Right to left: Bel, Yarhibol, Aglibol and Baalshamin
Baalshamin (center), Aglibol (left) and Malakbel (right)
An Altar found in Trastevere
dedicated to Malakbel bearing the epithet Sol Sanctissimus
Palmyra's gods were primarily part of the northwestern Semitic pantheon, with the addition of gods from the Mesopotamian and Arab pantheons. The city's chief pre-Hellenistic deity was called Bol, an abbreviation of Baal (a northwestern Semitic honorific). The Babylonian cult of Bel-Marduk influenced the Palmyrene religion and by 217 BC the chief deity's name was changed to Bel. This did not indicate the replacing of the northwestern Semitic Bol with a Mesopotamian deity, but was a mere change in the name.
Second in importance, after the supreme deity, were over sixty ancestral gods of the Palmyrene clans. Palmyra had unique deities, such as the god of justice and Efqa's guardian Yarhibol, the sun god Malakbel, and the moon god Aglibol. Palmyrenes worshiped regional deities, including the greater Levantine gods Astarte, Baal-hamon, Baalshamin and Atargatis; the Babylonian gods Nabu and Nergal, and the Arab Azizos, Arsu, Šams and Al-lāt.
The deities worshiped in the countryside were depicted as camel or horse riders and bore Arab names. The nature of those deities is uncertain as only names are known, most importantly Abgal. The Palmyrene pantheon included
ginnaye (some were given the designation "Gad"), a group of lesser deities popular in the countryside, who were similar to the Arab jinn and the Roman genius. Ginnaye were believed to have the appearance and behavior of humans, similar to Arab jinn. Unlike jinn, however, the ginnaye could not possess or injure humans. Their role was similar to the Roman genius: tutelary deities who guarded individuals and their caravans, cattle and villages.
Although the Palmyrenes worshiped their deities as individuals, some were associated with other gods. Bel had
Astarte-Belti as his consort, and formed a triple deity with Aglibol and Yarhibol (who became a sun god in his association with Bel). Malakbel was part of many associations, pairing with
Gad Taimi and Aglibol, and forming a triple deity with Baalshamin and Aglibol. Palmyra hosted an Akitu (spring festival) each Nisan. Each of the city's four-quarters had a sanctuary for a deity considered ancestral to the resident tribe; Malakbel and Aglibol's sanctuary was in the Komare quarter. The Baalshamin sanctuary was in the Ma'zin quarter, the Arsu sanctuary in the Mattabol quarter, and the Atargatis sanctuary in the fourth tribe's quarter.[note 36]
The priests of Palmyra were selected from the city's leading families, and are recognized in busts through their headdresses which have the shape of a polos adorned with laurel wreath or other tree made of bronze among other elements. The high priest of Bel's temple was the highest religious authority and headed the clergy of priests who were organized into collegia each headed by a higher priest. The personnel of Efqa spring's sanctuary dedicated to Yarhibol belonged to a special class of priests as they were oracles. Palmyra's paganism was replaced with Christianity as the religion spread across the Roman Empire, and a bishop was reported in the city by 325. Although most temples became churches, the Temple of Al-lāt was destroyed in 385 at the order of Maternus Cynegius (the eastern praetorian prefect). After the Muslim conquest in 634 Islam gradually replaced Christianity, and the last known bishop of Palmyra was consecrated in 818.
Malakbel and the Roman Sol Invictus
In 274, following his victory over Palmyra, Aurelian dedicated a large temple of Sol Invictus in Rome; most scholars consider Aurelian's Sol Invictus to be of Syrian origin, either a continuation of emperor Elagabalus cult of Sol Invictus Elagabalus, or Malakbel of Palmyra. The Palmyrene deity was commonly identified with the Roman god Sol and he had a temple dedicated for him on the right bank of the Tiber since the second century. Also, he bore the epithet Invictus and was known with the name Sol "Sanctissimus", the latter was an epithet Aurelian bore on an inscription from Capena.
The position of the Palmyrene deity as Aurelian's Sol Invictus is inferred from a passage by Zosimus reading: "and the magnificent temple of the sun he (i.e. Aurelian) embellished with votive gifts from Palmyra, setting up statues of Helios and Bel". Three deities from Palmyra exemplified solar features: Malakbel, Yarhibol and Šams, hence the identification of the Palmyrene Helios appearing in Zosimus' work with Malakbel. Some scholars criticize the notion of Malakbel's identification with Sol Invictus; according to
Gaston Halsberghe, the cult of Malakbel was too local for it to become an imperial Roman god and Aurelian's restoration of Bel's temple and sacrifices dedicated to Malakbel were a sign of his attachment to the sun god in general and his respect to the many ways in which the deity was worshiped.
Richard Stoneman suggested another approach in which Aurelian simply borrowed the imagery of Malakbel to enhance his own solar deity. The relation between Malakbel and Sol Invictus can not be confirmed and will probably remain unresolved.