In Venice, the stones of Syria

Sammy Dalati

Sammy Dalati Exhibitions

Syria Before the Deluge, an exhibition on view in the Palazzo Mora as an adjunct to the Venice Biennale, features forty photographs shot by Peter Aaron in Syria—in Damascus, Palmyra, Aleppo, and at other sites—in 2009, two years before the storm of civil war broke over the nation.

  • Inside court of the Mosque of Abraham (Ibrahim), Aleppo Citadel. This spot is holy to all three of the monotheistic faiths, for the patriarch Abraham is said to have milked his flocks on this spot.

In these images, ancient stoneworks laid by Romans, Byzantines, Mamluks, and a handful of other civilizations of the remote past blend in with the dusty ground as if produced by the desert itself. Aaron learned a few tricks from his mentor, architectural photographer Ezra Stoller, and his use of infrared film increases the stone’s apparent albedo, giving many of the gleaming buildings, especially those that rose from the sand at sites like Palmyra, a haunted aspect. The film changes the look of foliage, too. A shepherd leading his flock along a highway near Damascus seems to walk through an alien landscape, where every plant is a burning bush, their leaves like tongues of white-hot flame.

Much of Palmyra, one of the archaeological treasures of early Western civilization, was of course barbarously dynamited by ISIS militants in 2015. Aaron’s captions for his photos confirm that many of the other places and lives depicted here have been irreversibly altered by the war, if not outright destroyed. The irony—that what had survived for millennia would end up testifying to the ever-increasing efficiency with which humans undo their own achievements—is heavy.

  • A Damascus Street by Peter Aaron, 2009. These houses overhanging a street in Damascus are built in a style characteristic of the later Ottoman Empire. (Syria was under Ottoman rule for four centuries, from 1516–1918.) The street itself is far more ancient and probably dates to Roman times. All images © 2009 Peter Aaron.

  • Hookah smokers. These same men could be seen outside of this Damascus café every day.

  • The Nawfara Café, Damascus. This famous café lay in the shadow of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. On the right can be seen a hakawati, the sort of traditional storyteller once to be found in countless Arab cafés. At the time of our visit in 2009, this man, Abu Shadi, was the last hakawati in Damascus. He read aloud the story of Sultan Baybers or the romance of Prince Antar, among others, from traditional books, punctuating his tale by whacking a metal table with his sword. He died in 2014.

  • Assad Pasha Khan (caravanserai), Damascus. This spectacular 1752 caravanserai covers almost 27,000 square feet and is decorated with contrasting stripes of basalt and limestone. The central space would have been for the camels that transported goods to and from the khan; the upper floors had offices and counting houses. Many of these old khans are still in use, with motorized vehicles and donkeys in the spaces that once housed camels.

  • Entrance to the Great Mosque of the Umayyads, Damascus. The mosque was built between 708 and 715 AD under the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid, on a site that had previously housed first a temple to the Semitic god Hadad, then one to the Roman Jupiter, and finally the great Byzantine Church of St. John the Baptist. The head of John the Baptist is still said to reside in the mosque.

  • View of neighboring villages from Krac des Chevaliers. After launching sporadic attacks against the castle for over two years, the Syrian Army took back possession of the site after a ferocious attack against the rebels in March of 2014. Al Qalaa (a.k.a. Hosn village), just under the Krak des Chevaliers medieval fortress, was Sunni Muslim. It was literally pulverized by heavy and sustained government forces aerial bombardment once it became a supply base in 2013 for rebels inside the medieval crusader fortress.

  • Monastery of Mar Sarkis (St. Sergius), Maalula. This complex of buildings in the village of Maalula, in the Qalamoun Mountains north of Damascus, contains elements dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries; it was completed in the seventeenth. The churches of Maalula were still very busy until the beginning of the civil war in 2011. Since then, a large portion of Syria’s Christians, who had made up some 10 percent of the population, have fled the country. The monastery was destroyed by Assad forces in April 2014.

  • Ugarit. Ugarit was a famous Bronze Age trading city; it has been described as probably the first great international port in history. It lies six miles north of Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast of northern Syria. Texts discovered at this site led to a new appraisal of the Hebrew Bible. Here, too the first phonetic alphabet was developed, later to be adapted by the Phoenicians, trading partners of Ugarit.

  • Citadel, Aleppo: medieval gate. This part of the mammoth Aleppo Citadel dates from the Ayyubid period (1176–1260). Al-Zaher Ghazi, a son of Saladin and the ruler of Aleppo from 1193–1215, renovated and fortified the citadel, helping to make Aleppo one of the most important cities in the Muslim world.

  • Shepherd. This shepherd was grazing his flock alongside the main Damascus-Baghdad highway.

  • Roman amphitheater, Palmyra. This ancient Roman amphitheater, still being used for theatrical performances until the eve of the civil war, served as a backdrop for ISIS militants to publicly execute dozens of captured Syrian regime soldiers and smash ancient artifacts. Subsequently, ISIS social media accounts were filled with photographs depicting the decimation, including the beheading of ancient statues.

  • Qalaat Shirkuh, Palmyra. This thirteenth-century defensive castle, looming above the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, was built to repel invading crusaders.