Most Americans would associate a few images with Syria today: images of ravaged ghost towns, skeletal buildings, debris, the frames of vehicles hollowed out by explosives. One that I remember circulating in Western media is of a street in Homs, my mother’s native hometown, in 2011, juxtaposed with an image of the same street in 2014. Of course, the difference is that there was a semblance of calm in the first one, before the unraveling. Then came the images of bodies, often those of Syrian children. Sometimes there were even videos. This was Syria after the deluge, and the Syria that most Americans without previous knowledge of the small Mediterranean, Middle Eastern country would come to know.
This is often lost in photos from Syria’s pre-war history, as a reviewer who was critical of the new “Syria Before the Deluge” exhibit argued recently. I visited the exhibit this week. I’m an advocate of the de-sanitization of imagery in media, meaning I believe that Westerners should have the option of seeing the graphic photography coming out of war zones, for the sake of transparency and clarity (of course, accompanied by written caution statements from the publishers). Syria Before the Deluge, the title of Peter Aaron’s photography exhibit of Syria in 2009 at New York City’s Center for Architecture, does not include the graphic, disturbing images I’m referring to. It doesn’t portray a war zone, because the collection depends on every person who tours it to enter with a preconception of Syria as hell on earth, and for the victims of the war and their families, it was and may still be hell.
But do any Americans know that Syria was ever beautiful? That Syrians have a culture to be immensely proud of? This is what’s often lost in media depictions of war.
The exhibit is in a basement-like space, quiet enough to hear your own heels echo from your steps. The largest photograph of the exhibit takes up an entire wall: Palmyra, Syria’s jewel, established in the third millennium. Most of the pictures are not in color, and this only reinforced my idea that Aaron counted on every person who visited to enter as if they were going to a wake, expecting a dismal collection of Syria’s lost, dead things, bled of their life and color like a corpse. One photograph is of Syria’s Roman amphitheater in Palmyra, built in the second-century a.d., now largely destroyed by ISIS, as the description notes. Another photo is of Temple of Bel, also destroyed by ISIS in 2015, the curled, scroll-shaped ornament atop the shaft of the columns perhaps suggesting a Greek or Roman past, once upon a time, to people who may not know that Syria existed for far longer before the deluge. Bab Sharqi in Damascus (meaning “east gate” in Arabic) is a perfect example of Syrian syncretism in architecture, the Roman arch erected during the reign of Emperor Augustus, as the photo’s description notes. It was also by this gate that Saint Paul escaped his persecutors.
There are photos in color, ones that I’m grateful to Aaron for having taken. One is taken in Aleppo, the city most Americans would recall as having been ravaged by the war (and which Gary Johnson was famously unaware of during his run for president in 2017). It’s of a public fountain, commonly found in Syrian cities for public use, a blue cup dangling from a chain above a stone fountain built by the Romans. What have we learned about the Syrian people beyond their suffering in the last near-decade? The photo is in color, still alive, as is Syrian generosity, even toward perfect strangers, as journalist Jenan Moussa describes after her recent visit to the impoverished northern Syria.
Also in color is the photo of Nawfara Cafe in Damascus, a wood-and-clay paneled room with framed photos on the wall, men smoking argileh (hookah), the hakawati (public reader) reading classic works, wearing a fez. Still alive is Syrian art (often political art). Another photo is of five men smoking argileh, dressed in suits and ties. Alcohol, for Muslims, is haram — smoking argileh after work is like an American happy hour. Still alive is Syrian leisure.
War makes headlines. I don’t blame those who aren’t familiar with Syria or Syrians for not knowing much about the country beyond what those headlines and tragic photos show. Even I was struck by the photograph of European tourists in Syria’s Roman ruins, taking photographs themselves, enchanted by the vista — today it’s difficult (or impossible) to find airlines with service into the country.
Syria during the deluge, which I experienced during my 2017 visit, isn’t a perfect oasis, and it’s rife with corruption. But for a country that has a critical role in our understanding of the ancient and Biblical world, Aaron at least plants the seeds for further inquiry by westerners of Syria before the deluge.
If you look deep enough, you’ll find even the American fascination with Syria by Mark Twain, who wrote in 1867:
She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble into ruin. she is a type of immortality. She saw the foundations of Baalbek and Thebes and Ephesus laid; she saw these villages grow into mighty cities and amaze the world with their grandeur – and she has lived to see them desolate, deserted, and given over to the owls and the bats. She saw the Israelitish empire exalted, and she saw it annihilated. She saw Greece rise and flourish two thousand years and die. In her old age she saw Rome built; she saw it overshadow the world with its power; she saw it perish. The few hundreds of years of Genoese and Venetian might and splendour were, to grave old Damascus, only a trifling and scintillation hardly worth remembering. Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.