Lens on Syria: A Photographic Tour of Its Ancient and Modern Culture

By Daniel Demeter. Just World Books, 2016. 304 pages. $49.99/hardcover; $29.99/paperback.

While I do know a fair amount about photography, what I know about Syria couldn’t fill a thimble. Most of my knowledge of that country bordering Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan comes from television coverage of its devastating civil war with various factions backed by so-called superpowers. I have watched footage of the killing of innocent children and the destruction of Aleppo and the brave rescue and medical work by the volunteer White Helmets. So, I was delighted to receive this book of fine photography and narrative about this ancient, yet new country.

Joshua Landis’s foreword and Daniel Demeter’s writing about Syria reveal both a wealth of information and deep love for Syria. As they note, the modern state of Syria is less than 100 years old, but what happened over the ages within its current borders tells the story of human civilization. Ancient Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and more left their mark on the culture and the land.

Aleppo, for example, once the largest city in Syria prior to the civil war, is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, with some sources saying people may have started living there as early as the sixth millennium B.C.E. It was the third largest city in the Ottoman Empire (behind only Istanbul and Cairo) and was a seat of education in the region for hundreds of years. It was also the home to peoples of various faiths in modern times: Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

As Landis notes in his foreword, the large Jewish communities in Aleppo and Damascus moved as they were “caught between the hammer of Arabism and the anvil of Zionism.” Likewise, the Christian presence has diminished considerably. Once almost 20 percent of the population, it is now 3 percent or less.

Demeter’s love for Syria is more than that of an observant photographer’s appreciation for a place that is visually captivating; he literally fell in love with the country and even married a Syrian woman. Demeter’s first visit to this ancient country formerly controlled by France was in 2003. He was so captivated by his time there that he planned to live there on a long-term basis and moved to Damascus in 2006. Soon thereafter he began photographing its people, artifacts, and natural wonders, contributing to magazines and developing a website: Syria Photo Guide (syriaphotoguide.com). He also taught English to Syrians, who had a keen interest in learning the language.

As compelling and informative as the narratives are, this is primarily a photographic guide to Syria. And an excellent guide it is. In this day when smartphones pack more pixelated punch with resolution higher than camera film of the past, and there’s photo editing software with built-in filters and more, most anybody can turn out a nice picture. Still it takes special skills to be a fine photographer to create a great photograph: a photograph that tells a story and invites the viewer into that story. Some of those skills include careful composition; minding the light and what it’s doing; deciding between color or black and white (and why), knowing what story you’re wanting to tell, loving that story; and more.

Demeter has those skills, and they are displayed in this book. His photographs are tack sharp as photographers say—tightly focused. The color is vibrant and conveys the beauty of Syria’s people and landscapes. The interplay of light and shadow convey both hope and despair of great archeological sites, especially since we know many of them have been lost in the tragic civil war that still rages. The story he wants to tell (and succeeds in doing so) is of a land mostly unknown outside the news, a story that is filled with humanity and wonder. He takes the reader and seer through each of Syria’s regions from the coast to the east to cities such as Aleppo, Al-Raqqa, Safita, and more. His photographs feature strong faces in the marketplaces and mosques, amazing architecture, ancient water wheels, Byzantine churches, castles, and vast vistas of desert and seaside and cities. He communicates his love for this place in such a way that we grow to love it as well, which makes the pain of its suffering even more acute.

Demeter ends his introduction with these words: “I hope that this book can provide a reminder of the immense beauty and rich heritage of this country that is gradually being lost through the senseless violence and destruction of war.”

Between his narratives and photographs, that story is told.

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