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Keeping Humanity’s Collective Memory Alive

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This post is by Lee Ann Potter, Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress.

I have never been to Syria. I had only read about and seen images of the ancient ruins in Palmyra. I knew the 2,000-year old Greco-Roman structures were falling apart and had been for centuries. I had, however, no personal experience with them. But late last month, when news reports detailed their destruction, I found myself very upset, and tried explaining why to my children.

I reminded them that primary sources–letters, diaries, maps, drawings, photographs, recordings, or

Palmyre Vue laterale du temple du Soleil. Maison Bonfils
Palmyre. Vue laterale du temple du Soleil. Maison Bonfils

archaeological remains–connect all of us to the past. And not just to an individual past, but to a collective past. I emphasized that although our predecessors are gone, the items they left behind serve as proof that those people were here, and that their lives mattered. I actually drew a Venn diagram, with one circle representing all people living today; another circle partially overlapping the first representing all of our ancestors; and I explained that the section where the two circles overlap may represent the tangible primary sources our ancestors left behind.

I explained that primary sources are not only proof that we are not the first humans on Earth, but they are also invitations–or perhaps, challenges–for us to learn about past human endeavors and achievements.

Colonnade à Palmyre by Maison Bonfils.
Colonnade à Palmyre by Maison Bonfils

And I sadly acknowledged that when the evidence is gone or destroyed (like the ancient ruins in Palmyra), collective human memory suffers, as does our ability–and the ability of future generations–to learn from those who came before us.

My children have certainly heard me say most of this before, but I believe I have to repeat it. Part of my job as a parent and as an educator is to help them understand the role they play–indeed, the role we all play–as stewards of the past.

This particular conversation was a little different than previous ones, however. It was a bit deeper and our exchange challenged me to find other evidence of the ruins in Syria prior to their destruction.

What I found was extensive. I began by simply searching on “Palmyra” on the Library of Congress website, and among the results was a collection of remarkable photographs by Maison Bonfils of Beirut, Lebanon.

I did some additional research and learned that in 1867, French-born photographer Félix Bonfils, his wife Lydie, and their son Adrien settled in Beirut, Lebanon, and for decades, they captured on film the people and the ancient ruins of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Greece.

The Bonfils photographs were albumen prints, made possible by a photographic process used from the 1850s until about 1900 that allowed collodion negatives to be printed on paper coated with a surface layer of a beaten egg-white solution. This layer gave the prints great brightness and detail, consistent quality, and a smooth, shiny surface.

Photographers like Bonfils could produce many albumen prints from a single negative–something impossible to do using ambrotype or tintype processes also popular in the late 19th century. As a result, their studio, Maison Bonfils, was able to produce and sell folios of identical prints, stereo cards, and albums across the globe, providing people in vastly different places with the shared experience of not only seeing wonders of the ancient world, but also marveling at the human endeavors and achievements evidenced by the ruins in the photographs.

Today, many of the Bonfils prints reside in the collections of the world’s cultural institutions, and the Internet is making it possible for more people than Bonfils could ever have imagined to share and marvel.

More than 300 Bonfils prints are part of the online collections of the Library of Congress.

Among them are two dozen images taken nearly 150 years ago of the Greco-Roman ruins at Palmyra, Syria. The albumen prints show the remains of the triumphal arch, the Temple of the Sun, the remains of a mausoleum, the remains of the Temple of Diocletian, and groups of colonnades–and if you look closely at them, you will see individuals in the photos, too. Their small size is a testament to the massiveness of the structures.

For more information on photographic processes of the 19th century, see the Civil War Photographs: New Technologies and New Uses Teachers’ Guide and the chronological listing of photographic processes available from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.

Additional information on images of the Middle East is available from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.

Comments (6)

  1. Thank you for pointing to this way of thinking about the importance of primary sources and for modeling how to push back against those who would selectively erase history and culture.

  2. I’m sure you also explained to your children that the human loss in that destruction has also been a travesty, including the brave curator who was brutally murdered defending it.

  3. This article really struck a chord with me because the city in which I live is embroiled in a controversy whether or not to remove four statues of Civil War heroes. At present, the mayor has stated that the city has the money to remove the statues and that the removal will not be done with taxpayer money. While their is a contingency that supports the removal, there is an equal or perhaps even greater contingency that does not support their removal for the exact reason that the removal would attempt to selectively erase history and culture. Thank you for your post. I wish the both sides would read what you have shared.

  4. Every time this sort of destruction hits the headlines, I also, feel the sadness that my children won’t be able to see and marvel at the ingenuity and skill of the ancient builders.

  5. These cultural losses hit me hard too, even amid the enormous daily suffering of millions of Syrians from barrel bombs, torture, loss of homes and businesses, and hunger. In part, I know my empathy comes from knowing that something people labored for thousands of years to protect is gone in an instant. The museum director for the Palmyra sites murdered by Daesh (ISIS) haunts me.
    In an age where it seems any image, any experience almost can be Googled magically into existence, it is imperative for educators to help students understand that the digital world is a reflection of something real and enduring. I am learning also to acknowledge that the digital world is real in its own right.

  6. I just learned this morning that the Institute of Digital Archaeology will be recreating one of the monuments (of the ancient ruins in Palmyra) from photographs, using a 3D printer.

    The institute hopes the recreation, that will be displayed in Trafalgar Square and Times Square in the spring of 2016, will “help people understand how important it was to preserve cultural sites in war-torn countries such as Syria.”

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