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Culture

Resurrecting Palmyra's legendary architecture

Major temples in Palmyra were destroyed by the terrorist organization "Islamic State" in 2015. "Palmyra: What survives?" is an exhibition in Cologne which revives the city's heritage - through 18th century drawings.

The "Islamic State" (IS) could hardly have found a more symbolic site for a mass execution. On May 27, 2105, the terror militia killed 25 Syrian government soldiers in the ruins of Palmyra's old Roman Theater - and made the execution available to the general public in a video on the Internet.

The execution was the beginning of an iconoclasm "staged as the prelude to the demolition of works of art," art historian Horst Bredekamp wrote in the catalogue introducing the exhibition "Palmyra - What's left?" in Cologne's Wallraf-Richartz Museum.

The IS destroyed the Temple of Bel and the Temple of Baalschamin, and they blew up an arch of triumph that dated back to the second century AD. Satellite pictures confirmed the demolition of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Culture Heritage site.

The Temple of Bel as drawn by Louis François Cassas in 1785, Copyright: Wallraf-Richartz-Museum/Fondation Corboud

The Temple of Bel as drawn by Louis François Cassas in 1785

In that context, Louis-François Cassas' 40 drawings of Palmyra are images from an ideal past. The French artist and architect spent months meticulously drawing the ruins in the "Queen of the Desert," column after column, temple after temple.

What survives?

The Wallraf-Richartz Museum bought the drawings in the early 20th century. Some were restored for the exhibition, which also offers insight into the period in European history when archaeologists and scholars first discovered the desert city.

Louis-François Cassas was not the first to document Palmyra, but he was the first to tackle the task with analytical meticulousness, "more like an artist from an architect's point of view" said curator Thomas Ketelsen. Cassas drew the mix of Greek, Roman and ornamental ornaments in the capitals - and it was this harmonious mixture of styles that prompted the IS' "destructive furor," Ketelsen wrote.

Reality and reconstruction

Satellite pictures from 2015 confirm the destruction of the Temple of Bel. Copyright: picture-alliance/AP Photo/UrtheCast

These satellite pictures from 2015 confirm the destruction of the Temple of Bel

In 1785, Cassas drew all of Palmyra's buildings in just 34 days. He saw a city of ruins and used his imagination to complete the buildings on paper, using different colors to discern the two.

The French artist's expedition was funded by the French ambassador to Constantinople - and it marked a turning point in architectural surveys. Cassas planned to create a book of Palmyra engravings. In the end, he managed 180 finished engravings.

The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited Cassas in September 1797 in Rome, and was fascinated: He admired Cassas' precise and aesthetic reconstruction of the Late Antiquity, as well as his knack for a fanciful restoration to the buildings' perfect original state.

Today, these drawings are living witnesses of Palmyra's rich history.

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