The reliefs, which date from between the second and third century A.D., come largely from the Federico Zeri bequest, which entered the Vatican Museums collections in 1999.
They originate from Palmyra, an important caravan city in the Syrian desert which developed significantly between the first and third centuries A.D., representing a sort of neutral territory between Rome and Persia and connecting the Mesopotamic East with the Mediterranean West. Although it became a Roman colony, it always maintained substantial economic autonomy. It was finally destroyed and looted of its riches in 272 by the emperor Aureliano who reduced it to a simple village.
The city is surrounded by necropolises, which include three types of tomb: those in the form of a tower, belonging to the city’s aristocratic class, and the mound and underground types for the middle classes who grew rich through trade, and for the people at large. The loculi inside the tower and underground tombs were sealed with limestone slabs decorated with a likeness of the deceased, generally identified by an Aramaic inscription engraved above the shoulders.
These burial reliefs offer documentary evidence fundamental for reconstructing the social fabric of this flourishing city. The female portraits in particular offer an abundance of ornaments that may be subdivided into well-defined parures, and which are presented as reworkings of fashions and models influenced by the Hellenistic-Roman West and the Parthian-Sassanid East.