My favourite room
Don McCullin

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 55, Summer 2018

Page 22

Don McCullin recalls his life-changing visit to Syria's famous Roman ruins

I have been to the ruins of Palmyra in Syria several times since my first visit in 2006 – and was there again just a few months ago to photograph the destruction wreaked by ISIS. That first time was for a book on the ruins of the Roman Empire along its frontiers in North Africa and the Middle East. The inspiration was a chance visit I made to a Roman town in Algeria many years before with author Bruce Chatwin. When I found myself at a crossroads in my life, I decided to photograph the most significant ruins of the southern border of the Roman Empire. Off I went, and the obsession grew and grew, taking in Leptis Magna, Baalbek and then Palmyra, which really got under my skin. I little realised these sites would soon suffer so much.

On my first visit to Palmyra, I met Khaled al-Asaad, the retired head of antiquities, who was incredibly kind. This wonderful man gave me permission to photograph anything I liked, even giving me special lighting so I could photograph some recently discovered pieces. Later, when ISIS took over the site, they dragged this poor man out of his mosque. He refused to tell them where some treasures had been taken for safe-keeping, so they beheaded him in the town square. I think a statue of him should be erected there.

The Palmyra Museum has been totally destroyed – all smashed with hammers. However, just before ISIS arrived, Syrian Special Forces took 30 trucks to the museum and removed many of the greatest treasures, which are now safe in Damascus.

The Baal Sanctuary, dedicated in AD 32, was one of the ancient world's most breathtaking ruins – before ISIS destroyed most of it. The archway was beautiful and I loved the funeral towers in the distance. My pictures, I hope, convey that this extraordinary place was made 2,000 years ago and there are stones that are still standing, despite what has recently happened to them. But it's better for people to visit Palmyra than look at my pictures. Once you seen Palmyra you will never forget it – this magical place will be locked in your mind forever.

Don McCullin's first solo exhibition in Los Angeles is at Hauser & Wirth (901 East 3rd Street, LA) from 23 June to 23 September.

Irreconcilable Truths, a definitive retrospective of McCullin's career has been published in a limited edition, (£995).

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