Palmyra’s history stretches back to the dawn of civilization. The city has had many masters during its long and storied past. Throughout, its celebrated 2nd-century temples and civic buildings have remained intact — even surviving a brutal sacking by Roman troops. Since Islamic State recently seized control, however, Palmyra’s magnificent ruins have been endangered as never before.
Palmyra fell into Rome’s orbit in the 1st century BC. The site had long been inhabited — stone tools discovered at the desert oasis 120 miles northeast of Damascus have been dated to 7500 BC. But the city remained a minor way station in the desert between the Roman and Parthian empires until a fateful decision by the emperor Trajan in 106. While organizing newly conquered territory near the Arabian Gulf, Trajan re-routed the southern branch of the Silk Road through Palmyra. The massive increase in caravan traffic was a boon to the city’s fortunes.