Pictures of ruins come with a certain built-in poignancy—what was once grand has now crumbled. But another layer of pathos settles when the ruins themselves are destroyed. In Louis Vignes’ 1864 photographs of Palmyra, Syria, a UNESCO World Heritage Site northeast of Damascus, the ancient city stands framed by a desert landscape. The site itself is now under threat from the ongoing civil war, but 47 of Vignes’ photos of Palmyra and Beirut, Lebanon, were recently acquired by The Getty Research Institute, preserving historical records of these places.
“The ongoing Syrian Civil War now threatens to obliterate Palmyra utterly. 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,” says Frances Terpak, curator of photography at the Getty Research Institute, 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.”
A French navel officer trained by the pioneering photographer Charles Nègre,Vignes traveled to Syria and Lebanon as part of an expedition financed by art collector and archeologist Duke de Luynes. In Beirut he made views showing the port city ringed by pine trees. At Palmyra, a settlement dating back to the Neolithic period that flourished during the Roman Empire, Vignes recorded the monumental colonnade and tombs at the edge of the city. His negatives were printed by Nègre for the Duke’s personal collection before their patron’s death in 1867.
Palmyra was seized by ISIS forces in May, and since then, two of the temples Vignes recorded—Temple of Bel and the Temple of Baal Shamin—have been reported destroyed. Just this week, the Arch of Triumph, built by the Romans to celebrate a victory over the Persians and depicted by Vignes, was reported destroyed. “Beirut, Lebanon and Palymyra, Syria have been irreparably altered both by the 1975 Lebanese war and the current Syrian war. 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,” says Thomas W. Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute, in a statement. “Because of recent events, these rare photographs are now even more valuable as research documents for scholars of the Middle East.”