A hybrid of eastern and western design, this temple showcased the cultural diversity and great wealth of Palmyra.
Hybrid in design
The Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra was a first century C.E. sanctuary dedicated to one of the key gods of the city.* As with other Palmyrene architecture, the sanctuary of Baalshamin demonstrated hybridity of design—incorporating both Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman elements.
The temple’s cult is dedicated to Baalshamin or Ba’al Šamem, a northwest Semitic divinity. The name Baalshamin is applied to various divinities at different periods in time, but most often to Hadad, also known simply as Ba’al. Along with Bel, Baalshamin was one of the two main divinities of pre-Islamic Palmyra in Syria and was a sky god. The relief plaque below depicts a votive dedication by a worshipper—Baalshamin and Bel along with Yarhibol (the lord of spring with a solar nimbus) and Aglibol (a lunar divinity).
The temple of Baalshamin was a prostyle (having free standing columns on the façade only), tetrastyle (four columns across the façade) temple of the Corinthian order with a deep porch (visible in the photo below). What is the Corinthian Order?
The temple itself is conventional in its external design, meaning it conforms to what one would expect from a Classical Graeco-Roman structure. The four freestanding columns across the façade are complemented by engaged pilasters at the sides and back. What is a pilaster?
The colonnaded precinct experienced several phases of development during the first century C.E. (prior to the addition of the current temple). By the time of the temple’s construction, the colonnade had become a so-called Rhodian peristyle—meaning one flank was taller than the other three. The complex continued to develop across the course of the second century.
The temple itself adopts a Near Eastern motif of including a window in each of the cella’s flanks, a trait that is not Graeco-Roman but that finds comparison in contemporary temples in Lebanon. These windows reflect the belief that the divinity dwelled in the temple.
The Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra is a rough contemporary of the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek (now in Lebanon). Although dissimilar in scale (the Temple of Bacchus is a monumental building), both show the contemporary propensity in Roman provincial architecture of using forecourts to frame sanctuaries, as well as showing the widespread use of the Corinthian order. This is one of a number of sanctuaries in the city that demonstrates the great wealth of the Palmyrenes. Palmyra and much of the Roman Near East was rich in cultural diversity, a diversity expressed in many ways, including by means of art and architecture.
*Note: The Temple of Baalshamin was destroyed in 2015.
Paul Collart, “Reconstruction Du Thalamos Du Temple De Baalshamîn a Palmyre,” Revue Archéologique, Nouvelle Série, Fasc. 2 (1970), pp. 323-327.
Klaus Schnädelbach, Topographia Palmyrena (Documents d’archéologie syrienne; 18) (Damascus, 2010).
A. M. Smith, II, Roman Palmyra: Identity, Community, and State Formation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
J. Starcky and M. Gawlikowski, Palmyre (Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient, 1985).
J. B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture (Yale: Yale University Press, 1981).