POLITICS
09/04/2015 01:21 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2015

Want to Annoy ISIS? Learn About This Awesome Ancient Queen.

This third-century warrior puts ISIS to shame.

Credit: Louai Beshara/Getty Images
The Islamic State has destroyed numerous ancient relics in the Syrian city of Palmyra.

Sledgehammering priceless statues. Bombing temples that date back to the era of Jesus and Augustus. In just a few short months, the Islamic State group has waged a profound assault on humanity's knowledge of itself by wreaking havoc in the unique, ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria. 

The Islamic State, or ISIS, has a twofold interest in this destruction. Drawing on questionable accounts of early Islamic expansion, the militant organization believes it has a divinely ordained duty to smash symbols of idolatry that challenge the oneness of God.

But there's a more pragmatic motive, too. The Islamic State depends on global news coverage for its steady flow of international recruits. With many networks and publications now almost inured to the seemingly endless human suffering in Iraq and Syria, blasting historical treasures like the Phoenician temple for the god of storms gives the group a new way to shock Westerners. 

Lost monuments cannot be recovered, even if a U.S.-led coalition eventually brings the Islamic State down. But the attention the extremists are bringing to the history they seek to eliminate may ultimately defeat their cause. There are as many stunning stories about Palmyra as there are years since its founding, and those tales won't be forgotten -- they may, in fact, simply be celebrated even more amid the destruction.

One of the most powerful Palmyran stories is that of Zenobia -- a warrior queen from the third century who rebelled against Rome and nearly brought the ancient empire to its knees. Today, the memory of this powerful woman stands as a direct challenge to the violently enforced misogyny of the Islamic State.

Learn more about Zenobia and the Islamic State in the podcast above. The discussion starts at the 33:37 mark.

Zenobia remains a relatively obscure figure in the United States, even though her life has been celebrated in two foundational works of English letters -- Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Her life story is intimately bound up with the pre-Muhammad history of the Middle East that Islamic State militants are targeting, bomb by bomb.

Palmyra sits in the middle of the Tadmorean Desert, about halfway between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. In the ancient world, where political strength was typically supported by agricultural wealth, Palmyra had few resources at its disposal. But by Zenobia's time, the desert city had become an essential and important oasis for traders moving goods between the Roman and Persian Empires. Palmyra's ruling families became tremendously wealthy by taxing the caravans moving through town.

Zenobia was born into one of these households, claiming descent from Cleopatra and the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt after the conquest of Alexander the Great. Septimius Odaenathus, her husband, also belonged to a leading Palmyran family. By the middle of the third century, he was governing the city. Palmyra was considered Roman territory, but the empire granted the city broad autonomy because of its lucrative trade network.

Rome and the Sasanian rulers of Persia went to war in Mesopotamia on and off every few years, but the conflict threatened to escalate out of control after Roman Emperor Valerian was captured and killed in A.D. 260, jeopardizing Palmyran trade revenues and the political stability of the Odaenathus regime, which faced the expansionist Persian Emperor Shapur I on its eastern border.

Zenobia's husband Odaenathus won several military victories against Sasanian Persia, elevating his status among Roman elites. But he was mysteriously assassinated away from home. After her husband's death, Zenobia moved quickly to consolidate power over Palmyra as a woman leader -- a very rare maneuver in the ancient world.

"She stepped in to claim the throne on behalf of her son, who was still a child," said Kate Cooper, professor of ancient history at the University of Manchester. "The fact that she was able to do so shows that she had strong relationships in the business and military communities of her day."  

Credit: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI via Getty Images
A carving of Queen Zenobia at a museum in Damascus, Syria. Today, her historic legacy is fading amid the conflict in Syria and other parts of the Middle East.

Zenobia quickly expanded her influence over the region. Her armies soon took over Egypt and most of the Anatolian Peninsula (modern Turkey). Within a few short years, she controlled nearly a third of the Roman Empire, including some of its most valuable territories.

Historians dispute her ultimate goals. Most believe she was attempting to found her own independent empire, but some have noted that similar military uprisings established new Roman dynasties, particularly as the political center of the Roman Empire moved eastward.

Either way, her dreams -- whether of ruling Rome as Emperor or of presiding over her own state -- did not survive very long. Emperor Aurelian assailed Zenobia's forces after a series of Roman military successes that re-asserted the empire's power over its provinces. Zenobia's reign collapsed after a devastating loss to Aurelian's forces near Antioch, and most Western historians, including Gibbon, report that Aurelian displayed her in Rome in gold chains.

Zenobia's fate remains unclear. Some historians speak of her dying by her own hand. Others have her executed by Aurelian. Still more say the Emperor granted her mercy, allowing her to retire to an Italian villa, where she married a senator and had many children. 

"She was beautiful and highly educated, and made herself a ruler in the very masculine world of the Arabian desert," said Richard Stoneman, honorary visiting professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Exeter. "She took on the might of Rome, the world's greatest empire, and nearly succeeded in creating a breakaway state." Stoneman is the author of Palmyra and Its Empire: Zenobia's Revolt Against Rome.

Perhaps the most depressing truth about Zenobia's legacy is that it had already lost much of its power before the Islamic State swept through Syria. The rulers of Iraq and Syria have been manipulating and mangling the cultural memory of Zenobia for years. The tyrannical regime of Bashar Assad in Syria has appropriated an image of the warrior queen for its currency, according to The New Yorker -- a subtle sign that it sees itself as her historical successor and is keen to gain whatever legitimacy that connection might bestow.

In nearby Iraq, Zenobia's story of resistance was one Saddam Hussein's autocratic government was uninterested in spreading, leaving it to be remembered only by well-known elites, according to Iraqi-born Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress. "Her legacy has not been conveyed to regular people on the streets," Al Suwaij told The Huffington Post.

"As much as I love Queen Zenobia -- I think Zenobia was a great woman leader in the region and throughout history -- people do not really remember her or know much about her," said Al-Suwaij, a prominent advocate for gender equity whose organization runs centers for conflict resolution and protecting vulnerable individuals in Iraq.

As both Syria and Iraq plunged into conflicts that have left hundreds of thousands dead and millions without homes, employment or any certainty about their future, Zenobia's story is now barely resonant as civilians struggle to secure basic necessities.

The loss of antiquities is "huge, but considered minor comparing to the loss of lives of people who are being killed on a daily basis," Al-Suwaij told HuffPost. Seeing history destroyed is "nothing new" for Iraq, she added, referencing the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

That today's leadership is failing so miserably in helping the region's populations -- Assad has lost the faith of most Syrians and the U.S.-backed government in Iraq is currently facing major street demonstrations -- makes celebrating the past difficult for Syrians and Iraqis.

"The most important thing, the immediate thing, is they want to be safe," Al-Suwaij said. 

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