Palmyra: What's left?
2015–2016

Louis-Francois Cassas and his travels in the Middle East 1784-87.

An exhibition project in collaboration with Wallraf-Richartz-Museum Köln, Cologne and RWTH Aachen University, Department for Historic Building Conservation and Research.

The remains of Palmyra have fascinated people for centuries. Tourists and scholars alike have visited Syria to admire a city whose culture bore the stamp of the Romans, Greeks and Persians – until the summer of 2015, that is, when the terrorist organisation Islamic State attacked it and destroyed the most important temples. At the time of writing, no end to the destruction is in sight. This appalling situation has prompted the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum to think about what survives. The exhibition Palmyra: What’s Left? presents more than thirty drawings by the French artist, archaeologist and architect Louis-François Cassas (1756–1827). In 1785, over a period of just two months, Cassas made detailed on-site drawings of virtually all the city’s remains. He captured the beauty and fascination of the ancient sites with a breathtaking immediacy that has lost none of its power to impress. The exhibition also offers an insight into the period in European history when archaeologists and scholars first discovered the desert city.

Travelling in the Middle East from 1784 to 1787, Cassas was one of the first architects and archaeologists to visit Palmyra and Baalbek. Seeking answers to key questions in architectural history, he focused on the aesthetic qualities of materials, the construction technology used in the buildings and the origins of certain forms and styles – issues that still occupy experts today. Cassas’s meticulous drawings, some of them featuring coloured wash, are remarkably attractive in their own right, although their principal value is documentary. These records of the ancient buildings, and the artist’s perspective drawings reconstructing the ruins, now constitute important source material. Throughout its history Palmyra has been the victim of pillage, decay and destruction. Cassas’s drawings therefore bear unique witness to cultural remains many of which have only recently been lost forever. The exhibition is mounted in close cooperation with the technical university RWTH in Aachen.

The exhibition was shown in cologne from 26 February to 8 May 2016 with great success and press coverage.

Project partners

Wallraf Richartz Museum Köln, Graphische Sammlung, Dr. Thomas Ketelsen, Dipl.-Rest. Thomas Klinke.

Getty Research Center, Los Angeles.

Project team