The analysis of over 2,500 Aramaic inscriptions in Palmyra in south-central Syria has helped solve a 100-year-old mystery. Two hundred texts, dated mainly to the 2nd and 3rd century AD have been attributed to “The Anonymous God of Palmyra,” named after the ancient city they were found in. This century-old mystery had been puzzling scientists and historians alike, who were unable to understand who the intended celestial recipient of these inscriptions were, reports Science in Poland (PAP).
Were These Aramaic Inscriptions To a Monotheistic God?
The Palmyra Aramaic inscriptions were addressed to an anonymous male deity, who was addressed as “He whose name is blessed forever,” “Lord of the Universe,” and other exalted titles.
This well-known Aramaic inscription mystery was solved by Polish archaeologist Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider, who has extensive experience with the inscriptions and texts found at the ancient metropolis of Palmyra. “These inscriptions were on stone altars intended for burning the fragrant sacrifice of incense, juniper grains and other aromas and for pouring liquids,” she said to PAP.
She added that it was believed, for over 100 years, that the Palmyra settlement was a monotheistic cult that worshiped the “Lord of the Heavens,” or the “Anonymous Deity of the Palmyrans.
And it was taboo to speak the name of this Palmyra deity! Professor Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider also this taboo in Judaism in her hunt for a solution to the Palmyra Aramaic inscription mystery. However, she was not fully convinced that she had stumbled upon the ultimate truth in these “anonymous” Palmyra Aramaic inscriptions.
The full Palmyran altar with the Aramaic inscription: “He whose name is blessed forever, the good. Dedicated Taimar and Shalmallat, because they called him and he answered them in the hour of trouble. He made a miracle in the day of justice, In the month of Ayar, 214 AD.” ( Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider / PAP)
Ancient Palmyra: A Melting Point of Cultures on the Silk Route
Ancient Palmyra reached its zenith in the 3rd century AD, becoming a central trading hub that linked the Roman Empire to India and China via one of the primary Silk Road routes .
Palmyra went from functioning as a modest caravan city to one of the Mediterranean’s largest metropolises in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, linking Persia, India, and China.
Over the course of her research, it was revealed that the Palmyra Aramaic inscriptions, carved in stone, were funded or paid for by the elites and middle class of this ancient metropolis. Both men and women commissioned these inscriptions, who could be slaves, freed slaves , Roman people, and the general “free” public.
It was only the unfortunate brutality of the war in Syria, from 2011 onward, that prohibited archaeologists and historians from studying one of humankind’s most amazing “new” ancient cities.
Palmyra was renowned for its huge and picturesque stone architecture, and numerous temples and places of worship. It had been a research and dig site for a Polish archaeological mission since 1959, which all stopped with the 2011 war in Syria.
Excavations from almost a century ago brought these 2,500 Palmyra Aramaic inscriptions to the attention of scholars. Numerous translatable bilingual stone inscriptions from Palmyra have revealed a lot about the organization and nature of this ancient trade center, reports ZME Science .
Information about the Palmyran gods were also found in abundance in many of these ancient Aramaic inscriptions carved in stone.
From the 2nd century onward, the inscriptions began to refer to the presence of a religious cult of an unnamed god. Monotheistic cults were rare in this period, particularly this region, and it took Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider’s expertise to finally figure out more about this anonymous religious cult referred to in the 2nd-century inscriptions.
Prof Kubiak-Schneider, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Munster in Germany, spent a considerable amount of time analyzing 200 of these Palmyra Aramaic inscriptions, reports The Jerusalem Post .
Palmyran altars with the inscription “He whose name is blessed forever” in the Palmyra museum in war-ravaged Syria. ( Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider / PAP)
Polytheistic Worship: Many Deities, One Taboo
With the knowledge that monotheistic cults from this time period were rare, Kubiak-Schneider diverted her attention to the way the hymns were sung! She went all the way back to the first millennium BC and analyzed the temples of ancient Mesopotamia. Here, people acknowledged the help of many deities including Marduk-Bel (the most important deity of Babylon), Nabu (the patron god of literacy), Nergal (god of the underground), Hadad (storm and rain god).
From this, she deduced that the intended recipients of these praises were multiple deities, and each praise was reserved for a singular deity. According to her, the name “Merciful” refers to Bel-Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon, which was also well-established in Palmyra. Bel-Marduk is believed to have saved people and gods from Tiamat, the monster of chaos and darkness.
The “Lord of the World,” in turn, can refer to Bel, the Lord of the Universe, as well as Baalshamin, the god of storm and fertility identified with Zeus.
Finally, the phrase “He whose name is blessed forever” may have been a universal phrase, referring to any male deity. This has been corroborated by looking at ancient hymns and prayers from Babylonia and Assyria, even before Alexander the Great’s time. This “non-use” was actually a sign of respect and expressed the full devotion of the worshipper.
“It is therefore not surprising that the deity’s image is not found on the altars, which in this case is not connected with the prohibition on presenting the divine face. There was not one Anonymous God, every god who listened and showed favour to requests deserved an eternal praise”, the professor added.
Contextualizing the Finds
“Each name carries a different message, showing different aspects of deities worshipped in polytheistic systems, such as the one in Palmyra or in the cities of Mesopotamia, or the Roman Empire,” said Prof. Kubiak-Schneider. The deities thus had multiple names and titles, entirely dependent on the person addressing them, and the situation they were in.
She added that her long Palmyra Aramaic inscription research revealed the continuation of pre-Hellenistic traditions in Western Asia. These traditions would go on to influence the dominant monotheistic religions that emerged in the Levant that are the biggest religions of the modern world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Professor Kubiak-Schneider’s Palmyra research also included the identification of poorly-preserved religious poetry inscriptions that were invoked in rituals in this ancient city about 2,000 years ago.
Top image: Close-up of one of the Palmyra Aramaic inscriptions to the “Anonymous God”. Source: Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider / PAP
By Sahir Pandey