The Road to Palmyra

Special Exhibitions /20.09.2019 - 01.03.2020

“The Road to Palmyra” is the first special exhibition in Denmark devoted to the culture of ancient Palmyra – an oasis city located in present-day Syria. The exhibition takes as its point of departure the Glyptotek’s unparalleled collection of ancient tomb sculptures from the city.

In a time when globalisation, migration and cultural conflict permeate the agenda in many places in the world, Palmyra has again attracted attention with its fascinating history as one of the ancient world’s multicultural societies.

With its location at the Efqa Spring in the Syrian Desert, halfway between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean, the oasis city was a natural nodal point between the trade and caravan routes and thus a centre for the exchange of both goods and cultures between East and West. At the same time the city was the eastern-most bastion of the Roman Empire and with this background it became a vibrant meeting point for various cultures.

A Cultural Heritage Under Threat

The current conflicts in Syria have brought about a renewed focus on the value of the unique cultural heritage which appears to be under threat as a result of them. The exhibition focuses on the first three centuries CE, when the city played an important role: locally, regionally and globally, not least in relation to the Roman Empire. The Glyptotek’s tomb portraits constitute an important, specific aspect of the city’s cultural monuments. Today many of the city’s cultural artefacts have been destroyed or have been on sale on the illegal market, many of these upheavals being caused by the terrorist group ISIS, who in 2015 invaded the city, blew up ancient ruins and monuments and plundered the area for objects of value.

Important Research

The Glyptotek’s collection of Palmyrene portrait sculptures, which is the largest outside Syria, has, in recent years, been the point of departure for the comprehensive research undertaking, the “Palmyra Portrait Project” at Aarhus University. “The Road to Palmyra” will integrate new knowledge drawn both from the “Palmyra Portrait Project” and from the extensive polychromy research currently in progress at the museum.

The exhibition is being vividly staged and will describe how the inhabitants of Palmyra through the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE adorned their tombs with sculptures, each of which represented an individual. Combined with their representation of facial types, costumes and so forth, together with inscriptions, the portraits are a testament to the individual people and life as it was lived in the oasis city.

From the Desert to the Glyptotek

The actual fascinating story of the Glyptotek’s collection of tomb portraits will also be presented in the exhibition. The greater part of the collection came to Denmark in the 1880s through the agency of Julius Løytved, then the Danish Consul in Beirut. Carl Jacobsen, the founder of the Glyptotek was a close friend of Løytved, which is illustrated in the exhibition through a presentation of the extensive correspondence between the two men which dates from the 1880s and 90s. In the course of his lengthy travels in the Middle East in the years 1892-1894, Johannes E. Østrup, the Danish philologist and Islamic scholar, acquired other works while the archaeologist Harald Ingholt, whose prodigious archive is kept by the Glyptotek, researched and excavated in Palmyra in the 1920s and 1930s, one of the sculptures he recovered is a principal work in the collection: “The Beauty of Palmyra” found in the family tomb Qasr Abjad.

Large parts of the collection have, since the spring of 2018, been lent to The J. Paul Getty Museum in USA, where they are on exhibition. These are all scheduled for return to the Glyptotek for the forthcoming exhibition.

The exhibition will be supported by the Augustinus Foundation and Aage og Johanne Louis-Hansens Foundation.

The research project, “Palmyra Portrait Project” and the polychromy research are supported by the Carlsberg Foundation.