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These Rare Pictures Capture The Former Beauty Of ISIS’s Latest Target

The ancient Roman city of Palmyra, whose ruins are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, risks destruction at the hands of ISIS after the group captured it earlier this year.

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The Syrian town of Palmyra, which means "the city of palms," is home to the monumental ruins of an ancient oasis city that predates the first century A.D. Some findings at Palmyra have provided evidence of settlements dating as far back as 7,500 B.C.

Once a stop in the Syrian desert for travelers, Palmyra became a bustling city under the Roman empire, and its enormous wealth allowed the construction of significant monuments and architectural structures. Palmyrene art, its temples, cemeteries, and statues are so treasured that the city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.

The following images were taken by Félix Bonfils, a French photographer who traveled through the Middle East after moving to Beirut in 1867. The book of images, Photographs of Palmyra, circa 1867–1876, is part of the Myron Bement Smith collection at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Freer Gallery of Art | Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Palmyra's grande colonnade is a series of Greco-Roman columns that stretch a little over half a mile and was built in stages during the second and third centuries.

Earlier this year, the city — which had been passed from one empire to another over the last 2,000 years — was captured by ISIS and remains under its control. Since then, the militant group has been bombing parts of the ruins using explosives and threatening to destroy what they describe as idolatrous statues as part of their efforts to destroy all evidence of pre-Islamic civilization in Syria. Meanwhile, smugglers hope to benefit from the crisis by extracting and selling its most valuable objects.

Freer Gallery of Art | Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Library

The Temple of Diocletian was one of the monuments built as a part of a military garrison during the time of Roman emperor Diocletian in third century.

Freer Gallery of Art | Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Library

The monumental arch at Palmyra, also known as the Triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus, was built by the Roman emperor in the third century.

Freer Gallery of Art | Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Library

The arch connects the eastern and central sections of the colonnade and used to be one of the most popular sites for visitors at Palmyra.

Freer Gallery of Art | Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Library

"Haliphat," the bust in the middle, is considered one of the most important findings at Palmyra. The sculpture, which went on display at the Smithsonian in June, shows a woman in jewelry raising her two fingers to her cheek.

Freer Gallery of Art | Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Library

The fortified Temple of Bel, dedicated to a group of powerful gods, is considered the center of religious life at Palmyra. Archaeologists worry that the temple could become the next ISIS target, after the group bombed the Temple of Baal Shamin earlier this week.

But more than 100 years before Bonfils captured the majesty of Palmyra in his photographs, Robert Wood, a British traveler and classical scholar, traveled to Syria and the Levant with a wealthy Oxford scholar. When they arrived at Palmyra, Wood took measurements of the monuments and sketched drawings of the ancient Roman ruins, which are thought to be the first recorded renderings of Palmyra, starting a newfound interest in the Middle East among Western travelers.

Wood's work was printed in a collection called "The ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tedmore, in the desert" in 1753 in London.


Wood's renderings from Syria were so vivid that they are said to have had a profound impact on the neoclassical architecture in the West. One of the images by Wood, which shows an eagle decorating an ancient Roman temple, later became the model for the Great Seal of the United States.

You can see more of the images in the Smithsonian collection in this video.

Related stories on Syria:

ISIS beheaded a renowned antiquities expert who oversaw Palmyra's ruins

This is how Syrian artifacts are being smuggled and sold

Exclusive photos of looted (and fake) Syrian artifacts for sale

H/T The Washington Post's Ishaan Tharoor

Anup Kaphle is a deputy world editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London. His secure PGP fingerprint is AA69 A7F0 91A0 8CF9 F06A 8343 05EE 4615 8CD5 33D8.

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