Sunday, July 12, 2015

Reception of Zenobia in Islam

PALMYRA WATCH: Homage to Zenobia (Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker).
She was probably in her twenties when she took the throne, upon the death of her husband, King Odenathus, in 267 or 268. Acting as regent for her young son, she then led the army in a revolt against the Romans, conquering Egypt and parts of Asia Minor. By 271, she had gained control of a third of the Roman Empire. Gibbon sometimes portrays the warrior queen as a kind of well-schooled Roman society matron. “She was not ignorant of the Latin tongue,” he writes, “but possessed in equal perfection the Greek, the Syriac, and the Egyptian languages.” Palmyra’s abundant wall inscriptions are in Latin, Greek, and an Aramaic dialect, not Arabic. But to Arab historians, such as the ninth-century al-Tabari, Zenobia was a tribal queen of Arab, rather than Greek, descent, whose original name was Zaynab, or al-Zabba. Among Muslims, she is seen as a herald of the Islamic conquests that came four centuries later.

This view, popular within the current Syrian regime, which boasts Zenobia on its currency, also resonates within radical Islamic circles. Glen Bowersock, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, says, “I suspect ISIS believes Palmyra to be somehow a distinctively Arab place, where Zenobia stood up to the Roman emperor.” Indeed, ISIS fighters, after seizing Palmyra, released a video showing the temples and colonnades at the ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site, intact. “Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it,” an ISIS commander, Abu Laith al-Saudi, told a Syrian radio station. “What we will do is pulverize the statues the miscreants used to pray to.” Fighters then set about sledgehammering statues and shrines.
Perhaps this is why ISIS has not (yet) destroyed the ruins of the ancient city.

Background on the history of Palmyra and its current situation is here and links. Past posts on Zenobia are here and links (although I've heard some skepticism on whether the destroyed statue was really of Zenobia).