Syrian Woman

Syrian Woman

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Syrian Woman


This portrait from the Riley collection is believed to have been taken off a funerary monument from Palmyra, Syria, in the early third century CE. Based on research of the lives of the Palmyrens and their funerary reliefs, a vague but somewhat accurate picture of the woman can be assembled.

This woman was most likely a freeborn, although lower class, woman. Based on the known trends of Syrian art at the given period, it is likely that the woman had vey little monetary wealth upon her death, explaining the lack of any jewlery besides the headress being depicted in this statue. The woman was probably born in Syria of Arabic descent, and her age at the time of death was somewhere between thirty-five and forty. There are deep lines in her cheeks depicting this aging process, but the lack of other facial wrinkles gives the assumption that she died rather young. Based om the sunken cheekbones and large eyes, as well as the fact that she was most likely poor, it can be assumed that had been in relatively poor health at the time of her death, probably heightened by meager food and strenous activity.

The decpition of the woman's right hand caressing her cheek, although not completely uncommon in Syrian portrature, draws attention to her hand and makes the assumption that she may have worked much with them. From this, it can be speculated that perhaps she was a midwife, an idea that shall assumed for the rest of the profile.

She probably was betrothed early to her husband, possibly as young as six. By fourteen she was married to him, and taken into his home as not just the mother of his future heirs but to help out at the store, as most men of Palmyra are merchants. By fifteen she produced her first child, a son, and at sixteen her second birth ended both in the loss of the child andher own inability to produce further offspring.At the time of her death she was most likely widowed, her husband possibly dying as few as five years ago,but continues to live in the same house with her still unmarried son who by then would be running his father's store.

Because of their low income, she would have had no household slaves, leaving the woman not only with all household responsibilities, but with responsibilities in the store as well.

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Until the son grew old enough to apprentice in his father's store, she served whenever her husband was called away, as well as neatening the supplies. This did give her a moderate knowledge of mathematics, as well as reading and writing, which was not uncommon in a merchant town.

Most of the woman's companionship was probably provided by contact with the women for whom she acted as midwife and nurse. To these women, especially those who were having a child for the first time, she would have been like a mother figure, both well-respected and revered. This admiration, however, would have been countered by the men of the town, who would have been resentful that they could not afford a doctor to care for thier wives, and slightly aprehesive of a woman having so much responsibilty for the lives of their future heirs.

A typical day for this woman woould involve awakening early in order to prepare the morning meal for her son and tidy the store before customers arrived. She would then take most of the day to stop in on the women about town preparing to give birth, in most cases accepting goods rather than money for her services, and only taking whatever the family could afford to give. She would arrive home in the early evening to put together a final meal for her son, who would have eaten whatever she had prepared earlier while she was away. After putting the house in order she would most likely be drying herbs or other objects with healing properties, acting as a makeshift healer along with midwife. She would retire early, aware that at any time her sleep would be interrupted in order to provide her services to a woman in labor. Her public life would vary quite drastically from day to day. The woman would quite often be ignored by the more prestigious members of society, who would shun her for her low standing. Yet for a short time after delivering a new child, she would be met with gratitude by all members of that family, especially the father. Only at her funeral would the townspeople gather to pay her the respect that she should have recieved every day for the service she provided to the community.

As a spiritual woman and healer, she would have been a devoted follower of Atargis, the Syrian version of the Egyptian goddess Isis, known for her resserective and healing powers. This quiet woman would have a serene version of leadership, for her words and skilled fingers would lend much to the most terrified new mothers.

It would be reassuring to believe that this woman's life, although simple, was full of ample joy. Yet the harshness in the features of her funeral relief, the wrinkled, and the sad stare of her eyes suggest a life full of hardwork and misfortune. the lack of many children, the death of her husband, and the likely severity of her life contrasts to the idea of the woman filled with hope at the birth of each new child she delivered.
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