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Critic's Notebook: The Ancient Syrian City ISIS Is Destroying, Preserved Online

The Syrian civil war has left nearly half a million people dead, displaced millions more, and turned its largest city, Aleppo, into an open-air slaughterhouse.

The war is destroying antiquity too. For just under a year, from May 2015 to March 2016, the so-called Islamic State held control of the ancient central city of Palmyra, a boomtown that became a Roman colony in the 3rd century A.D. To their viciousness against the men and women of Syria and northern Iraq, ISIS 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.

In the spring of last year, the Russian-backed Syrian army routed the jihadists — but in December, 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.


These photographs, made from footage taken from the Russian Defense Ministry website, purport to show the tetrapylon, a set of four monuments with four columns each on June 6, 2016, left, and on Feb. 5, 2017, right, in Palmyra, Syria. The ministry has warned that ISIS militants could be planning further demolition of antiquities.

Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, via Associated Press

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 the pre-Islamic metropolis, accessible at getty.edu. It is the first online exhibition by the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles — a cousin to the J. Paul Getty Museum — and 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.


Louis-François Cassas’s imagined view of the tetrapylon, published around 1799.

Getty Research Institute

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.


At left, a detail of the cella ceiling at the Temple of Bel from “The Ruins of Palmyra,” by Robert Wood (London, 1753). At right, a detail of a ceiling at Osterley Park by Robert Adam.

Left, The Getty Research Institute; right, National Trust/Art Resource, NY

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.”

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