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 beautiful cultural centers of antiquity. Brown’s images of Palmyra, a poignant documentation of a cultural site destroyed by ISIS, are now on display through January 2 at the Crow Museum of Asian Art at the University of Texas at Dallas in the Dallas Arts District.
Brown started taking pictures while studying art history at the American University in Cairo. She bought a camera to photograph the Fatimid and Mameluk mosques in Cairo. Her love for ancient sites and fascination with the photographic process inspired her travels to Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Turkey.
Traveling in the Middle East in the 1980s was an adventure for Brown. Americans were loved and as a Western woman she was considered a third gender. “I got as much respect as a man,” said Brown.
When she first arrived in Palmyra, Brown was amazed at her unrestricted access to the old site. “To see all this spread out, there were no fences, there were no tourists, there were no guards. The bus drove right past the big arch,” Brown said. “It hadn’t recovered much. It was still going back to nature, which in my eyes is beautiful, instead of fixing something so that you can’t recognize it anymore. So it was very special.”
On her second trip to Palmyra, she was a guest at the Cham Palace Hotels. The hotel was on the property and she could easily step out of her hotel in the early morning hours or later in the day for photographic excursions. Her images focus on the structures with just a few glimpses of human figures exploring the site or racing bicycles through the ancient remains.
Working with a tripod and cable release, Brown compiled her shots using a medium format multi-lens Hasselblad and Fuji panorama equipment. “I had to do several exposures to make sure I got one right because when I did this 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 go with what we got,” Brown said.
This exhibition shows 12 large-scale photographs of Palmyra. Brown’s collection of 7,500 photographs is now archived at the University of Texas at Dallas. “Her work really captures the humanity here, the humanity behind these buildings, behind this site and the history behind it,” says Dr. Michael Thomas, director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas and co-curator of this exhibit. “You can really imagine this as this astonishingly beautiful city that must have erupted from the desert as you approached it with many monumental buildings and a wide history.”
Palmyra’s wealth caught the attention of many occupiers and eventually came under the control of the Roman Empire. “The location is an oasis and as early as the third millennium BC [Before Common Era], it was a place of habitation. It became a very important stop on the caravan routes through the Syrian desert because of its oasis,” Thomas said.
Brown’s photographs capture the intricate architectural details that indicate multiple cultural influences. “The buildings you see, which Carolyn conquered, represent very well the history of the Roman site,” Thomas said. “But they also have many local features. There are some architectural details that are not Roman, and really come from the near-Eastern architectural language.”
The panoramic photos make the city feel alive, as if a visitor could enter the stage and walk through the colonnades. “These beautiful colonnaded streets are truly one of the greatest features of Palmyra and for the most part are unique to it. There are no such streets in other locations, at least not to this extent,’ Thomas said. “What Carolyn does for a place is what a great portraitist does for a person. She paints a portrait of these amazing places.”
ISIS first captured Palmyra in 2015. The Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel were blown up in August 2015. Khaled al-Assad, a famous antiquary, was beheaded when he refused to reveal the location of important artifacts. His body was hung from a column in the old spot. The terrorist group used the city’s second-century Roman theater for public executions before destroying part of the structure in 2017.
Contrasting with Brown’s peacetime photography are the images of New York Times photographer Bryan Denton. Denton had only a few hours to photograph the aftermath of Palmyra’s destruction.
This modern destruction makes Brown’s photographs even more important. “These are really documents from this beautiful site that no longer exists. Just as we are trying to rebuild Notre Dame, I think there is an effort and desire in Syria to rebuild and hopefully bring back a lot of this,” Thomas said. “This was truly one of Syria’s great national treasures.”
Brown hopes her work will increase the general understanding of the Middle East. “Like me, it just opens up the world and other cultures and other types of architecture and the country 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.”