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Work The Divine Triad
Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Levant
© 1997 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski
Near Eastern Antiquities
This religious sculpture was discovered at Bir Wereb, near Palmyra. Situated on a major caravan route, Palmyra was at the crossroads of Syria, Mesopotamia, and the desert crossings. In its pantheon, external gods mingled with native deities. It was in this context that the triad of Ba'alshamin, Aglibol, and Malakbel developed during the first half of the first century AD. These gods are represented here in Roman military dress, a distinctive feature of Palmyrene religious iconography.
A triad of Ba'alshamin
This cosmic triad formed the upper part of a religious relief sculpture. The three standing gods wear tight-sleeved tunics and are depicted in military garb: lamellar cuirasses and Roman cloaks fastened at the right shoulder with fibulae. They grasp the hilts of their swords with their left hands, while their right hands, now missing, probably gripped spears or scepters. The long, flowing hair of the central god is adorned with a calathos and a ribbon, in the Parthian style; he also wears Persian trousers. His beard indicates that he is Ba'alshamin, as opposed to Bel. He is flanked by two gods: beardless, bare-legged, with curly hair, their heads are are surrounded by radiant haloes. These are the lunar god Aglibol, on the left, identifiable by his lunar crescent, and the sun god Malakbel, on the right. The lunar god's placement at the right hand of the supreme god indicates his superiority to the sun god, confirming Ba'alshamin's identity, and confers a hieratic dimension on the triad. Between the figures of the gods are graffiti scratched by pilgrims at a later date.
A precious record
This stone relief has particular interest in that the faces of the gods have been preserved intact, making the sculpture quite rare, since few depictions of the triad have come down to us. It was discovered near Palmyra, where Ba'alshamin's temple was second in importance only to the temple of Bel. Aglibol and Malakbel, gods of the traditional pantheon, had a common temple there. The triad was thus formed through the association of two old gods of the Palmyrene religion with the supreme god. The triads of Bel, who is depicted with the solar god Yarhibol and Aglibol, and of Ba'alshamin-Aglibol-Malakbel are the only ones known to have existed at that time. This sculpture is the most significant and oldest known depiction of the triad of Ba'alshamin.
The distinctiveness of Palmyrene art
In Syria a host of divinities was represented in military garb. This phenomenon was particularly noticeable in Palmyra. The lamellar cuirass was inspired by Oriental Hellenism. Its style predates the Roman muscle cuirass, which replaced the Hellenistic cuirass during the first century AD. Ba'alshamin's straight hair, which is a feature of old sculptures, the lunar crescent placed at the same level as the halo and not as yet at shoulder level, as well as the roundness of the bodies and the protuberant eyes, indicate that this sculpture can be dated back to the first half of the first century AD. This triad was the product of an official belief system, and its various sources of inspiration-Parthian, Hellenistic, and Roman-exemplify vividly the original and hybrid art of Palmyra.
First half of the first century AD
Bir Wereb, in the vicinity of Palmyra, Syria
H. 56 cm; W. 72 cm
Arabia: the caravan cities, Dura-Europus, Palmyra, 3rd century BC–3rd century AD
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