Once adorned with gold and paint, this ornate limestone bust depicts a prosperous resident of the ancient city.
By Dr. Kenneth Lapatin
Curator of Antiquities
J. Paul Getty Museum
Hadirat Katthina has come to the Getty Villa. The J. Paul Getty Museum recently acquired the portrait of a woman who lived—and died—in the fabled ancient Syrian caravan city of Palmyra around the years 200 to 220. She is named by an inscription above her left shoulder in the local dialect of Aramaic that also identifies her as the daughter of Sha’ad and ends with the poignant exclamation “Alas.” Similar inscriptions appear on many of the funerary reliefs from Palmyra, sited advantageously at an oasis midway between the River Euphrates and the Mediterranean.
Enriched in the first three centuries of our era by luxury trade between the Roman and Parthian empires, and others further east, Palmyran merchants and caravan drivers adorned their city with splendid temples, colonnaded streets, and other civic monuments. At the edge of the site, they constructed impressive tower tombs for their families and cut large underground communal burial chambers (hypogea) from the living rock. Each of these housed the remains of hundreds of related individuals in niches that were sealed with limestone slabs carved with portraits of the deceased, in high relief, slightly under life-size, usually from above the waist. The stacked original arrangement of the portraits is seen clearly in engravings published by the late-eighteenth-century French antiquarian Louis-François Cassas.
We do not know when Hadirat Katthina left Palmyra. Many Palmyran funerary portraits were removed from the site by European explorers starting in the mid-1700s.
A Beautiful, Prosperous Palmyran
Hadirat Katthina’s relief shares many features with the more than 3,600 other Palmyran funerary portraits known today. She faces forward, eyes open and alert, with incised eyebrows, irises, and pupils. Her oval face, turned slightly to her left, has a thin nose with wide nostrils, small mouth with full, closed lips, and dimpled chin. A long veil with scalloped upper edges covers most of her head along with a tightly bound “turban” with a central loop, but her long, thick hair nonetheless flows out from a central part in abundant waves. She wears a light, long-sleeved tunic and pulls a heavier fringed mantle tightly around her.
Hadirat Katthina’s right hand protrudes from her garment and her elongated fingers grasp its edge in a gesture associated with the virtue of modesty in ancient Roman funerary reliefs. Her lowered left arm crosses her body diagonally and the hand, with fingers extended, rests below her right elbow. Her long neck, with the pronounced fleshy folds conventionally called “Venus rings” by scholars of ancient art, is adorned by a beaded necklace, and she also wears pendant earrings and a jeweled ring at the base of the now-broken little finger of her left hand. There are also slight losses to her right little finger and the tip of her nose.
Today, we cannot know how accurate this depiction of Hadirat Katthina is. We have no physical remains and no way to reconstruct her actual appearance. We do not know how old she was when she died, or if the sculptor who carved this portrait knew or had even seen her. But the way she is represented tells us how she or her family wished her to be thought of. The portrait presents a construction of her social identity, emphasizing specific communal norms: she is beautiful, albeit modest and contained, and also prosperous, belonging (or aspiring to belong) to the local elite.
Provenance and History
Palmyra is located at a desert oasis, and we know from textual evidence that the wealth of the city in ancient times derived from the transport to the ancient Mediterranean world of valuable, lightweight items such as spices, perfumes, silks, and other luxurious textiles, dyes, and gems from Persia, the Arabia Peninsula, India, and even China; gold, wine, and other commodities were traded in the opposite direction.
As the bright pigments that once adorned this and other Palmyran funerary reliefs are lost — except for traces of red in the inscription and flecks of gold in her hair and on her veil— we cannot be certain what gemstones might have been represented in the earrings, necklace, and ring, but the first, at least, are likely to have been pearls. Indeed, although hailing from a desert city, Palmyran ship captains controlled maritime trade along the shores of the Persian Gulf, and early second-century inscriptions attest to Palmyrans serving as magistrates in the ancient pearl-trading center of Thilouana (the island of Tylos, present-day Bahrain) and other sites in the region.
The exact date of this portrait is unknown. Only 3% of Palmyran reliefs are precisely dated by their inscriptions, and scholars use comparison with these to assign more general dates the vast majority of others.
Our earliest record of this relief dates to September 28, 1940, when New York dealer Joseph Brummer purchased it from Elias Solomon David. Shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War, Hadirat Katthina was displayed at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco in an exhibition celebrating the art of 49 countries whose representatives had come to the city to draft the charter of the United Nations. (J. Paul Getty lent his famous Ardabil carpet, subsequently gifted to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as one of two works representing Iran.)
Sadly, the prospects for world peace and respect for diverse cultural heritage have not lived up to the hopes of that time, especially in Syria, where sites like Palmyra have been brutally attacked in recent years by ISIS and other groups. Between 2015 and 2017 many of the site’s most important monuments were deliberately destroyed, the remaining funerary reliefs removed, and local inhabitants displaced or murdered, like the 83-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad.
Arriving at the Getty Villa, where she joins another Palmyran, Maqi, son of M’ani, Hadirat Katthina ends 79 years of wandering.