A few years after the ancient city of Palmyra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, Carolyn Brown made the first of three trips to the Syrian site to photograph one of the most magnificent cultural centers of the ancient world . A poignant documentation of a cultural site destroyed by ISIS, Brown’s images of Palmyra are now on view until January 2 at the Crow Museum of Asian Art at the University of Texas at Dallas in the Dallas Arts District.
Brown began taking photos while studying art history at the American University in Cairo. She bought a camera to photograph the Fatimid and Mamluk mosques in Cairo. His love of ancient sites and his fascination with the photographic process inspired him during his travels in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Turkey.
Traveling to the Middle East in the 1980s was an adventure for Brown. Americans were highly regarded and as a Western woman she was considered a third sex. “I’ve been given as much respect as a man,” Brown said.
When she first arrived in Palmyra, Brown was amazed at her unrestricted access to the ancient site. “To see it all spread out, there were no fences, there were no tourists, there were no guards. The bus was passing right by the great arch, ”Brown said. “It had not been greatly restored. It was still coming back to nature, which in my eyes is beautiful, rather than giving something back so that we wouldn’t recognize it. It was very special that way.
During her second trip to Palmyra, she was a guest of the Cham Palace hotels. The hotel was located on site and she could easily get out of her hotel early in the morning or later in the day for photo tours. His images focus on structures with only a few glimpses of human figures exploring the site or running through the ancient remains on a bicycle.
Working with a tripod and a cable shutter release, Brown composed his shots using Hasselblad and Fuji medium format multi-lens panoramic equipment. “I had to do several poses to make sure I got one just because when I did that, we didn’t have the ability to retouch like we do now, to accentuate the colors of any of the contrasts. We just had to do with what we had, ”Brown said.
This exhibition presents 12 large format photographs of Palmyra. Brown’s collection of 7,500 photographs is now archived at the University of Texas at Dallas. “His work truly captures the humanity here, the humanity behind these buildings, behind this site and the history behind it,” said Dr. Michael Thomas, director of the University’s Edith O’Donnell Institute. from Texas to Dallas and co-curator. of this exhibition. “You can really imagine it as this amazingly beautiful city that must have emerged from the desert as you approached it with many monumental buildings and a long history.”
Palmyra’s wealth caught the attention of many occupiers, eventually falling under the control of the Roman Empire. “Its location is an oasis and from the third millennium BC [Before Common Era], it was a place of occupation. It has become a very important stopover on the caravan routes through the Syrian desert because of its oasis, ”said Thomas.
Brown’s photographs capture the intricate architectural details that indicate multiple cultural influences. “The buildings you see, which Carolyn captured, represent her history as a Roman site very well,” Thomas said. “But they also have a lot of local characteristics. There are architectural details which are not Roman and which really come from the Near Eastern architectural language.
Panoramic photographs give the city a sense of life, as if a visitor could step into the scene and stroll through the colonnaded streets. “These wonderful colonnaded streets are truly one of Palmyra’s greatest features, and most of them are unique to it. There are no such streets in other sites, at least not to this degree, ”Thomas said. “What Carolyn does for a place is what a great portrait painter does for a person. She paints a picture of these great places.
ISIS first captured Palmyra in 2015. The Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel exploded in August 2015. Khaled al-Assad, a famous scholar of antiques, was beheaded when he refused to reveal the location of significant artifacts. His body was hanged from a column in the ancient site. The terrorist group used the city’s 2nd-century Roman theater for public executions before destroying part of the structure in 2017.
The images of New York Times photographer Bryan Denton. Denton had only a few hours to photograph the aftermath of the destruction of Palmyra.
This modern destruction makes Brown’s photographs even more important. “These are really now documents from this wonderful site that no longer exists. Just as we are trying to rebuild Notre Dame, I think there is an effort and a desire in Syria to rebuild much of it and hopefully bring it back, ”Thomas said. “It was truly one of Syria’s great national treasures.”
Brown hopes his work will expand the common understanding of the Middle East. “Like me, it just opens up the world and other cultures and other types of architecture and the land in the Middle East. I think most people, all they know about the Middle East is war and famine, ”Brown said. “I only did it because I liked it.”