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Grade 10 Reading Comprehension Exercises

Palmyra

The Syrian desert is a rugged, hostile expanse of sharp rock, thorns, and scrub grass. There, baked by a merciless sun and chilled beneath the gaze of a poetry-inspiring moon, lies an oasis, Palmyra. She stirs her feet in fine clouds of dust that hand wistfully in the wake of eddying gusts or the passage of herded flocks. She is the bride of the desert.

The bus from the Syrian capital, Damascus, takes roughly four hours to grind eastward through arid landscape to Palmyra. It is still a relatively short journey, considering that camel caravans, which still make the trek today, count time in plodding days rather than mechanical minutes.

Palmyra is an essential halfway-house for desert travellers. Here subterranean veins of water rise to bless the land with life: fertile pastures, drinking holes for fauna and groves of palm trees (from which the town takes its name) which offer shade. For countless centuries, from ancient Greece to the present day, Palmyra’s liquid asset, combined with her strategic location in the centre of the Middle East, has made it a critical staging post for trading routes between Persia, Africa and Europe. The civilization all this trading activity brought with it made Palmyra, if only briefly, the envy of nations.

Records of settled human habitation at Palmyra begin at around 1000 BC when the oasis was established as an Assyrian caravan town of some size. Two hundred years of laid-back Greek rule followed, leaving as its most enduring inheritance, the Acropolis-style Bel Temple. It was not until 106 AD, however, when annexed by the Roman Empire, that Palmyra’s commercial potential was optimized. For more than two centuries, Palmyra flourished as a cosmopolitan trading and transit centre of phenomenal wealth. Many of the town’s most exquisite remains, like its almost perfectly preserved amphitheatre, were constructed during this period.

But of all the historical figures to leave an imprint in the sands of Palmyra, it was a woman – the fiery half Greek, half Arabian Queen Zenobia – who left the most enduring mark. During the latter half of Rome’s rule, Zenobia’s husband, Odenathus, was ruler of the oasis. In 266 AD Odenathus died in suspicious circumstances, some say perhaps even on the orders of Zenobia herself. Claiming to be a descendant of Cleopatra, the resourceful and ambitious Amazon took control of the city. Her short but turbulent reign saw both the best of times and the worst of times for the oasis.

Under Zenobia’s influence Palmyra entered a Golden Age of riches and fame. The great temples were filled with gold, ornamental and adoring statues; huge civic monuments and grand avenues of marble columns were constructed. The city took on an impressive form, the greatness of which can still easily be imagined on viewing the ruins today. However, Zenobia allowed her mind to be filled with expansionist ambitions, perhaps forgetting in her excitement, the humble trading business her civilization was founded on. Encouraged by news of a distracted and weakened Rome in 271 AD, Zenobia gathered her forces and headed west, beginning an ill-fated military campaign against the still mighty empire.

Zenobia’s troops were no match for the battle-hardened legions of the Roman Emperor Aurelian who took two years to reach Palmyra. He then put the city to the torch and its inhabitants to death. The oasis thus fell into a lengthy period of decline. Muslims took it over in 634 AD and it remained in a state of relative peace and obscurity until a massive earthquake in 1089 practically levelled it.

Answer the following questions based on the passage above.

From paragraph 2

1. What does the word ‘grind’ tell you about the journey from Damascus?

From paragraph 3

2. What is Palmyra’s ‘liquid asset’?

From paragraph 4-5

3. What kind of things are Palmyra’s ‘exquisite remains’?

4. Explain in your own words ‘to leave an imprint in the sands of Palmyra’.

From paragraph 6

5. State two reasons why Palmyra might have started a war.

From paragraph 7

6. What reason is given for Rome’s victory?

Answers

  • The journey is slow and difficult.
  • Water
  • Buildings
  • It means Zenobia had an influence on Palmyra which can still be seen.
  • Zenobia wanted to increase the extent of her rule, and Rome had a period of weakness.
  • Roman soldiers were accustomed to fighting.

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