Positioned at a crossroads between the Roman and Parthian empires, the ancient oasis-city of Palmyra thrived in the midst of the Syrian desert. Trade flowed through the city, whose surviving art and architecture bears witness to the blending of Graeco-Roman, Persian, and local cultures. What remains of Palmyra’s substantial ruins, stretching across 3km, gives a sense of the city’s prosperity and grandeur, especially between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, when, under Roman rule, many of the splendid structures were built.
One such structure is the magnificent monumental arch shown here – as it appeared in the 19th century, long before its destruction by Daesh in 2015. It is one of the two vast gateways along the colonnaded avenue that runs through the city, and was possibly built to commemorate Septimius Severus’ victory over the Parthians in AD 197.
This image is one of the earliest known photographs of the ruins of Palmyra, taken by French naval lieutenant Louis Vignes in 1864. Vignes (whose 1859 self-portrait is shown below) came to Palmyra on an expedition funded by the nobleman Honoré Théodore Paul Joseph d’Albert, duc de Luynes. He was recruited for his navigational skills and knowledge of ports in the eastern Mediterranean, but soon added another skill – photography – as the duc arranged for him to be trained up by artist and photographer Charles Nègre. On Vignes’ return to France, Nègre was to print the negatives of the sites and make them into photoengravings ready for publication. He did this with the Dead Sea, Petra, and Transjordan images from the expedition, but after the death of Luynes in 1867, the Palmyra images were left as prints and unpublished.
A set of these remarkable early photographic prints feature in an online exhibition by the Getty Research Institute, where they are joined by views of the ruins created by French architect and artist Louis-François Cassas about 75 years earlier. Return to Palmyra is a re-presentation of the earlier online exhibition The Legacy of Palmyra, with additional new content (in both English and Arabic), including a poignant interview with Waleed Khaled al-As’ad, former Director of Antiquities and Museums at Palmyra, who grew up among the ruins where his father Khaled al-As’ad worked and was murdered by Daesh in 2015.
Return to Palmyra is available at www.getty.edu/palmyra.
IMAGES: Getty Research Institute