Zenobia, Barbara, Christine and the general’s daughter

ATHENS – Lovely Palmyra has fallen to the zombie horde and its people are being slaughtered as the ancient city awaits its fate. It is Friday, May 22, 2015, and from my window I see the end-of-week traffic jam as people leave for the weekend, in a city and a country that even though wounded by crisis is at peace. The sea disappears into the horizon; far out of sight, refugees search anxiously for the shore. On my screen, a report by the New York Times out of Beirut quotes a young Syrian soldier who was on leave when his unit was overrun by Islamic State in Palmyra. “Worst of all the soldier said, was the photograph he was shown of the decapitated body of a friend, the 19-year-old daughter of a Syrian general,” the report said.

I think of Zenobia, the brave warrior and intellectual queen of Palmyra, who, in the 3rd century AD, waged war with the Roman Empire and conquered a great swathe of the Middle East, far larger than the “Islamic State,” including Egypt and much of Anatolia, up to today’s Ankara. The conquests were short-lived; the Roman armies restored their rule over the area and Zenobia was taken in shackles to Rome. There historians differ: some say she was beheaded, others that the emperor was so impressed by her bravery and beauty that he spared her life, allowing her to marry and leave descendants.

Whatever her end, Zenobia’s fame lived on in history, and was recalled by, among others, the Medieval writer Christine de Pizan in “The Book of the City of Ladies.” In this work of 1405, de Pizan takes on the misogyny that was prevalent in her time (and ours) by presenting the stories of great women from myth, legend and history, from antiquity to her own era. “This heroic lady Zenobia surpassed all the knights of her time in her supreme mastery of the skills of warfare. She also outshone all other ladies in her noble and virtuous personal habits because she was renowned for her extreme sobriety,” de Pizan wrote. (The translation is by Rosalind Brown-Grant, Penguin Classics). “In addition to these virtues, her greatest accomplishment was her knowledge of the arts… Zenobia was well-schooled in works written in Egyptian and in her own tongue, diligently taking up her books whenever she had the time…. She knew Latin and Greek and wrote a very elegant abridged history of contemporary events in each of these languages.”

The book is written as a dream or vision, in which de Pizan is visited, in turn, by the spirits of Reason, Rectitude and Justice, who present the stories of women who exemplified these virtues. Zenobia’s tale is narrated by Reason, who concludes: “So tell me, my dear Christine, if you have ever read about or known any prince or knight who was more perfectly endowed with all the virtues than she was?”

Despite being contrary to the spirit of its time, de Pizan’s book was a success, allowing the author, who was born in Italy but lived in France for most of her life and wrote in French, to live off her writing. Another significant event of the past few weeks, the visit to Athens of the sacred relics of Saint Barbara, prompted me to turn to de Pizan’s entry on the saint. In the section on Justice, de Pizan presents the life of a young woman contemporary of Zenobia, who lived at Heliopolis in Syria, about 300 kilometers from Palmyra, and was martyred in 306. Today, Saint Barbara’s tale would be a case study of a family tragedy, of a father’s psychopathology: the story of a widower who, for the “good” of his precious daughter, jailed her in a tower to protect her. There, Barbara came to love Christ. Her father, unable to accept her metaphorical escape, turned her in to the Roman prefect, took part in her torture and humiliation and, in the end, decapitated her himself. At the moment of her martyrdom, Barbara begged God to save others from similar sudden death; at that moment a lightning bolt struck her father and burned him to a crisp.

Today, where are Reason, Rectitude and Justice? Does the question apply equally to the deficits of the humanistic paradise of the West and Islamic State’s hell? How do we reconcile the two worlds? Does the question pertain only to the “faithful ” or to the “atheists” as well, to the “idolators” and the “iconoclasts”? The lines blur. In Greece, crowds worship the relics of a Syrian saint, in Syria women and men are being beheaded daily. In the West, those who condemn the worship of bones mourn the impending destruction of the ruins of a city built by desert tribes. But beyond our pity and our fear, whether it stands or falls, Palmyra shines brilliantly through the ages, through the dark fog of its occupiers’ rage. It whispers the timeless need of those who love life to preserve ageless mysteries and symbols of the past against the merciless “here and now” of fanaticism.

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