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The Ruins of Syria

Dumbarton Oaks Acquires a New Collection of Images

The Ruins of Syria

There are a few quirky constants that show up in Frank Kidner’s photographs of the Syrian countryside. He snaps errant debris that he describes, in a sharp script penned along the rims of his slides, as “decorative rubble.” He photographs children playing among the ruins. He looks for wild flowers, anomalous blooms in the dry hills of the Belus Massif.

Though none of these is the main focus of the collection. A self-described shutterbug, Kidner made six trips to Syria in the 1990s to document, in vivid color photography, the architectural remains of the country, eventually narrowing his focus to the Belus Massif, a limestone plateau in northwestern Syria. The final collection, which numbers more than nine thousand slides, was recently acquired by the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives at Dumbarton Oaks.

The acquisition of Kidner’s collection is significant for a number of reasons. In addition to more than doubling the ICFA’s current holdings of Syrian images, it documents in rich detail countless sites, many of which have been fundamentally altered or completely destroyed in the years since Kidner’s photographs were taken. The collection’s vast scope also makes it a fundamentally adaptable resource, capable of being utilized in any number of projects, and the images themselves are beautiful and crisp, ripe for perusing.

Syria 95.XVIII.5 Monumental arches at St. Simeon’s Monastery.

The images center on the Dead Cities, a group of around seven hundred former settlements situated on the Belus Massif that exhibit a wealth of well-preserved architectural remains. So called for their abandonment in the eighth through tenth centuries, the Dead Cities provide a unique vision of late antique rural life, one that was remarkably prosperous and trade-driven, though not quite urban. As a result, the region serves as an excellent location for the study of largescale transition.

Kidner initially became interested in the Dead Cities after his first trip to Syria in 1993, which was largely a sightseeing excursion. Returning to the states and his professorship at San Francisco State University, where he has taught classes on the early history of Christianity, Kidner began to research work that had been done on Christianity in the area. In the process he stumbled upon a photograph-laden study written by the Princeton professor Howard Crosby Butler in the early twentieth century that catalyzed his interest: “It was very fragile, very brittle, down on a triple folio shelf—I checked it out and kept it at my home for years and years.”

Kidner’s photographic work in the region was driven by a desire to investigate the introduction of Christianity and the ways in which it adapted itself to the region’s preexisting architecture. “I tried to look at the built environment as a source for understanding how it was that Christianity managed to insert itself into these communities,” Kidner says. Since the villages of the Belus Massif were built around the same time that Christianity was making inroads into the region, their physical remains afford a unique perspective on the process of conversion.

Syria 95.XVIII.34 South Basilica at St. Simeon’s Monastery.

Kidner’s fieldwork and photographs eventually resulted in a paper, “Christianizing the Syrian Countryside: An Archaeological and Architectural Approach,” which serves as an illuminating entrée into the collection. In essence, the paper argues that the manner in which preexisting structures were converted into Christian churches quite clearly delineates local attitudes toward the new religion.

Part of Kidner’s anthropological approach posits that architecture is a peculiar form of language, one that is ever-present and wheedling, suffusing the lived space of the environment and sending out ideological information constantly. This sense of totality also pervades his slides, which systematically document structures from every angle and distance; focused attention is given to each tumbled pediment, every shattered column.

Syria 95.XIV.18 An andron or tavern located in Serjilla, southwest of Aleppo.

St. Simeon’s Monastery, a sprawling complex located about twenty miles northwest of Aleppo, receives just such a treatment from Kidner’s lens. It is captured at a distance, a mere smudge on the horizon; its facades are shot, as well as its baptistery and the innards of these structures; bemas and transepts are painstakingly documented; apses and friezes and narthices are snapped up in turn. Over three hundred slides are dedicated to the compound’s details, many of which are treated from multiple angles and in multiple lights.

Beyond the temples and farmsteads lie the fields, which Kidner captures now and again, snapping the deeply lichened stretch of an old stone wall or handing the camera off to pose by a beaten track running along and through the stony heights of the massif. There is a timelessness to the landscape and its simpler elements that at times runs counter to Kidner’s other errant shots, which often capture fleeting phenomena embedded among the ruins.  

Syria 95.XVI.43 Hollyhocks outside the Temple of Zeus Baotocecian at Husn Suleiman.

“There are two things that are sort of off the track as far as the built environment is concerned,” Kidner says. “You have the hollyhocks and pictures of wildflowers—I’ve been a gardener all my life—and then you have the kids. And looking back now, I think in a way they’re the most poignant aspect of the collection. God knows they’re all grown up now; God knows what has happened to them.”

In the course of his travels, Kidner met the children—or, as the scribblings on his slides deem them, “moppets”—of the region. “I’d start photographing, and these kids would pop up, and trail around after me, and ask if I could take a picture of them.” Often enough, his visit to the site would end with an improvised shoot, the kids bunching themselves together against ancient walls buttressed with concrete or else standing aloof and alone, a little wary of the man with the camera, a little curious about the device itself.

Syria 96.XLVII.13 “Moppets” in the ruins in the Jebel Barisha area.

All in all, Kidner’s collection straddles the gap between the personal and the historical. Images of St. Simeon’s Monastery rub shoulders with those of thick-stalked, vibrant hollyhocks, while imposing stone walls contrast with the sunsets Kidner describes as his “Condé Nast” photos. Even in the collection’s ostensible focus—the architectural images—it’s not simply academic thoroughness that drives the photographing of the built environment, but curiosity, and a predisposition to the contemplation of ruins.

Look even briefly at Kidner’s shot of arcosolia (recesses, typically above ground, used for entombment) in the mortuary chapel at St. Simeon’s monastery, and it quickly becomes clear that a somber mood has overtaken the documentary drive; the gaping hollows and the mineral stains bearding the walls evoke a sense of ancient emptiness, one that is both difficult to fathom and hard to shake.

Syria 95.XVIII.92 Arcosolia tombs in the mortuary chapel at St. Simeon’s Monastery.

Kidner’s own old preoccupations emerge in these moments. “I certainly had an interest from the time I was quite a small kid in seeing old things, and not necessarily old things in museums,” he says. “I would pester my parents, when we were out on a drive, to stop if there was an old Wells Fargo station, or, in California, a few Gold Rush things.”

It’s not difficult to picture Kidner pausing over the crossed lintels and intricately carved stonework strewn about the grounds at Qirqbizeh, a site west of Aleppo. The images that emerge are of stones among stones, singled out more than anything else for the delight they give, the mandala-like finery set into their weathered faces.

Syria 96.XLI.12 A lintel with cross outside the church at Qirq Bizeh.

In short, Kidner’s collection is alternatingly comprehensive and composite; it obsesses over monumental arches one moment and drifts off among the flowers in the next. The vivid reality of its shots, charged with an almost unearthly color, brings to life a moment in time that is frequently undercut by a sense of absence.

In a distant image of St. Simeon’s taken from the nearby site of Takleh, the zigzag of a road dominates the background, while a stone wall interrupts the foreground. In the middle of the image spread fields that were once worked and might be worked still. It is a view of many worlds held together by space and the miracle of a well-composed shot.

Syria 95.XVIII.1 St. Simeon’s Monastery from Takleh.

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The Byzantine Institute Films

A new ICFA online exhibit

Posted on Feb 04, 2014 02:15 PM by Lain Wilson |
The Byzantine Institute Films

The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) presents a new online exhibit entitled A Truthful Record: The Byzantine Institute Films. ICFA stores and preserves motion picture films, created by the Byzantine Institute between the 1930s and 1940s: one of the Red Sea Monasteries in Egypt and, in Istanbul, eleven of the Hagia Sophia and one of the Kariye Camii. The online exhibit presents the films together with archival records from the collection of the Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers to reveal the context of the films’ creation.

The color films created by the Byzantine Institute’s photographer Pierre Iskender provide significant testimony of the mosaics at Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii and the techniques employed to uncover and conserve them. When combined with notebook entries written by Byzantine Institute fieldworkers such as Ernest Hawkins and the brothers Richard and William Gregory, the history of the films’ creation truly comes alive. Thomas Whittemore, who founded the Byzantine Institute in 1930, made wide use of the moving images, screening them for donors and patrons (such as Robert Woods and Mildred Bliss), the Byzantine scholarly community, and an interested general audience in the United States and Europe.

The exhibit is divided into three sections that investigate how the films were made and how they were received by contemporary audiences: “Style and Content,” “Technique,” and “Purpose and Reception.” You can also explore the archival materials chronologically using a detailed timeline.  

For more information about the Moving Image Collection, please the Vimeo album.

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Thomas Whittemore Exhibit

Posted on Sep 11, 2013 02:55 PM by Sarah Bogart |
Thomas Whittemore Exhibit

The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) presents Before Byzantium: The Early Activities of Thomas Whittemore (1871-1931). This online exhibit focuses on Thomas Whittemore’s activities prior to founding the Byzantine Institute in 1930. Bringing together three of ICFA’s archival collections – The Thomas Whittemore Papers, Early Archaeological Projects Associated with Thomas Whittemore and The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers – the exhibit illustrates how Whittemore’s early and mid-life experiences enabled him to create and sustain the organization that would subsequently breathe life into the field of Byzantine studies.

Before Byzantium features four sets of photographs, taken between the 1910s and early 1930s, which document Whittemore’s activities in Egypt and Greece, as well as the Byzantine Institute’s first fieldwork project at the monasteries of St. Paul and St. Anthony along the Red Sea. These black-and-white photographs depict excavation sites and monasteries, along with local workmen, archaeologists, monks, scholars, and Whittemore himself. The images are contextualized within an intricate narrative that traces Whittemore’s evolution from an English professor, amateur archaeologist, and humanitarian to the founder and director of the Byzantine Institute. In addition, there is an interactive map to enable users to visualize where Whittemore travelled and worked at the beginning of his multi-faceted professional career.

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ICFA Gardens Film

ICFA Gardens Film

Rona Razon

The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) hold unique footage of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. While most of the footage dates to the 1930s and 1940s, some scenes may have been recorded as early as the mid-1920s. Shot in both black and white and in color, the film contains garden views, winter scenes, and summer scenes at the pool, as well as glimpses of Mildred Barnes Bliss and her friends at the Orangery and in the gardens.

The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens film was re-discovered in early 2011 when ICFA staff learned that three film reels in cold storage contained footage of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Films were sent to Colorlab for preservation and digitization in October of 2011, and the project was completed in March of 2012. Currently, all of the original films are safely stored in one of the freezers in ICFA’s cold storage area.

As part of the DO/Conversations series, on July 20, 2012 Archives Specialist Rona Razon described the “re-discovery” of the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens film and the process of preserving it. Rona’s introduction was followed by a screening of the film with live commentary by James Carder, Archivist and House Collection Manager, and Gail Griffin, Director of Gardens and Grounds.

The presentation, including the film in its entirety, can now be seen online through Vimeo: Part I , Part II , and Part III

For more information about the project and presentation, please visit the DO/Conversations Blog , the ICFA Blog, and the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives Facebook page.

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Farewell to Günder Varinlioğlu

Posted on Jul 06, 2012 09:55 AM by lisaw |
Farewell to Günder Varinlioğlu

Günder Varinlioğlu has served as Byzantine Assistant Curator in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) since September 2008. She joined Dumbarton Oaks shortly after completing her Ph.D. in Byzantine Art and Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. Over the past four years, Günder has been an integral part of the ICFA team, establishing the digitization and cataloging workflow to share ICFA’s collections in Harvard’s VIA, serving as acting head of the department from January to October 2010, and developing and managing the Nicholas V. Artamonoff online exhibit.

During the academic year 2012–2013, Günder will be a fellow at Koç University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations in Istanbul.

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Now on View: From Clearing to Cataloging: The Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics

ICFA exhibition in the Bliss Gallery

Now on View: From Clearing to Cataloging: The Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics

The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) presents From Clearing to Cataloging: The Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics, an exhibit that highlights the Margaret Alexander Collection at Dumbarton Oaks. The Collection contains documents and photographs that relate to the fieldwork and publication of the Corpus des Mosaïques de Tunisie (CMT), or Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics. The CMT was launched in 1967 to create a catalog of Roman and Late Antique mosaics in Tunisia and was co-directed by Margaret Alexander until 1994. The project was administered through the Foreign Currency Program of the Smithsonian Institution, and was sponsored by various institutions such as Dumbarton Oaks and the University of Iowa. The CMT team focused on clearing, preserving, and cataloging pavement mosaics found in private residences and Christian basilicas. To obtain reliable dates for the mosaics, they used evidence buried in or near the mosaics, including coins and pottery fragments. The CMT team members carried out the archaeological work at four major sites in Tunisia—Utica, Thuburbo Majus, El Jem, and Carthage—before publishing a four-volume catalog of over 1,000 mosaics dating from the first to the fifth centuries CE.

The exhibit includes selections from the Margaret Alexander Collection in ICFA, and can be viewed in the Bliss Gallery during the Museum’s open hours. These archival items date from the 1960s to 1990s and demonstrate the process of the fieldwork and publication of the CMT project. The exhibit was developed to coincide with the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Studies symposium in April 2012, "Rome Re-Imagined: Byzantine and Early Islamic Africa, c. 500–800."

Exhibit Team

Robin Pokorski, ICFA Intern
Rona Razon, Archives Specialist
Hillary Olcott, Museum Exhibitions and Programs Coordinator
Christopher Harrison, Senior Exhibits Technician and Cabinetmaker

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Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Archives join Facebook

Launch of the official Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives Facebook page

Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives are pleased to announce the launch of the official Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives Facebook page created by the library and archives staff. This page represents the wide variety of collections and projects from the Research Library, Rare Book Collection, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, and the Dumbarton Oaks Archives. Through this page we hope to further the overall mission of Dumbarton Oaks by sharing information about our multi-formatted collections, as well as the institutional history of Dumbarton Oaks.

Our page officially launched April 14, 2012, on the 104th wedding anniversary of Robert and Mildred Bliss, who were married on April 14, 1908.

Please visit, “Like”, and share our new Facebook page!

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