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Today it’s a mirage-like expanse of monumental ruins. But under the Roman Empire, Palmyra was a trading metropolis, according to historical and archaeological evidence.

Despite nearly a century of research, though, a key question remains unanswered: How did this city of 200,000 thrive in the middle of an infertile Syrian desert?

Once a required stop on caravan routes that brought Asian goods west to eager Romans, Palmyra has “always been conceived as an oasis in the middle of the desert, but it’s never been quite clear what it was living from,” said Michal Gawlikowski, the retired head of the University of Warsaw’s Polish Mission at Palmyra.

And what an oasis: Among the ruins are grand avenues lined with columns, triumphal arches, and the remains of an ancient market where traders once haggled over silk, silver, spices, and dyes from India and China. Read more.

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