robert Amy and Ernest Will, today provides us with an exemplary and exhaustive graphic document despite the disappearance of the temple – this is but small consolation to render the current destructions a little less bitter. The temple was partly restored, in particular the entranceway, which was consolidated in 1932 (Fig. 6). Indeed, it is thanks to this restoration, and the use of reinforced concrete, that the entranceway has resisted destruction and now stands alone on the podium of the razed temple.

Finally, the opening-up of Syria to mass tourism and the inclusion of Palmyra on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1980 turned the Temple of Bel into a major tourist site, and archaeological work continued there until recently.

Fig. 6 : Restauration de la porte du temple en 1932. Vue d’ensemble du chantier depuis le nord-ouest (cliché Ifpo) et isométrie des parties hautes, avec mise en évidence des éléments en béton armé (ECOCHARD, Syria 18, 1937, fig. XXXV).

Fig. 6: Restoration of the temple entrance in 1932. View of the whole worksite from the north-west (photo by Ifpo) and isometric drawing of the upper parts showing the elements in reinforced concrete (ECOCHARD, Syria 18, 1937, fig. XXXV).

2015, a death foretold?

There are many parallels for the chronology of the various incarnations of the Temple of Bel, and particularly for the processes undertaken reassigning its use. Many ancient buildings have only managed to reach us because of successive reoccupations. Such monuments owe their survival to these transformations which, by making them useful, saved them from abandonment and dismantlement. This practice seems almost systematic in the case of religious structures: the sacred dimension of a place, its context, is often perpetuated over the course of its reoccupations. The example of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus is representative and comparable to the story of the Temple of Bel: initially a huge Roman sanctuary dedicated to Jupiter, the monument was transformed into a church dedicated to St John the Baptist in the Byzantine period, and then became the main mosque of the Umayyad caliphate in the early 8th century. The economic importance of the city, as well as its status as the capital, have made a major edifice of this mosque.

Palmyra, however, is not Damascus, and the small scale of the occupation no doubt guided the choices made by the archaeologists of the 1930s. Judged to be insignificant by comparison to the monument that framed it, the village was sacrificed in accordance with the selective logic of heritage at the time. Of what was then considered to be ‘squatter’ architecture, devoid of importance or historical interest, virtually nothing remains since, unfortunately, the destruction was not accompanied by any systematic documentation. The aerial photos of the time barely allow one to make out the dense network of village alleyways or to follow the progress of the demolition on what must have been a gigantic work site (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 : Vues aériennes du sanctuaire de Bel, avant et en cours de dégagement (clichés Ifpo), avant et après sa destruction (clichés satellitaire Unitar-Unosat des 27 et 31 août 2015). Montage Ifpo.

Fig. 7: Aerial views of the sanctuary of Bel, before and during its clearance (photos by Ifpo), before and after its destruction (satellite photos Unitar-Unosat from 27 and 31 August 2015). Presentation Th. Fournet.

Only one house, seemingly that of the mukhtar (equivalent of the mayor), was saved in the south-east corner of the temenos and was transformed into a dig house (Fig. 8). No doubt the idea of the archaeologists was not to preserve a witness of what had once been, but rather to maintain on-site accommodation in one of the most beautiful houses of the village.

Fig. 8 : La « maison des archéologues », dans l’angle sud-est du temenos du sanctuaire de Bel, seul vestige du village qui l’occupait (clichés Ifpo, vers 1935 ?).

Fig. 8: The “house of the archaeologists” in the south-east corner of the temenos of the sanctuary of Bel, the only remnant of the village which once occupied the site (photo by Ifpo, c. 1935?).

What should we think about the choice made in the 1930s to displace a village and its mosque in favour of displaying a Roman temple? With hindsight, it clearly reflects the hierarchy of periods and historical remains practised by archaeologists in the first half of the 20th century, who, on principle, favoured the ancient over the medieval, the monumental over the vernacular, the religious over the secular. Various international charters which have been drawn up since have done much to develop this concept of our ancient heritage. It seems evident to us – at least we hope so – that if the question of the presentation of the Temple of Bel were to be considered again to day, a less radical choice would be adopted. The Athens Charter of 1931 expresses it clearly when it recommends “maintaining the occupation of monuments, which ensures the continuation of their lives”. To empty the sanctuary of Bel of its medieval village, however modest it was, to allow the temple to regain its ancient integrity, its ‘resurrection’ as Ernest Will wrote, was in fact closer to taxidermy: the monument, transformed, reused, but still ‘inhabited’, suffered its first death by becoming a ruin, however superb it was.

One question remains, even if it seems pointless in the face of the barbarity and stupidity of today’s happenings: how would the assassins of IS have seen the sanctuary of Bel if the choice made by the French archaeologists of the early 20th century had been different? If the temple, rather than being restored and frozen in its antique state, had be preserved in the heart of an inhabited village? Would they have seen it as the representative of a heritage declared universal by ‘western’ culture, which they defy, indeed as a heritage earmarked for symbolic destruction?

Its imposing entranceway today stands alone above a pile of debris, like a monument dedicated to its own memory, to that of our mourned and respected colleague Khaled Al-Asaad, to that of the Temple of Baalshamin, the monumental arch and so many other destroyed monuments, in Palmyra and elsewhere. Our thoughts, we the archaeologists of Ifpo, go to all the Palmyrans, to all the Syrians, who for more than four years have been suffering in their beings, in their souls and even in their stones.


(translation Isabelle RUBEN)

Fig. 9 : Relevé d’un décor en bas-relief ornant une des poutres du sanctuaire et représentant une procession, avec restitution de la polychromie (SEYRIG, AMY, WILL, 1968-1975) © Institut Français du Proche-Orient.

The authors would like to thank Frédéric Alpi, Jean-Baptiste Yon, Maurice Sartre and Annie Sartre-Fauriat for editing this text.

Further reading:

  • On line: Palmyre, fouilles archéologiques (Fanny Arlandis) / Photo Library of Ifpo (MediHAL)
  • Ecochard Michel, « Consolidation et restauration du portail du temple de Bêl à Palmyre », Syria 18, 1937, p. 298-307.
  • Hammad Manar, “Le sanctuaire de Bel à Tadmor-Palmyre”, dans Lire l’espace, comprendre l’architecture, 2006 (accessible on line)
  • Jastrzębowska Elżbieta, « Christianisation of Palmyra: Early Byzantine Church in the temple of Bel », Studia Palmyreńskie 12, Fifty Years of Polish Excavations in Palmyra 1959-2009, International Conference, Warsaw, 6-8 December 2010, 2013, p. 177-191.
  • Sartre Annie et Maurice , Zénobie, de Palmyre à Rome, Paris, 2014.
  • Sauvaget Jean, « Les inscriptions arabes du temple de Bel à Palmyre », Syria 12, 1931, p. 143-54
  • Seyrig Henri, Amy Robert, Will Ernest, Le Temple de Bêl à Palmyre, 2 vol. (Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique 83), Paris, 1968-1975.
  • Wiegang Theodor (ed.), Palmyra. Ergebnisse der Expeditionen von 1902 und 1917, 2 vol., Berlin, 1932 (accessible on line).
  • Yon Jean-Baptiste, Les notables de Palmyre (Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique 163), Beirut, 2002 (accessible on line).
  • Yon Jean-Baptiste, As’ad Khaled, with contribution by Fournet Thibaud, Inscriptions de Palmyre : promenades épigraphiques dans la ville antique de Palmyre, Beirut, 2001.
To cite this posting: C. Durand, Th. Fournet, P. Piraud-Fournet, « So long, Bel. In memoriam, Palmyra (6 April 32 – 28 August 2015) », Les Carnets de l’Ifpo. La recherche en train de se faire à l’Institut français du Proche-Orient (, November 6th, 2015. [On  line]

Photo_duarte-webCaroline Durand is an archaeologist, and has been a researcher at Ifpo Amman since September 2012. Her doctoral thesis (Lyon 2) investigated the role of the Nabataean kingdom in the caravan and maritime networks linking the Near East with the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean basin during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Her interest in commercial and cultural exchanges in Antiquity led her to specialise in the study of archaeological material, ceramics in particular. As a pottery specialist, she collaborates with several archaeological projects, at Dharih, Petra (Jordan), Mada’in Saleh, Dumat (Saudi Arabia) and Failaka (Kuwait).

Thibaud Fournet is an architect and archaeologist with the CNRS, currently posted to Ifpo, Amman (Jordan). His work is mainly concerned with the architecture and urbanisation of the ancient Mediterranean world and, more particularly, with the Greco-Roman Near East (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt). For many years he has collaborated with the French archaeological expedition in southern Syria (Bosra, aux portes de l’Arabie) and for several years has been carrying out research on the history of collective bathing in the eastern Mediterranean, from the Greek balaneia and Roman baths to the contemporary hammams. In particular, he has worked on « Diocletian’s baths » in Palmyra.

Pauline Piraud-Fournet is an archaeologist and is working on her doctorate in archaeology (Paris IV-Sorbonne) on dwellings in late antiquity in Syria. She gained a diploma in architecture (ENSAL) in order to specialise in the research of ancient architecture. For many years she has been working with Ifpo, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the CNRS on archaeological sites in the Near East (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, including Palmyra), in Tunisia, and in Egypt, with particular focus on sanctuaries, funerary architecture and dwellings. From 2006 to 2012, she held the post of architect for the scientific department of Archéologie et histoire de l’Antiquité of Ifpo, in Damascus, then in Amman.

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