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Mysterious 'lord of the universe' deity from ancient Palmyra finally identified

Ancient Roman time town in Palmyra, Syria. Mostly destroyed, we do see several columns standing tall. in the background there is a hill with a settlement on top against a blue, clouded sky.
The ancient city of Palmyra flourished around 2,000 years ago as a hub for trade. (Image credit: Waj via Shutterstock)

The identity of an unknown god described in inscriptions from the ancient city of Palmyra, located in modern-day Syria, has long baffled scientists. But now, a researcher declares that she has cracked the case.

Palmyra existed for millennia and the city flourished around 2,000 years ago as a center of trade that connected the Roman Empire with trade routes in Asia, such as the Silk Road. 

The anonymous deity is mentioned in numerous Aramaic inscriptions at Palmyra and is referred to as "he whose name is blessed forever," "lord of the universe" and "merciful," according to Science in Poland (opens in new tab), a news site run by the Polish government and independent journalists. Many of these inscriptions date back around 2,000 years.

Related: Airstrikes blast 3,000-year-old temple in Syria

To solve this mystery, Aleksandra Kubiak-Schneider, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wrocław in Poland, compared the inscriptions from Palmyra to inscriptions found throughout Mesopotamia that date to the first millennium B.C. She discovered that the gods worshiped in Mesopotamia were referred to with similar names as the anonymous god from Palmyra. For example, "Bel-Marduk" — the supreme god of Babylon — was also referred to as "merciful." The phrase "lord of the world" — a title similar to "lord of the universe" was sometimes used to refer to Baalshamin, a sky god Kubiak-Schneider told Science in Poland. 

Kubiak-Schneider told Science in Poland  that the anonymous "god" mentioned in the Palmyra inscriptions is not a single god, but rather multiple deities that include Bel-Marduk and Baalshamin. She also contends that people did not mention the name of the deities as a sign of respect. 

Additionally, when people wrote the inscriptions invoking divine intervention, they were not always reaching out to a specific god but rather any god that would listen to their prayers. "There was no one anonymous god, every god who listened and showed favor to requests deserved an eternal praise," Kubiak-Schneider said. 

Live Science contacted scholars not involved with the research to get their viewpoints. The researchers that replied reacted with caution toward the proposal.

Kubiak-Schneider "presented [a] hypothesis to the scientific community which will discuss it and each scholar will decide to accept it or reject it presenting [their] counterarguments in the latter case," Leonardo Gregoratti, a researcher who has studied the history and archaeology of Palmyra and the surrounding region extensively, told Live Science in an email.

One researcher, who commented on condition that they not be named, agreed that the unnamed deity likely refers to multiple deities, but was concerned that some of the Babylonian texts that Kubiak-Schneider studied dated centuries earlier than the inscriptions from Palmyra. 

Kubiak-Schneider did not return requests for comment at time of publication. Her results were published recently in the e-book (translated from French) "Dedications without theonym of Palmyra Blessed (be) his name for eternity (opens in new tab)" (Brill, 2021). 

Originally published on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.