The Syrian civil war has left nearly a half-million people dead, displaced millions more, and turned one of its largest cities, Aleppo, into an open-air slaughterhouse.The war is destroying antiquity too. For just under a year, from May 2015 to March 2016, the Islamic State held control of the ancient central city of Palmyra, a boomtown that became a Roman colony in the third century A.D. To their viciousness against the men and women of Syria and northern Iraq, the Islamic State added brutality to culture. In that year they destroyed several temples where Palmyrenes had worshiped a panoply of pre-Islamic gods. They beheaded the archaeologist Khaled al-Assad, the leading authority on Palmyra’s history, and broadcast his death online. The city’s museum was ransacked. Several captives were tied to ancient columns and executed with explosives: crimes against the present and the past at once.
Last spring, the Russian-backed Syrian Army routed the jihadists — but in December the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) retook Palmyra. Last month they blasted a Roman amphitheater, as well as a tetrapylon, an entranceway formed by a quartet of columns. On Monday, the Russian defense ministry released drone footage that purports to show new destruction to the theater, as well as numerous trucks circling the heritage site.
To understand what’s being lost, spend some time looking at “The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra,” a new digital exhibition of prints and photographs of this pre-Islamic metropolis at getty.edu. The first online exhibition by the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles — a cousin to the J. Paul Getty Museum — it is organized by Frances Terpak, a curator at the institute, and Peter Louis Bonfitto, a research associate there.
The website evokes the syncretic, multicultural wonders of Palmyra, many of which are now destroyed, through two caches of historical images: 18th-century etchings of Palmyra after the drawings of the architect Louis-François Cassas, and 19th-century photographs by Louis Vignes, a French naval officer. The latter were acquired in 2015 by the Getty; they’re the oldest known photographs of Palmyra, and most have not been seen widely before.
Europeans had encountered Palmyra as early as 1691, when a group of English merchants in Aleppo trekked through the desert to see the ruined city, and reported on the mixture of Greco-Roman and Persian motifs in its religious and civic buildings. A 1753 book on Palmyra by the British classicist Robert Wood included painstaking illustrations of the city’s architectural ornamentation, which became a runaway success among British designers. Robert Adam, the dean of Georgian neoclassicism, based the ceilings of Osterley Park, a west London mansion, on those of the Temple of Bel, which feature blooming rosettes set in octagonal recesses.
But the young Cassas, who had developed a passion for antiquity while studying in Rome, illustrated Palmyra with unprecedented dedication. He was dispatched to the Near East by the French ambassador in Constantinople, who commissioned Cassas to document significant sites in Cyprus, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. He arrived in May 1785, just shy of his 29th birthday, and in less than a month Cassas had drawn every building in Palmyra. Some he depicted as he saw them, bestrewn with marble stumps and fallen capitals.
“There are columns and capitals overturned in the middle of entablatures and door frames, richly adorned and half broken,” Cassas wrote. “Beyond all these wonderful ruins extends an ocean of blazing sand, stretching all the way back to the horizon that appears to shimmer like a blue sea.”
Cassas also made careful diagrams of the floor plans and elevations of Palmyra’s buildings, including the Temple of Bel, a monumental house of worship destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Others he retrofitted into capriccios of the multifaith city, whose inhabitants worshiped a collection of Babylonian, Phoenician and Greek gods. Still more of Cassas’s prints captured the ruins of the past amid Orientalist visions of the present: turbaned sheikhs, grinning camels.
Nearly a century later, Vignes took part in a French scientific expedition to the Near East, where he photographed the Dead Sea and the sites of Petra. He then continued to Palmyra by himself, and there, in 1864, he took the first photographs of the ancient city. The expedition’s patron died shortly afterward, and so Vignes’s Palmyra images, unlike his Petra photographs, were never widely distributed. Some exist only as single prints. The Getty acquired and digitized them two years ago, as ISIS began to destroy the city.
Vignes’s hazy, sepia-toned photographs of Palmyra disclose that some of the city’s monuments were in good repair in the mid-19th century—among them the Temple of Baalshamin, now dynamited, where Palmyrenes worshiped a god of Phoenician origin in a Hellenistic setting. Other photographs show antique sites amid piles of rubble. After Syria won its independence in 1946, local and international archaeologists began to excavate at Palmyra, and they unearthed far more of the ancient city — marketplaces, forums, temple foundations — that Vignes’s camera saw only as earth.
What enthralled Cassas and Vignes about Palmyra is precisely what ISIS hates about it: They discovered the material vestiges of a multilingual and multiconfessional society, nourished by commerce from East and West. In part, ISIS’s iconoclasm there has flowed from the polytheistic history of Palmyra, which stands in rebuke to their Salafist convictions. (They have also blown up the tombs of Shiite and Sufi saints, whose interpretations of Islam they consider heretical.) Just as much, ISIS leaders destroy cultural heritage as an incitement — “an act of psychological warfare,” as the British archaeologist David Wengrow has said.
For all the insights of “The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra,” its web design is clunky. Thumbnail images are too small to see properly in the mobile version, while in desktop format Cassas’s prints often appear with severe moiré patterning at lower screen resolution. In one sense, the digital reproductions are no substitute for seeing these prints and photographs in a proper museum show. (More than two dozen of Cassas’s original drawings were on view last year in “Palmyra: What’s Left,” an exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany.)
But in another sense, it is fitting that these images should circulate digitally — along the same networks that ISIS has so effectively used to advertise its own inhumanity. Its war has been waged through images as well as armaments. We need images too, from the past and the present, to guard the ideals we so often fail to realize but cannot live without. These prints and photographs are more than just testaments to a threatened archaeological inheritance; they are traces of explorations and crosscultural exchange too many now seek to shut down.