People, language and society
Palmyrene funerary portrait
At its height during the reign of Zenobia, Palmyra had more than 200,000 residents. Its earliest known inhabitants were the Amorites in the early second millennium BC, and by the end of the millennium Arameans were mentioned as inhabiting the area. Arabs arrived in the city in the late first millennium BC. Sheikh
Zabdibel, who aided the Seleucids in the battle of Raphia (217 BC), was mentioned as the commander of "the arabs and neighbouring tribes to the number of ten thousands"; Zabdibel and his men were not actually identified as Palmyrenes in the texts, but the name "Zabdibel" is a Palmyrene name leading to the conclusion that the sheikh hailed from Palmyra. The Arab newcomers were assimilated by the earlier inhabitants, used Palmyrene as a mother tongue, and formed a significant segment of the aristocracy.
The city also had a Jewish community; inscriptions in Palmyrene from the necropolis of Beit She'arim in Lower Galilee confirm the burial of Palmyrene Jews. Occasionally and rarely, members of the Palmyrene families took Greek names while ethnic Greeks were few; the majority of people with Greek names, who did not belong to one of the city's families, were freed slaves. The Palmyrenes seem to have disliked the Greeks, considered them foreigners, and restricted their settlement in the city.
Alphabetic inscription in Palmyrene alphabet
Until the late third century AD, Palmyrenes spoke a dialect of Aramaic and used the Palmyrene alphabet.[note 3] The use of Latin was minimal, but Greek was used by wealthier members of society for commercial and diplomatic purposes, and it became the dominant language during the Byzantine era. After the Arab conquest, Greek was replaced by Arabic, from which a Palmyrene dialect evolved.
Palmyra's society was a mixture of the different peoples inhabiting the city, which is seen in Aramaic, Arabic and Amorite clan names.[note 4] Palmyra was a tribal community but due to the lack of sources, an understanding of the nature of Palmyrene tribal structure is not possible. Thirty clans have been documented; five of which were identified as tribes (Phyle (φυλή)) comprising several sub-clans.[note 5] By the time of Nero Palmyra had four tribes, each residing in an area of the city bearing its name. Three of the tribes were the Komare, Mattabol and Ma'zin; the fourth tribe is uncertain, but was probably the Mita. In time, the four tribes became highly civic and tribal lines blurred;[note 6] by the second century clan identity lost its importance, and it disappeared during the third century.[note 7] Even the four tribes ceased to be important by the third century as only one inscription mentions a tribe after the year 212; instead, aristocrats played the decisive role in the city's social organization. During the Umayyad period Palmyra was mainly inhabited by the Kalb tribe. Benjamin of Tudela recorded the existence of 2,000 Jews in the city during the twelfth century. Palmyra declined after its destruction by Timur in 1400, and was a village of 6,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 20th century; although surrounded by Bedouin, the villagers preserved their dialect. Palmyra maintained the life of a small settlement until its relocation in 1932.