Just a super-speedy flying visit, but it was nice to be there all the same. But the trouble with super-speedy flying visits is that, no matter how nice they are, they always leave you wanting more. There’s just not enough time to do everything. I mean, I need to get to Musee Cluny to see the new entrance and walkways around the thermes, and for the winter expo, Naissance De La Sculpture Gothique. There’s also an exhibition at Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Le Crac des Chevaliers. Chroniques d’un rêve de pierre, examining the architectural and political significance of the Syrian crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers. But, in the end, the short time that I had just had to be spent at the brilliant Institut du Monde Arabe for the exhibition Age-old cities: Virtual trip from Palmyra to Mosul.
The exhibition takes in four ancient and modern cities affected by recent and ongoing conflict, and presents aspects of them as they are, as they were and as they may be in the future. This is not an exhibition of artefacts but of images. Using photographs, films and photogrammetric survey footage, taken using drones (carried out by UNESCO), we get a view of the cities as they are today. The use of drones, in particular, reveals the significant damage, destruction even, of whole swathes of the urban environment, with deserted, bombed-out buildings apparently teetering on the brink of collapse and the still-inhabited areas thick with dust and debris. As I’ve been to three of the places featured in the exhibition, I’ve added in a few photos of mine, taken on my visits. Some of the other photos,which were taken in the exhibition, are a bit blurry, as they’re of moving images.
The exhibition opens with Mosul, a city which I have never visited. On entering the first main exhibition space, I walked into a large-scale panoramic projection of a fly-over of the city as it is now. Now, I’ve seen plenty of drone footage of areas affected by the ongoing conflict but, particularly on a such a large scale, these images of destruction are truly shocking.
Sitting on the west bank of the Tigris, opposite the Assyrian city of Ninevah, and around 400km north of Baghdad, Mosul has existed as a settlement, at this location or hereabouts, for at least 2500 years (Ninevah is far older). Capture by daesh on 10th June 2014 and only retaken by Iraqi forces, after heavy bombardment, on 21st July 2017, Mosul and Mosulis have suffered terribly as a result of the conflict in Iraq, with women and religious minorities particularly badly affected. The city had been known as relatively diverse, with the Iraqi Sunni Muslim majority sharing the city with Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks, Yazidis, Armenians and Mandeans. Although many of the city’s Jews left for Israel in the 1950s, there was still a significant Christian population until the arrival of daesh in 2014.
One of the specific structures zoomed in on was the al-Nuri Mosque. Famous for its leaning minaret (possibly due to the effects of thermal expansion caused by the sun’s heat), the mosque was the focus of pilgrimage and veneration for 850 years. It was the site at which the daesh leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-declared the (so-called) “caliphate” and the daesh flag was flown from the minaret. The mosque was destroyed during the Battle of Mosul in 2017, although there is some disagreement over whether it was destroyed by daesh or by the forces liberating the city.
Still from drone footage of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul.
There is really very little left of the mosque, just the ruin of the domed central hall and the stump of the famous minaret. All the rest is rubble.
As part of the film, we witnessed the digital ‘reconstruction’ of the site. These images are built up using recent photographs from all angles, often people’s holiday snaps (I actually sent some photos of a site in Syria for exactly this purpose), which are digitally stitched together to create a 3d image.
Still from drone footage of the digital reconstruction of the al-Nuri Mosque, Mosul.
Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken 5th November 2009.
Moving on to Aleppo, again drone footage lays bare the scale of destruction. We tak a fly-over, and through, the ancient souks, part of the ‘Ancient City of Aleppo’ World Heritage Site, now severely damaged,
…and up the ramp to the Citadel.
This really brought back memories of my time there, when it looked very different.
Aleppo Citadel. Photo taken on 5th November 2009.
The walls of the Citadel have clearly sustained damage, and it looked like parts of the interior space had too, although I found it a bit difficult to orient myself in this complex site.
The section on Leptis (Lepcis) Magna was less of an agony for me. Although there has been some illegal digging and looting at the site, local residents, working in militias, have tried to stave off the worst of the lawlessness, and there hasn’t been the kind of occupation or intensive bombardment that we have seen at the other sites showcased.
The images I saw looked pretty similar to the way that it looked when I was there 10 years ago. The ancient structures are partial and the site is, largely, a ruin, albeit a very impressive one, but there weren’t obvious signs of recent extensive damage. Nevertheless, the fly-through of the macellum (marketplace) and the virtual reconstruction of the Severan Basilica was pretty impressive and provided a little respite before the final key site featured, one which I knew I would find hard to witness.
Temple of Bel, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.
When I visited Palmyra, and the modern town Tadmur, in late 2009, it was an impressive, pretty well kept ancient site. The main site itself was open for visitor to wander in and look around and it was possible to wander pretty far, as it’s a very large site.
Some people in my hotel were getting up before dawn to go on a camel ride. I, being less interested in camels, got up at the same time and accompanied them for a little way on foot before heading off into the low hills on my own. These hills are the site of the necropolis of Palmyra and I was fortunate enough to have these evocative tower tombs all to myself in the silent, pink, early morning. *
Several of these tombs were destroyed and/or damaged by daesh in 2014/15.
One of the other notable instances of willful vandalism was the dynamiting of the Temple of Bel (above) and I found myself feeling particularly sad at the images of the theatre and the Temple of Baalshamin, when I found myself standing, virtually, in the rubble of the building.
This was a building in which I had stood, gazing at the beautiful decorative friezes and the carved columns, and thanking my good fortune at having the opportunity to be there.
Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.
Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra. Photo taken 8th November 2009.
But I couldn’t help but think past the structural damage and the willful and shocking destruction of the ancient temples, to the devastation wrought on the people living in the modern Palmyrene town of Tadmur. I couldn’t help thinking about the people murdered by daesh in the theatre, including Palmyra’s Head of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad (January 1932 – 18 August 2015).
Throughout the exhibition there are short films, talking heads and personal accounts of the effects of all of this destruction on the people living in these cities but, particularly as a visitor whose French is a bit shaky, the focus of the exhibition really is on the effects of conflict on the built environment. The images recorded by drones are largely devoid of people, the streets thst I remember as bustling and busy with the usual comings and goings of the city, are eerily empty of life. A notable exception is a short film documenting the filmmaker’s return to Aleppo to speak with the people still living there.
He meets the shopkeeper who, despite being surrounded by the dust and debris of countless explosions, still diligently cleans his stock before putting it on display. And there’s the young woman recording a video message on her phone, to send to her sister, who is not in the city.
The young woman doesn’t say anything of any importance, just chats and reads the news and laughs and hopes that she will still be alive tomorrow.
The exhibition ‘Cités millénaires Voyage virtuel de Palmyre à Mossoul‘ is on at the Institut du Monde Arabe until 10th February 2019.
*I had the tombs all to myself except for the small child who chased after me for about half a mile asking for sweets. I had no sweets with me so I gave him a pen. He seemed satisfied with this alternative. I wonder where he is now, and I hope he’s ok.