The Desert Discovery that Delighted the World

As violence destroys ‘The Venice of the Sands’, Robert Ousterhot co-author of a new book on Palmyra, traces how images of the Roman Ruins evolved.

  • A lone figure lends a touch of the Oriental to Félix Bonfils’s dramatic A composition of the Great Colonnade and Monumental Arch, which date from the 2nd century AD

Blessed with legendary status and ruins of mythical proportions, Palmyra has long fascinated travellers. The first visually documented visit to the caravan city in the Syrian Desert was made in 1691 by a British merchant party of 30 gentlemen. Among them, Timothy Lanoy and Aaron Goodyear kept travel journals, extracts of which appeared in Philosophical Transactionsin 1695. Their account was accompanied by a fold-out engraving of the ancient ruins, nearly 70cm wide (pages 4–5, centre). The engraving views the ruins from the south. On the far left is the Temple of Bel (Baal), dedicated in 32ad, reduced to rubble by Islamic State in 2015. On the right, on its hilltop, is the medieval fortress of Qalaat Shirkuh. Other monuments are named, in effect marking the visitors’ itinerary. The published engraving vividly brought Palmyra before the eyes of an international audience.But this was not the oldest illustration.

A couple of years earlier, the Dutch consul to Aleppo had sent a large oil-on-canvas panorama of Palmyra to Amsterdam at the request of Gisbert Cuper, mayor of Deventer, an amateur antiquarian and leading Dutch intellectual of his age. Dated 1693, it was signed by Gerard Hofstede van Essen, a little-known Dutch artist based in Aleppo. More than four metres long, and now the property of the Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam, the canvas is the centrepiece of an exhibition in Deventer (page 4–5, top). It is virtually identical to the fold-out engraving, and both must have derived from drawings made on site, probably by Hofstede himself. As painted by Hofstede and published by Lanoy and Goodyear, the panorama was recycled in numerous versions before it was superseded by that of the antiquarian Robert “Palmyra” Wood, who published a folio in 1753, The Ruins of Palmyra, Otherwise Tedmor, in the Desart. But nothing had prepared Wood for the sight that confronted him: “The hills opening discovered to us, all at once, the greatest quantity of ruins we had ever seen, all of white marble, and beyond them towards the Euphrates a flat waste, as far as the eye would reach… It is scarce possible to imagine anything more striking.”

Wood’s volume presents two kinds of image of the ruins, prepared by the expedition’s draughtsman, Giovanni Baptista Borra. In the measured architectural drawings, presumed lacunae have been filled in and all context removed, while the picturesque views represent (in Wood’s words) the “present state of decay”. The exactitude of the Classical Orders and the picturesque nature of the ruins caught the imagination of many and was one of the inspirations for the Neoclassical Revival in architecture in England, Europe and America – encouraged by the architect Borra, who used his own Palmyra drawings for commissions in England and Italy.The fashion for panoramas persisted, as did the memory of the Lanoy and Goodyear fold-out. Wood felt obliged to include a fold-out panorama, following the model of Philosophical Transactions and, like it, viewed from the south, with the details of the city framed by the Temple of Bel and the Qalaat Shirkuh (pages 4–5, bottom). Wood corrected many of the spatial ambiguities of the older engraving, but he is clearly indebted to it.

By the 19th century, representation of Palmyra in European publications had had been represented was in some senses an advantage. Haynes’s photographs give us a comparatively innocent view of the site, refreshingly free of the standard tropes. According to Haynes, the amateur Orientalist Ward “cared nothing for Palmyra before coming”, but “was delighted with the ample ruins here”. In his own journal, Ward expresses his regret at not being better prepared for their visit. In the photographs, Haynes’s colleagues seem to ponder the ruins rather than possess them – the atmosphere is contemplative rather than heroic. At the same time, the locals appear as inhabitants of the landscape – as if they belong to it, rather than as props included to suit an Orientalist or colonialist agenda. In many ways Haynes’s photographs are more accessible, more believable than those of Bonfils. Eschewing standard views of isolated monuments seen from fixed vantage points, Haynes’s approach is more discursive – we are allowed to wander with him, to puzzle over the identifications and to marvel at the scenery. Unlike those who created the earlier panoramas, he was content to climb nearby hills for a bird’s-eye view. Haynes’s primary interest in photography was documentary – that is, in the service of archaeology – but his many picturesque views of Palmyra capture our attention, and most importantly, make the site accessible to a contemporary viewer.Recent events have taken a devastating toll on the monuments: the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin, the Monumental Arch, the tower tombs and much figural sculpture were wantonly destroyed by the forces of Islamic State in 2015. As a result, Haynes’s photographs are all the more precious.

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