Palmyra, the ancient Syrian city ISIS is destroying, preserved online

The Temple of Baalshamin, a building in the ancient city of Palmyra, circa 1864.
The Temple of Baalshamin, a building in the ancient city of Palmyra, circa 1864.PHOTO: NYTIMES
A limestone male bust dated between the 2nd and the 3rd century A.D. that was damaged during the Islamic State occupation of the Syrian city of Palmyra.
A limestone male bust dated between the 2nd and the 3rd century A.D. that was damaged during the Islamic State occupation of the Syrian city of Palmyra.PHOTO: EPA

(NYTIMES) - The Syrian civil war has left nearly a half-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 Islamic State held control of the ancient central city of Palmyra, a boomtown that became a Roman colony in the third century AD.

To their viciousness against the men and women of Syria and northern Iraq, the Islamic State added brutality to culture. In that year they destroyed several temples where Palmyrenes had worshipped 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.

Last spring the Russian-backed Syrian army routed the jihadis, but in December the Islamic Stategroup, also known as ISIS retook Palmyra. Last month they blasted a Roman amphitheatre, as well as a tetrapylon, an entranceway formed by a quartet of columns. On Monday, the Russian defence ministry released drone footage that purports to show new destruction to the theatre, as well as numerous trucks circling the heritage site.

To understand what's being lost, spend time looking at The Legacy Of Ancient Palmyra, a new digital exhibition of prints and photographs of this pre-Islamic metropolis, at The first online exhibition by the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles - a cousin to the J. Paul Getty Museum - 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 are the oldest known photographs of Palmyra, and most have not been seen widely before.

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 neo-Classicism, 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.

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.

Nearly a century later, Vignes took part in a French scientific expedition to the Near East, where he photographed the Dead Sea and the sites of Petra. He then continued to Palmyra by himself, and there, in 1864, he took the first photographs of the ancient city. The expedition's patron died shortly afterward, and so Vignes' Palmyra images, unlike his Petra photographs, were never widely distributed. Some exist only as single prints. The Getty acquired and digitized them two years ago, as ISIS began to destroy the city.

What enthralled Cassas and Vignes about Palmyra is precisely what ISIS hates about it: They discovered the material vestiges of a multilingual and multiconfessional society, nourished by commerce from East and West. In part, ISIS' iconoclasm there has flowed from the polytheistic history of Palmyra, which stands in rebuke to their Salafist convictions. (They have also blown up the tombs of Shiite and Sufi saints, whose interpretations of Islam they consider heretical.) Just as much, ISIS leaders destroy cultural heritage as an incitement - "an act of psychological warfare," as the British archaeologist David Wengrow has said.

It is fitting that these images should circulate digitally - along the same networks that the Islamic State has so effectively used to advertise its own inhumanity. Its war has been waged through images as well as armaments. We need images too, from the past and the present, to guard the ideals we so often fail to realize but cannot live without.

These prints and photographs are more than just testaments to a threatened archaeological inheritance; they are traces of explorations and cross-cultural exchange too many now seek to shut down.