The ancient city of Palmyra once stood as a cultural epicenter of the Middle East. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 1980s, it was historically a region of trade and artistry for both the Romans and Parthians. Palmyra is globally recognized as an architectural oasis with ruins dating back to the first century, with visitors often comparing its grand architecture to that of Rome, or a ‘Venice of Sands’ as it is affectionately nicknamed. But this city that stood preserved for centuries has been irreversibly altered in the course of just a few war-torn years.
Image of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, before and after ISIS occupation, Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
In May 2015, ISIS took control of Palmyra and systematically began destroying its cultural heritage. This iconoclasm — the act of destroying religious symbols viewed as heretic — is not unique to Palmyra. ISIS has leveled temples in Nimrud to dust and torched ancient manuscripts in Mosul. But Palmyra is notable in that its defining character was it’s archeological history, and with the militant group’s complete and total pillage of the area, it will not only have to be physically rebuilt once the dust has settled, but preservationists, archaeologists and historians will have to recreate its history.
There are a few organizations trying to reclaim the memory of Palmyra while they still can. The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has launched an online exhibit which aims to continue Palmyra’s legacy as a window into our collective histories.
Colonnade Street with Temple of Bel in background, Georges Malbeste and Robert Daudet after Louis-François Cassas. Etching.
The digital exhibit focuses on the works of two early artists who documented the state of Palmyran artifacts and architecture. The first, Louis-François Cassas, was an 18th century architect sent to the Middle East with the task of recording ancient monuments across Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Over the course of a month, Cassas created etchings of Palmyra which now offer a glimpse into the artistic triumphs of the Greco-Roman city. The Institute’s incorporation of Cassas’ work offers a perspective of the city through the eyes of an artist who aimed to expose the grandiosity and ingenuity of the region.
Temple of Bel, southwest exterior corner of the courtyard, Louis Vignes, 1864
Interspersed with Cassas’ works are photographs from the 19th century French sea captain Louis Vignes. Vignes traveled to Palmyra in the late 1800s following a scientific expedition in the Dead Sea. Once he reached Palmyra, Vignes purposed the emerging medium of photography to capture some of the earliest known images of the ruins. The Institute’s pairing of these photographs with Cassas sketches creates a visually diverse online platform which successfully paints an image of the richness of a once thriving historical site.
Image from 360 Cities Palmyra Syria Amphitheater, Willy Kaemena, 2007
As war continues to wreak havoc on arguably the most historic region on Earth, digital exhibits like “The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra” are likely to grow in popularity and importance. Beyond The Getty’s exhibit, artists and photographers are utilizing new technology to preserve a Palmyra they once knew. Take, for example, the 360 degree panoramic photography produced by Willy Kaemena. Through the 360 Cities digital platform, the viewer is able to explore the ruins of Palmyra as they once were — thriving tourist destinations. These projects, and others like them, allow for an audience to become immersed in the imagery of a faraway place, encouraging understanding and, hopefully, an urge to defend other historic places from suffering a similar fate.