Zenobia, secular Arab heroine

The city of Palmyra, which was recently seized by Islamic State (IS), was once ruled by Queen Zenobia, who became a source of inspiration for modern, secular Arabs and the Arab women's movement alike. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that articles in the Arab media are referring to Zenobia as a "prisoner of the jihadists". By Joseph Croitoru

By Joseph Croitoru

The capture of Palmyra by the jihadists of IS has provoked shock and dismay throughout the Arab world. One reason for this is that the figure of Zenobia, the legendary Queen of Tadmur, the Arab name for the city, has for centuries been an unbroken source of fascination for Arab authors.

Even the very first Arab historians, who referred to her as Az-Zabba, devoted entire chapters to the queen, describing her as a brave and cultured ruler. However, it was only in the late nineteenth century that Zenobia really assumed the mantle of history's first Arab heroine. The legendary figure of Zenobia proved to be a source of inspiration for educated Syrians and Lebanese in their search for a secular, nationalist identity.

In 1871, the Lebanese author Salim al-Bustani published an historical novel about the Queen of Palmyra. Three years later, Ilyas Matar, the founding father of Syrian national historiography, wrote his ground-breaking work on the origins of the Syrian kingdom, in which he stylised the era of the Palmyrene Empire under Zenobia as the cradle of the Syrian nation. Fearing Ottoman censorship, he nonetheless refrained from making any allusions to his countrymen's aspirations for autonomy.

The First World War freed the Arabs from the yoke of the Ottomans, but this did not by any means deliver them their much-desired political freedom. The reason for this was that in many regions, Western powers simply took the place of the Turks.

The painting "Queen Zenobia before Emperor Aurelian" by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (photo: picture-alliance)
From queen to Arab icon: "In Syria, in particular," writes Joseph Croitoru, "the Baath regime of Hafez al-Assad used her as an icon in order to confer additional validity upon its version of secular Arab nationalism, which also propagated –outwardly at any rate – the ideal of emancipation for Arab women". Pictured here: the painting "Queen Zenobia before Emperor Aurelian" by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Idol of the Arab women's movement

In literary as well as popular historical Arab portrayals, Zenobia was transformed into an anti-imperialist rebel, whose struggle for liberation against the Roman oppressors was taken as a symbol for the national aspirations of the Arabs. Even the nascent Arab women's movement discovered the courageous queen, who is said to have been incredibly beautiful and fluent in a number of languages.

Well into the 1930s, she was featured in Egyptian and Syrian journals for women as a role model for the modern, patriotic Arab woman. In an attempt to separate their portrayals from the increasingly commercialised and romantic portrayals of Zenobia in the Western entertainment industry, female Arab journalists preferred to refer to the ruler by her Arab name, Az-Zabba.

During the heyday of pan-Arabism too, the legendary ruler of Tadmur remained a popular figure onto which the goal of secular Arab self-determination was projected. In Syria, in particular, the Baath regime of Hafez al-Assad used her as an icon in order to confer additional validity upon its version of secular Arab nationalism, which also propagated – outwardly at any rate – the ideal of emancipation for Arab women.

A fearless warrior who fought the Roman Empire

The painting "Radamisto kills Zenobia" by Luigi Sabatelli (photo: picture-alliance/Luisa Ricciarini/leemage)
Accounts differ as to what happened to Zenobia after her capture by Emperor Aurelian. Some say she was paraded through Rome by Aurelian, others that she starved herself to death, others that was killed in Rome. Pictured here: the painting "Radamisto kills Zenobia" by Luigi Sabatelli

The portrayal of Zenobia as a primordial heroine of the Arab world and of Syria as the first significant pre-Islamic Arab state served to firmly establish Damascus' claims to leadership in the region. From this perspective, Syrian state television produced and broadcast a television series about Zenobia in the early 1970s. In 1985, the image of a fearless warrior fighting the Western Roman Empire – heavily emphasising an anti-imperialist agenda – was propagated in a book written by none other than Mustafa Tlass, author and Syria's long-serving defence minister and Assad's right hand.

First published in Arabic and a year later in French, his popular historical book "Zenobia, Queen of Tadmur" portrayed the Romans as particularly gruesome and elevated Zenobia's rebellion to an Arab struggle of liberation against the Roman "barbarians and colonisers".

Despite the ideologically motivated Arabisation of Zenobia, Tlass faithfully adhered to passages from the collection of classical texts found in the "Historia Augusta," which also forms the basis of Western legends.

Since then, the story of Zenobia has frequently been used in Syria as one of the most popular narratives in official state culture and has formed the basis of a television series, a musical and several plays. These plays were regularly performed in Palmyra as part of a cultural festival, which attracted audiences from all over the Arab world until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.

Despite all the Arab patriotic stylisations of the legendary Queen of Palmyra, secular Syrian authors have remained fundamentally true to the Western texts that have survived from ancient times, which is a sign of their open-mindedness. It is these elements of modern secular Arab culture in particular that the jihadists of Islamic State want to destroy. Unsurprisingly, therefore, recent commentaries in Arab media quite deliberately feature headlines such as "Zenobia, prisoner of the jihadists" and "Zenobia fights IS."

Joseph Croitoru
© Qantara.de 2015
Translated from the German by John Bergeron