With ISIS targeting and destroying ancient cultural sites in Syria and Iraq, reducing some to just rubble, it may be that views of these historic structures will survive only in photographs. The Getty Research Institute (GRI) announced yesterday its acquisition of a suite of photographs that offer rare glimpses of some of these places as they stood 150 years ago. Captured in 1864 by French naval officer Louis Vignes, the crisp, well-preserved pictures show sites in present day Beirut, Lebanon, and the Roman ruins in Palmyra, Syria. Among the 47 albumen prints are the earliest printed photographs of Palmyra, showing the Temple Baalshamin and Temple of Bel, both of which ISIS is believed to have recently obliterated, in August and September, respectively. Other images show panoramas of Beirut’s port — the region’s most significant in the 19th century — and views of the city surrounded by grand pine trees.
“These photographs represent rare primary documents of a region and World Heritage Site in crisis, preserving the memory of its ancient monuments and natural beauty for posterity,” GRI’s curator of photography Frances Terpak said in a statement. “Additionally, Vignes’ striking photographs are exceedingly important as documents both for the history of archaeology, which blossomed in the mid-nineteenth century, and the history of photography — having been printed by Charles Nègre.”
The photographs were captured on an expedition financed by the Duke of Luynes, a French art collector, archaeologist, and scientist. Interested in Christianity’s biblical and historical past, the duke commissioned Vignes, also a trained photographer, to document Beirut and Palmyra as part of his greater investigation of the region. Nègre, himself a photographer, printed all of them, including the set of 47 just acquired by GRI.
The fact that the World Heritage Site of Palmyra is now vastly demolished makes the black-and-white images all the more haunting. Vignes’s lens captured the Temple of Bel and the Temple Baal Shamin with their monumental walls still intact, as well as shots of the city’s great colonnade, attached to sturdy triumphal arches, and tombs that bordered it.
“Beirut, Lebanon, and Palymyra, Syria, have been irreparably altered both by the 1975 Lebanese war and the current Syrian war,” Getty Research Institute Director Thomas W. Gaehtgens said. “In the face of the unspeakable human tragedy and cultural destruction of these conflicts, there is little scholars can do but strive to record, preserve, and interpret the historical record of these tremendously important historic sites. Because of recent events, these rare photographs are now even more valuable as research documents for scholars of the Middle East.”