In 2009, architectural photographer Peter Aaron set out to Syria with his wife Brooke Allen, an author and professor of literature at Bennington College, and their two daughters. Armed with a Canon 5D modified to only register infrared light, Aaron began a two-week journey in a minivan to visit 15 sites across Syria. Put on exhibition at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, what began as a personal collection stemming from a family vacation has developed into the photographic project that is Syria Before the Deluge.
Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, there has been no dearth of imagery and footage bringing the horrors and destruction of the conflict to an international audience. The country’s history has been relegated to a veritable carousel slide projection of architectural and human destruction; Aleppo lies in Stalingrad-esque ruins while pent-up political and sectarian animosity has unleashed one calamity after the next, at a level not witnessed since the Yugoslav Wars. Syria Before the Deluge presents the country’s ancient architectural heritage in 40 images of breathtaking detail, clearing the fog of war by casting a humanizing light on the war’s victims with scenes of daily life and placing the conflict within the vast continuity of the region’s civilization.
Traversing the country’s ancient urban centers of Damascus and Aleppo, through their many souqs, mosques, and labyrinthine streets, Aaron’s images display a vibrant contemporary society inhabiting the successive layers of the old. Remains of Roman civilization are embedded within these urban ensembles, sites such as Damascus’s Bab Sharqi, a Roman arch topped with a medieval minaret, have collected the accretions of time with Islamic and Roman architectural pieces—towering minarets and geometric spandrels—abutting contemporary concrete construction.
Outside of the country’s principal demographic centers, past the Aramaic-speaking mountain towns of Reef Demashq, the “dead cities” of northwestern Syria are depicted as moraine-like vestiges dotting the rugged arid landscape. The abandoned urban settlements, numbering over seven hundred, are the hallmarks of a Byzantine civilization that gradually vanished, with its Greco-Roman architectural language of archways, colonnades, and carefully proportioned stone ashlar. The author notes that the current refugee crisis afflicting Syria has led to a renewed life for the “dead cities” as an embattled shelter for those fleeing the civil war’s armed factions.
Where Syria Before the Deluge rises to a work of historical record is in Aaron’s depiction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites now ravaged by the conflict. Palmyra’s Temple of Bel, infamously exploded by ISIL, which documented the event for the world to see, is captured in its ruinous magnificence as a global exemplar of Greco-Roman and Middle Eastern architectural syncretism, with nearly 50-foot tall fluted Corinthian columns and detailed Middle Eastern scenes. Located less than 15 miles from the Turkish border, the Church of St. Simeon Stylites, now subject to multiple military incursions and aerial bombardments, still stands—complex stonework along its archways, pediments, remnants of vaults, and all.
Considering their historical role as military bastions, it is none too surprising that the imposing Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers and the Citadel of Aleppo have renewed their intended functions. Over their millennium-long existence, the forts, like Syria itself, have passed through the hands of Kurds, Christians, Ottomans, and Arabs, with Aaron capturing the layering of one civilization’s architectural character over the next.
It is on this note that the author expands: the general audience cannot “comprehend the intense concentration of ancient structures; many of them have been in continuous use for centuries and even millennia, through waves of different civilizations.” Through pictorially contextualizing the current civil war within Syria’s successive waves of invasions, cultural flowering, and internal strife, Syria Before the Deluge inspires a degree of hope that the region will emerge again from the ruins.