The ancient city of Palmyra, also known as Tadmor, was an oasis surrounded by olive trees and date palms in the Syrian desert. While archaeological finds date back to the Neolithic period in Tadmor, the ancient city was first mentioned in some of the texts unearthed at the Kültepe archaeological site, also known as Kanesh, in Turkey's central Kayseri province and in texts from the ancient city of Mari in modern-day eastern Syria.
Some biblical texts associate the founding of Palmyra with King Solomon of ancient Israel. Roman writer and statesman Gaius Plinius Secundus, called Pliny the Elder, describes Palmyra as a state having a destiny of its own at the intersection of the mighty empires of Rome and Parthia.
When the ancient city came under Roman control in the mid-first century A.D., it was well-situated on a path linking land and sea trading corridors, which allowed Palmyrenes to get wealth from trade caravans running from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, or vice versa. Thus, these locals became merchants establishing colonies along the Silk Road.
In such a condition, it was indispensable for the great caravan city to become a center of multiculturalism. Between the great empires of Rome and Parthia, the city turned into the stage of cultural exchange in every aspect of life. The architectural ornaments of Greco-Roman art with Persian influences prove the cultural diversity of the city.
The axis of the city features an 1,100-meter-long colonnaded street which links major monuments like the Temple of Bel, agora and theater. Along with the notable structures, Palmyra also houses many funerary monuments, which are primarily tower-shaped. In 1980, the historical site was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
“Every part of Palmyra’s terrain is considerably enhanced by monumental rubble. There are columns and capitals overturned in the middle of entablatures and door frames, richly adorned and half broken. 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,” French artist and architect Louis-François Cassas said while recounting his entry to the ancient city in 1785. Cassas arrived in Palmyra as part of his travel to the Eastern Mediterranean for a diplomatic mission to the Ottoman court. Marie-Gabriel-Florent-Auguste de Choiseul-Gouffier, then-French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, charged him with recording important monuments in eastern countries including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
With his hundreds of drawings, among which the most attractive ones belonged to Palmyra, Cassas formed the basis of his publication titled “Picturesque Travels in Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine and Lower Egypt” during his three-year journey. With an orientalist and antiquarian perspective, the French artist portrayed local Bedouins along with the civic and religious architecture of Palmyra featuring ancient blocks and columns before departing for Lebanon with a caravan of 500 camels. His drawings surely recorded the authenticity of the ancient city.
In the following period, Cassas became a professor of drawing in his country. He probably used his drawings as material for teaching and recast his drawings into etchings with his students for publications. He thought that they would be a perfect inspiration for everyone dealing with decorative arts.
Cassas was not the only one who created a visual record of this ancient site of spellbinding architecture, being mesmerized by the artistry of its civilization. Sea captain and photographer Louis Vignes also photographed the earliest images of Palmyra’s ruins some 75 years after Cassas.
When French nobleman Honore Theodore Paul Joseph d’Albert, the eighth Duke of Luynes, set course for the Dead Sea to explore the region around it, Vignes joined his team. Famous for his navigational skills and knowledge of Eastern Mediterranean ports, Vignes received training from photographer Charles Negre by the order of the duke. After their expedition, he continued to Palmyra via Beirut to aim his camera lens at its historical monuments while the duke returned to Paris. His photos were printed by Negre after the captain’s return. As these rare photos were in the possession of the Luynes family, they remained unknown for years.
However, leading global arts organization Getty brings both Cassas’ drawings and Vignes’ photos together with art and history enthusiasts to reveal the legacy of Palmyra in its newest online exhibition. Inviting visitors to reexplore the rich history of this ancient Syrian city, the exclusive show titled “Return to Palmyra” features Vignes’ photos along with an extraordinary collection of trial prints made after Cassas’ drawings. Therefore, visitors witness the legacy of the ancient city in addition to its contributions to humanity through the stories and works of the two significant figures.
The show includes a detailed history of Palmyra by prominent scholar Joan Aruz, the curator emerita of ancient Near Eastern art at the New York's famed Metropolitan Museum of Art and a moving interview with Waleed Khaled al-As’ad, director emeritus of antiquities and museums at Palmyra.
When you read the essay by Aruz, you will have the chance to learn details about the wondrous site of Palmyra with its sun-drenched antiquities. The scholar mentions the landscapes, history of interaction in the city and its condition during the Roman and Parthian empires in her writing. Her essay also provides satisfactory information about how art of this civilization was shaped and how their caravan trade began, both of which made Palmyra a star.
The touching interview with al-As’ad also offers a different angle from the history of the ancient city. One of the major impacts of the Syrian War, which broke out 10 years ago, has been the destruction of cultural sites. The ancient city of Palmyra was among these sites, and it was heavily damaged especially during in Daesh’s bombing campaigns in 2015 and during the Palmyra offensive by the Bashar Assad regime in 2017. Speaking to art and archaeology historian Ridha Moumni, al-As’ad, who grew up among the ruins of Palmyra, tells of Daesh’s destruction in the city and his personal experiences and memories about the city.
Despite everything, al-As’ad reminds us of the importance of protecting cultural heritage and shares an expression by his father: “As my father, God rest his soul, used to say, ‘A human being without a past is a human being with no present and no future.’”
This special exhibition on the ancient city of Palmyra, which evoked many poetic phrases like “bride of the desert,” sends a message of hope to the world: Maybe the people of the ancient city will return and rebuild it ... The digital content of the exhibition, prepared in both English and Arabic, will run for three years.