Despite nearly a century of research, though, a key question remains unanswered: How did this city of 200,000 thrive in the middle of an infertile Syrian desert?
Once a required stop on caravan routes that brought Asian goods west to eager Romans, Palmyra (map) has “always been conceived as an oasis in the middle of the desert, but it’s never been quite clear what it was living from,” said Michal Gawlikowski, the retired head of the University of Warsaw’s Polish Mission at Palmyra.
And what an oasis: Among the ruins are grand avenues lined with columns, triumphal arches, and the remains of an ancient market where traders once haggled over silk, silver, spices, and dyes from India and China. (Download Palmyra wallpaper.)
To find out what made it all possible, archaeologist Jørgen Christian Meyer began a four-year survey of the 40 square miles (104 square kilometers) just north of Palmyra in 2008. The area was targeted for its mountainous terrain, which channels precious rainwater to otherwise dry streambeds—making the region marginally less hostile to agriculture.
Through ground inspections and satellite images, the archaeologists eventually found outlines of more than 20 farming villages within a few days’ walk of the city—adding to about 15 smaller settlements previously uncovered by other researchers to the west of Palmyra.
Crucially, the researchers also found traces of extensive networks of man-made reservoirs and channels to capture and store the rainfall from sudden, seasonal storms, said Meyer, of the University of Bergen in Norway. …