“The assassination of Allende quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Bohemia, the bloody massacre in Bangladesh caused Allende to be forgotten, the din of war in the Sinai desert drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the massacres in Cambodia caused the Sinai to be forgotten, and so on, and on and on, until everyone has completely forgotten everything.”
Those are Milan Kundera’s words, from “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” (1979). The events are out of order, but as The New York Times Magazine staff pointed out in their now defunct “6th Floor” blog (in which they would “share ideas, arguments, curiosities and links”) back in 2011, “Kundera was showing us not only how one major event sweeps away another, but just how hard it is to remember at all, how disorienting to our own point of view and sense of time it is to try to follow what is going on around us.” The truth of their words (both Kundera’s and those of the NYTimes staff) seems manifestly obvious in the age of the 24 hour news cycle. Various outrages and atrocities happen by the second, and when each one is covered, we reach a saturation point in which that coverage is lost in a monolithic din (this is not, of course, to say that we should not be informed, but rather simply explicating an inevitable consequence of the information feed).
One way to combat, or rather, to resist, the amnesia of saturation is to find recourse in physical objects, in monuments as sites of memory. Of course, so much of our collective memory of monuments is formed by media images (I might think that I know what, say, Angkor Wat looks like despite never having been there. Of course, I do not know what Angkor Wat looks like, I only know what various images of it look like), but these images reference real places, places that one might actually visit, and thus, actually know. The allure of these images comes largely from the fact that they depict something that actually exists, that can be known on a physical level. When we see an image of Angkor Wat (to continue the example), it can be splendid in its own right, as image, but also, as invitation, as a call to an extant place, that, as long as it continues to stand, will continue to generate images, both mediated by photography and video, and, more importantly, unmediated as lived experience. So long as these sites exist, even after their images have been subsumed and forgotten, there will always be places to which we can return, places to reinvigorate our memory, places to see, as if for the first time (and, if our only experience is with images of the place, then truly for the first time). When a physical site is destroyed however, the images of that site become copies without originals, and, as images, subsumed into the media monolith, that is, forgotten.
Less important than the immense human suffering, though still massively important, this is what we are losing across Syria, both at the hands of ISIS and the Syrian and Russian governments – the physical sites of memory. In terms of the destruction of physical monuments one of the most notable occurrences of the ongoing war was the demolition of Palmyra’s monuments by ISIS in 2015 and again in 2017. Palmyra, a city located northeast of Damascus in the heart of the Syrian Desert, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980 for its wealth of ruins and its unique artistic and architectural output, informed by Classical, Arabian, and Eastern aesthetics (there was a strong Jewish presence in Palmyra as well – in the Hebrew Bible the city, referred to as Tadmor, is conquered by King Solomon). It was once an important and prosperous city in the Roman Empire, serving as a meeting place between the Roman west and the Indian and Chinese east (hence the unique mishmash of Palmyrene aesthetics).
Recently, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles (GRI) launched “The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra,” (curated by Frances Terpak and Peter Louis Bonfitto) the institute’s first ever online exhibition. The exhibition website, which in this age of slick web design seems dry and antiquated, brings together a treasure trove of historical documents, artistic renderings, photographs, and digitized statuary and architecture. Accompanying the visuals are long, encyclopedic entries on the history of Palmyra and its importance to the world. The exhibition is thorough, and ends with links to further reading, but it does little to draw interest aside from its subject matter. The presentation is staid, a little academic, a little dry. There is a value to this conservatism – it lets the information take primacy over its presentation – but once the Syrian war ends, and Palmyra’s prominence again begins to fade, the exhibition will likely lose its urgency, and will be subsumed into the infinite void of internet content.
What will not fade, however, are the images. The first two texts we read in the exhibition are dedicated to the “rediscovery” of Palmyra by Louis-François Cassas and Louis Vignes after centuries of obscurity – a rediscovery accomplished by the creation and dissemination of images. Cassas, a French artist and architect, was the first of the two to arrive on the scene. The artist trekked to Palmyra in 1785 and made a series of etchings and drawings of the city. Cassas, as the exhibition points out, sought to “systematically record the artistry and ingenuity of a vanished civilization.” As a result, Cassas’ work primarily focuses on schematic architectural drawings, though it also includes a number of somewhat idealized pieces depicting the Bedouins who had taken up residence among the city’s ruins.
Though Cassas’ work would prove more influential back in Europe, with architects and artists studying his prints and incorporating elements of the Palmyrene aesthetic into their own work, Vignes’ work proves more poignant in the present moment. Vignes, another Frenchman, produced the first known photographs of the ruins of Palmyra in 1864. Vignes’ albumen prints were originally supposed to be incorporated into a larger book on the Middle East, but due to his patron’s death in 1867, the prints of Palmyra were never published. Thanks to the GRI’s exhibition, the prints have been made available and easily accessible to the public.
And the prints are extraordinary – their acquisition and digitization are the greatest achievement of the exhibition. It is primarily these photographs that should draw our focus. What do we see in Vignes’ photographs? The ruins of course – rising up from the sand, scattered, diffuse. In the photographs, the ruins seem somehow monumental and small – even in their immensity, they appear to recede into the desert. The strange spectrality of the photographs is enhanced by their loneliness. Ruined cities, seen without their roads and smaller structures, seemingly have no internal logic. To the untrained eye, each building stands in solitude, perhaps only tangentially related to the surrounding structures. As a historical document, as a witness, Vignes’ photographs are invaluable artifacts, but their value is aesthetic as well as historical.
The photographs, in a perfect mimesis of form and content, are ruins themselves. The albumen prints have decayed with time – fading, splotches, intensely irregular vignetting. Their own dilapidated state makes the ruins of Palmyra, already a sort of ghostly presence (the pictures of the tower tombs, regardless of the era or photographer, will always be eerie to behold), even more spectral. Ruins of course are haunted by the past — it is from their status as past from which they derive their allure, but these photographs, as ruins themselves, become doubly haunted and, in the time of Palmyra’s ongoing destruction, they exist perhaps as our greatest images of the ancient city – their ghostliness enhanced even further by being the decayed photographs of ruins, ruined again.
This ghostliness is, to a certain degree, inherent to all photography. Photographs speak to us far more clearly, far more tragically, than any digital reproduction or artist’s rendering could ever hope to do. In his book “Camera Lucida,” philosopher Roland Barthes summed up the essence (the “noeme”) of photography as “that has been.” This truth, (Barthes, with a wink, said it was “simple, banal; no depth:”), contains an important lesson. Prior to the age of Photoshop, a photographic image showed us only what-has-been, that is, the photograph was a testament to existence. It is in the photograph’s reality that its tragic potential is realized. With every photograph we see time concretized and, as a result in each photograph we must say with Barthes “that is dead and that is going to die.” Take for example an image of a child from the 1870 – the child, in that moment, is alive, and thus, is going to die, but in the present moment the child is already dead (in this way, every photograph depicts the always-already dead).
We might apply the same formula to Vignes’ photographs of Palmyra. The ruins of Palmyra were, at that point, intact (going to die), but, now they have been destroyed (they have died). But what does it mean to say that the ruins have died, or to say that they were, in a way, alive? Ruins seem to be, by their very nature, dead – an ancient Palmyerene resident, if she were somehow transported to 1864, would say that her city had died. But in our present moment, we see ruins not as dead, but as living testament to a dead civilization. We inherit ruins not as dilapidated structures, but, not knowing anything else, as the structures themselves. The Roman Coliseum, for instance, is absorbed into the common aesthetic vernacular not as it once was, but as it currently stands, that is, as a ruin. Ruins, as our only point of contact with the past, are contemporary symbols – symbols of past grandeur, yes, but symbols for our time, (necessarily) for contemporary consumption.
What makes this all more tragic, aside from the incredible loss of world heritage and the immeasurable suffering of Syria, is that ruins, though “alive” for us, were already “dead” – they were never supposed to experience this second death. These ruins were supposed to be the last testament, the last site of memory for Palmyerene civilization. Not contained in the GRI exhibit are photos of the ruined ruins – for those, we can look to the photos in National Geographic, sadly and optimistically published in 2016, between Palmyra’s first and second ISIS occupations. In the ruins of Palmyra’s ruins, both the past, and the present, were destroyed.
As stated in the opening of the article, in our contemporary media situation, we need physical sites more than ever as a means to resist the amnesia of saturation. In this regard, the GRI exhibition, though an admirable and important effort, inevitably falls short. Nothing can replace Palmyra as a physical site. (Consider that word, replace. “re” [again, back]-“place.” “Take the place of” is one meaning, but “put back in place” is an alternate – neither can be achieved, nothing can ever take the place of the ruins, and once destroyed they can never be put back into place. It is the “place,” not just the ruins in the place, that is destroyed). Regardless of how much effort goes into online archives, into digitization (these efforts are immeasurably important), they cannot measure up to the place – one cannot breathe, smell, or truly behold Palmyra on the screen.
So we return to ruins as contemporary symbols of memory and decay. In one sense, the ruins of a ruined Palmyra rob us of this site of memory. They do however, become a monument to a different past, a different decay. Insofar as these ruins of ruins will remain in Palmyra, they will remind future generations of our time (our drive for preservation, our drive for barbarism). In this sense they remain sites of memory and decay, but first and foremost they become monuments to memory’s decay.