ZENOBIA OF PALMYRA: THE GIRL OF THE SYRIAN DESERT.
[Afterward known as "Zenobia Augusta, Queen of the East."] A.D. 250.
MANY and many miles and many days' journey toward the rising sun, over seas and mountains and deserts,—farther to the east than Rome, or Constantinople, or even Jerusalem and old Damascus,—stand the ruins of a once mighty city, scattered over a mountain-walled oasis of the great Syrian desert, thirteen hundred feet above the sea, and just across the northern border of Arabia. Look for it in your geographies. It is known as Palmyra. To-day the jackal prowls through its deserted streets and the lizard suns himself on its fallen columns, while thirty or forty miserable Arabian huts huddle together in a small corner of what was once the great court-yard of the magnificent Temple of the Sun.
And yet, sixteen centuries ago, Palmyra, or Tadmor as it was originally called, was one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Nature and art combined to make it glorious. Like a glittering mirage out of the sand-swept desert arose its palaces and temples and grandly sculptured archways. With aqueducts and monuments and gleaming porticos with countless groves of palm-trees and gardens full of verdure; with wells and fountains, market and circus; with broad streets stretching away to the city gates and lined on either side with magnificent colonnades of rose-colored marble—such was Palmyra in the year of our Lord 250, when, in the soft Syrian month of Nisan, or April, in an open portico in the great colonnade and screened from the sun by gayly colored awnings, two young people—a boy of sixteen and a girl of twelve—looked down upon the beautiful Street of the Thousand Columns, as lined with bazaars and thronged with merchants it stretched from the wonderful Temple of the Sun to the triple Gate-way of the Sepulchre, nearly a mile away.
Both were handsome and healthy—true children of old Tadmor, that glittering, fairy-like city which, Arabian legends say, was built by the genii for the great King Solomon ages and ages ago. Midway between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, it was the meeting-place for the caravans from the east and the wagon trains from the west, and it had thus become a city of merchant princes, a wealthy commercial republic, like Florence and Venice in the middle ages—the common toll-gate for both the East and West.
But, though a tributary colony of Rome, it was so remote a dependency of that mighty mistress of the world that the yoke of vassalage was but carelessly worn and lightly felt. The great merchants and chiefs of caravans who composed its senate and directed its affairs, and whose glittering statues lined the sculptured cornice of its marble colonnades, had more power and influence than the far-off Emperor at Rome, and but small heed was paid to the slender garrison that acted as guard of honor to the strategi or special officers who held the colony for Rome and received its yearly tribute. And yet so strong a force was Rome in the world that even this free-tempered desert city had gradually become Romanized in manners as in name, so that Tadmor had become first Adrianapolis and then Palmyra. And this influence had touched even these children in the portico. For their common ancestor—a wealthy merchant of a century before—had secured honor and rank from the Emperor Septimus Severus—the man who "walled in" England, and of whom it was said that "he never performed an act of humanity or forgave a fault." Becoming, by the Emperor's grace, a Roman citizen, this merchant of Palmyra, according to a custom of the time, took the name of his royal patron as that of his own "fahdh," or family, and the father of young Odhainat in the portico, as was Odhainat himself, was known as Septimus Odaenathus, while the young girl found her Arabic name of Bath Zabbai, Latinized into that of Septima Zenobia.
But as, thinking nothing of all this, they looked lazily on the throng below, a sudden exclamation from the lad caused his companion to raise her flashing black eyes inquiringly to his face.
"What troubles you, my Odhainat?" she asked.
"There, there; look there, Bath Zabbai!" replied the boy excitedly; "coming through the Damascus arch, and we thought him to be in Emesa."
The girl's glance followed his guiding finger, but even as she looked a clear trumpet peal rose above the din of the city, while from beneath a sculptured archway that spanned a colonnaded cross-street the bright April sun gleamed down upon the standard of Rome with its eagle crest and its S. P. Q. R. design beneath. There is a second trumpet peal, and swinging into the great Street of the Thousand Columns, at the head of his light-armed legionaries, rides the centurion Rufinus, lately advanced to the rank of tribune of one of the chief Roman cohorts in Syria. His coming, as Odhainat and even the young Bath Zabbai knew, meant a stricter supervision of the city, a re-enforcement of its garrison, and the assertion of the mastership of Rome over this far eastern province on the Persian frontier.
"But why should the coming of the Roman so trouble you, my Odhainat?" she asked. "We are neither Jew nor Christian that we should fear his wrath, but free Palmyreans who bend the knee neither to Roman nor Persian masters."
"Who WILL bend the knee no longer, be it never so little, my cousin," exclaimed the lad hotly, "as this very day would have shown had not this crafty Rufinus—may great Solomon's genii dash him in the sea!—come with his cohort to mar our measures! Yet see—who cometh now?" he cried; and at once the attention of the young people was turned in the opposite direction as they saw, streaming out of the great fortress-like court-yard of the Temple of the Sun, another hurrying throng.
Then young Odhainat gave a cry of joy.