Palmyra was an ancient city in central Syria. In antiquity, it was an important city located in an oasis 215 km northeast of Damascus and 180 km southwest of the Euphrates at Deir ez-Zor. It had long been a vital caravan stop for travellers crossing the Syrian Desert and was known as the Bride of the Desert. The earliest documented reference to the city by its Semitic name Tadmor, Tadmur or Tudmur (which means "the town that repels" in Amorite and "the indomitable town" in Aramaic) is recorded in Babylonian tablets found in Mari.
Though the ancient site fell into disuse after the 16th century, it is still known as Tadmor in Arabic (aka Tedmor), and there is a newer town of the same name next to the ruins. The Palmyrenes constructed a series of large-scale monuments containing funerary art such as limestone slabs with human busts representing the deceased.
Palmyrans bore Aramaic names, and worshipped a variety of deities from Mesopotamia (Marduk and Ruda), Syria (Hadad, Baʿal, Astarte), Arabia (Allāt) and Greece (Athena). Palmyrans were originally speakers of Aramaic but later shifted to the Greek language. At the time of the Islamic conquests Palmyra was inhabited by several Arab tribes, primarily the Qada'ah and Kalb.
The exact etymology of the name "Palmyra" is unknown, although some scholars believe it was related to the palm trees in the area. Others, however, believe it may have come from an incorrect translation of the name "Tadmor" (cf. Colledge, Seyrig, Starcky, and others). The city was first mentioned in the archives of Mari in the second millennium BC.
When the Seleucids took control of Syria in 323 BC, the city was left to itself and it became independent, flourishing as a caravan halt in the 1st century BC. In 41 BCE, Mark Antony sent a raiding party to Palmyra, but the Palmyrans had received intelligence of their approach and escaped to the other side of the Euphrates, demonstrating that at that time Palmyra was still a nomadic settlement and its valuables could be removed at short notice.
The most striking building in Palmyra is the huge temple of Ba'al, considered "the most important religious building of the first century AD in the Middle East". It originated as a Hellenistic temple, of which only fragments of stones survive. The central shrine (cella) was added in the early 1st century AD, followed by a large double colonnaded portico in Corinthian style. The west portico and the entrance (propylaeum) date from the 2nd century.
Outside the ancient walls, the Palmyrenes constructed a series of large-scale funerary monuments which now form the so-called Valley of the Tombs, a 1 km long necropolis, with a series of large, richly decorated structures. These tombs, some of which were below ground, had interior walls that were cut away or constructed to form burial compartments in which the deceased, extended at full length, were placed.