🔼Tadmor, the Bride of the Desert
Tadmor, today mostly known by its secondary name Palmyra, was an ancient caravan city located in the eastern Syrian desert. The city began about 5,000 years ago, forming at an oasis and within a virtual forest of palm trees (some say 500,000 individuals of 17 species of palm, olive and pomegranate trees). It quickly rose to such architectural splendor and economic prominence that it was referred to in both Assyrian and Babylonian and even older records going back to the second millennium BC. At some point in time, this brilliant city acquired the nickname "Bride of the Desert".
Under the leadership of queen Zenobia, the Palmyrians almost defeated the Roman Empire in the third century AD — but then, what does the word "almost" mean when it implies complete defeat and the onset of final and irrepressible demise?
Today Tadmor is known as the city that yielded more artifacts of the ancient world than any other city in the Middle East, and droves of tourists still descend on its ruins each year (and an occasional film crew; parts of The Life Of Brian were filmed there).
🔼The name Tadmor in the Bible
It's not wholly clear how many times the Bible mentions Tadmor, but strictly speaking only once.
In 2 Chronicles 8:4 we read how king Solomon built (or fortified or expanded) storage cities in Hamath and Tadmor (תדמר) in the wilderness (במדבר, be'midbar), and upper and lower Beth-horon (which were situated in central Israel, just north of Judah).
At first glance, 1 Kings 9:18 seems to tell us the same story, but there are obvious differences. Kings doesn't mention Hamath but tells us that king Solomon built several cities "in the wilderness in the land" (במדבר בארץ, be'midbar be'eres), which is probably the wilderness of Judah. The towns that are listed include lower (but not upper) Beth-horon and a place called Tamar (תמר).
The names Tamar and Tadmor are obviously somewhat similar and later scribes figured that the Tamar of Kings had to be the same as the Tadmor mentioned by Chronicles, and subsequently amended the text of Kings to show Tadmor. Most modern translations go along with this but the NAS, ASV and even the German Luther Translation don't and faithfully speak of Tamar, or Thamar.
🔼Etymology of the name Tadmor
It's a bit of a mystery what Tadmor might have meant to the locals back then, but in the first century AD the Romans were calling this town Palmyra, apparently after their word for palm, palma, and since the Hebrew word תמר (tamar) means palm and Tadmor was proverbially pervaded with palms, many old-school scholars figured that Tadmor somehow had to mean palm as well (possibly as a corruption of the Arabic תתמר, tatmor, meaning something like "bunch of palms" or "palm-rich") and moved on. Today, however, scholars are less convinced.
If the name Tadmor had to do with palm trees, why did the Romans not simply translate that name into a proper Latin word? The word palmyra doesn't exist in Latin, yet it clearly seems to point towards the Latin word for palm but as the Latin equivalent of "palmarious" or "palmesque" or something along those creative lines.
The Latin word for palm (both the tree and the open hand) comes from a Sanskrit verb meaning to open. Via some victory-goddess who was depicted with a palm-branch in her hand, the palm-branch became a symbol of excellence, and the adjectives palmaris and palmarius (both literally meaning "pertaining to the palm" or "palm-like") assumed the meaning of "excellent" or "prize-worthy". This suggests that the Romans may have formed the name Palmyra not from an original meaning of "having to do with palms" but rather of "having to do with excellence".
The name Palmyra may even stem from the earlier Greek period (as per Josephus Ant.8.144), although the Greek word for palm-tree is φοινιξ (phoinix), hence the ethnonym Phoenician; the Greek word for hand-palm is παλαμη (palame). That would tie the name Palmyra to open hand palms, which is an obvious symbol of submission, supplication and receptivity rather than victory, but returns our attention to the Semitic-sounding name Tadmor.
Some Semitic letters are known to alternate, but a ת (taw) rarely or never changes into a ד (daleth), particularly when there's another ת (taw) sitting right there that doesn't change. Pretty much all Semitic words come from tri-literal roots and the ת (taw) is a common pre-fix, so it's far more logical that the name Tadmor derives from a root דמר (dmr). Unfortunately, the root דמר (dmr) does not occur in the Bible, so even if it ever existed in Hebrew, we have no clue what it might have meant.
Michael O'Connor (in A Linguistic Happening in Memory of Ben Schwartz) proposes that both names Tadmor and Palmyra are neither Semitic nor Latin or Greek but Hurrian, and were both in use since deep antiquity (the Greeks and Romans simply liked Palmyra better, and didn't like the popular custom or having multiple names for one city, so omitted Tadmor). O'Connor assures us that the name Tadmor comes from the Hurrian verb tad, meaning to love (the -mor part of our name is a formative known from other place names), and that Palmyra stems from pal, meaning to know (and the -myra part is again a recognized formative).
🔼Meaning of the name Tadmor
Most popular commentaries and the likes will explain that both the names Tadmor and Palmyra have to do with palms, but it's pretty safe to say that no native speaker of any Semitic language would have connected the name Tadmor to the noun תמר (tamar), meaning palm, and any relation between the name Palmyra and palm trees emerged only when the Romans arrived. What remains are some calculated guesses, and since we here at Abarim Publications are great guessers, here's our best:
With his exhaustive study, professor O'Connor has convinced us that the city known as Tadmor and Palmyra is old enough to be known by Hurrian names (and the -mor and -myra extensions can't be explained to come from Greek, Latin or a Semitic language), but the story clearly goes further than that.
As stated above, in the Semitic world, the name Tadmor was doubtlessly (albeit possibly incorrectly) understood to have been formed from the prefix ת and a root דמר (dmr). What that root might have meant isn't clear, but in Greek the word δαμαρ (damar), means wife (see the name Damaris), which would neatly account for our city's nickname "Bride of the Desert," and would in the courts of folk-etymology (where fantasy and homophony often decide whether a name remains or is forgotten) plausibly confirm the Hurrian meaning of Tadmor (Love-Town).
Perhaps somewhat vexatious but hardly deniable, our noun δαμαρ (damar), meaning wife, in turn comes from the verb δαμαζω (damazo), which means to overpower, tame or subdue, and that takes us back to the supplicatory and submissive open hand of the Greek word παλαμη (palame), hence Palmyra.
This Greek verb δαμαζω (damazo) has its roots in Sanskrit, and is used for the taming and breaking in of animals, the making subject of a maiden to a husband, to conquering of other peoples, and appears to have also been used in the sense of "mastering" information, that is "proving" something (Liddell, Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon), which, again would have agreed with the folk-etymology of the Hurrian name Palmyra (Knowledge-Ville).