The First Drawings of the Ruins of Ancient Palmyra: Who Drew Them?

Provinces and districts of Ottoman Syria (1696). Palmyra/Tadmor is not marked; my red dot indicates its approximate location.

By Judith Weingarten / 11.27.2016

Part I

In the summer of 1678, sixteen intrepid Englishmen with 24 muleteers and servants departed from Aleppo to make the first attempt by Westerners to reach the fabled city of Palmyra (in Arabic, known as Tadmor).  It was not unusual for the foreign merchants of Aleppo, whose education had been broadly based on the Classics, to undertake “Voyages of Curiosity to visit the celebrated Remains of Antiquity in those Parts.” Yet, throughout the 17th century, Palmyra wasn’t even on the map, and only rumour spoke of it:

… being inform’d by the natives that the Ruins of the City of Tadmor were more considerable than they had yet seen, they were tempted to enterprise this hazardous and painful Voyage over the Desart”.

The adventurers came from the British Levant Company, whose base at Aleppo was one of the main trading stations in the Mediterranean, managing commerce between Britain and the Ottoman Orient. So off they went, under the leadership of the learned Chaplin of Aleppo, Robert Huntington*. They reached the ruins of Palmyra on 23 July, but soon found themselves trapped and threatened by the local sheikh, Melkam.  To save their lives, they were forced to give up almost everything, even their clothes, before fleeing back to Aleppo empty-handed, shorn of their possessions, and with nearly no information about the city.

Palmyra ho! 

Lithograph said to be based on Halifax’s on-the-spot sketch of Palmyra, 1691

A second attempt was made 13 years later (1691). This time the travellers had an Arab guide and a security guarantee given by the ‘king of the Arabs’, Assyne, whose camp on the Euphrates River was just two days’ ride south of Aleppo. Though far from Palmyra, his authority reached into the desert and assured the travellers that, this time, the local sheikh would welcome them peacefully. Two of the merchants had been on the disastrous journey of 1678, and this was their second try: Timothy Lanoy, whose father was British Consul of Aleppo from 1659 to 1672, and Aaron Goodyear, who had been trading in Aleppo from as early as 1670 — in other words, ‘Men of more than ordinary Birth and Education’, well-to-do merchants with an interest in antiquities and collecting. The expedition consisted of 30 men, all well-armed.  Their leader was the new Chaplin of Aleppo, the Reverend William Halifax.

4 October 1691

As we rode into the town we took notice of a Castle almost half an hours distance from it, and so situated as to Command both the Pass into the hills … and the City too. But we could easily perceive it was no Old Building, retaining no foot-steps of the exquisite Workmanship and Ingenuity of the Ancients.

Engraving, ‘View of the ruins of Palmyra alias Tadmor: taken on the Southern Side’,** published in Philosophical Transactions, 1695. Reprinted in Astengo (see sources)

Coming upon the city from the north, the men immediately climbed the hill to visit the castle (upper right on the above engraving).  Halifax was rather snobbish in declaring it not ‘old’: it was, in fact, built by the Mamluks in the thirteenth century. From the hilltop, they looked down upon virtually the entire city.  The company began their exploration of the site from the south, first visiting the Temple of Bel (far left), the greatest and, until 2015, best-preserved construction of Palmyra, built during the first century CE.  They found the few denizens of the city sheltered behind its walls:

The present inhabitants, as they are a poor, miserable, dirty people, so they have shut themselves up, to the Number of about Thirty or Forty Families, in little Hutts made of dirt [scarce enough for a Dog-kennel, or a Hog-sty], within the Walls of a spacious Court, which enclosed a most magnificent Heathen Temple.

Within the walls of the courtyard, too, they found the first Greek texts inscribed in stone, under which were incised the characters of an unknown language, “which I never saw till in Tadmor, nor understand what to make of it”:

Inscription in Palmyrene (From W. Halifax, ‘A Relation of a Voyage from Aleppo to Palmyra in Syria …’, 1695)

Halifax correctly surmised that this strange script was Palmyra’s “Native Language … and the Matter it contains nothing else but what we have in the Greek.” And he was right: using the Greek as a crib, later scholars successfully deciphered the script, thus discovering the Palmyrene dialect of the West Aramaic Semitic family — the first time that a dead language had ever been correctly decoded.

Over the next four days, the company made their way slowly back to their starting point, noting, discussing, and recording the main points of classical interest. They were constantly amazed by the grandiose size of Palmyra — and even dared to compare it to Rome:

You have the prospect of such Magnificent Ruines, that if it be Lawful to frame a Conjecture of the Original Beauty of the place, by what is still remaining, I question somewhat whether any City in the World could have challenged Precedence over this in its Glory.

After four days, they withdrew safely to Aleppo, not returning as they had come but riding east to the Euphrates and then following the river northwards (popping in on the way to visit King Assyne in his riverine encampment).

Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

Halifax sent a report of his travels to Edward Bernard, an Orientalist and astronomer in Oxford, which he passed on to Dr. Thomas Smith, another passionate Orientalist and former Chaplin of the Levant Company in Constantinople, who arranged for the letter to be published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1695. In “A Relation of a Voyage from Aleppo to Palmyra in Syria”, Halifax provided a thorough description of the visit, following their steps throughout the city.  He reported things in the order that he had seen them himself, walking through the streets and buildings of Palmyra, describing and clarifying each point — almost providing a textual ‘map’.

His report did include, however, an engraving nearly 70 cm (28″) long, depicting a detailed ‘View of the ruins of Palmyra alias Tadmor: taken on the Southern Side’,** with English labels helpfully inserted. It captures nearly the whole city in a remarkable panorama of almost 180° .

This was unquestionably the first published image of Palmyra.  But — and it’s a big but —  who made the drawing?  There is no signature on the engraving, nor is the artist’s name mentioned in the report.  And when was it drawn, and how? It is immensely detailed and, yet, the English had stayed but four days in the city.

Double Dutch

Indisputably, Halifax published the first official report of Palmyra … but he wasn’t actually the first to get the news into print: the earliest report of the discovery appeared in France (merde), briefly announced in a letter — ‘Extrait d’Une Lettre de Mr. Cuper, à Mr. l’Abbé Nicaise’ — in the Journal des Sçavans on 30 June 1692*** The writer, Monsieur Cuper, transmitted the information he had just received from Aleppo, to wit: some  English gentlemen had made the journey to Palmyra and had seen 400 marble or porphyry columns, temples still intact, tombs, and Greek and Latin inscriptions, of which he hoped soon to receive copies. The writer of the letter was the Dutchman Gisbert Cuper (1644-1716).

Oracle of the World of Learning

Gisbert Cuper as Mayor of Deventer (c. 1675)

Cuper came from the city of Deventer in the northeastern Dutch province of Overijssel. At the age of 24, he was appointed professor of history and rhetoric at the local Athenaeum, and was made its Rector in 1672.  In 1674 he became the city’s mayor, a position he held until appointed as one of the province’s representatives in the States General (1681-1694), the Dutch Republic’s highest governing body.  His motto: honesta suopte ingenio ‘Rightminded by Nature’.

What nature didn’t provide, scholarship and letters did.

Writing letters was the most vital means of communication for members of the early modern scholarly community. Without letters (most often in Latin, the learned language of the time), and the accompanying reciprocal exchange of objects, drawings, books, and other gifts, there would have been little to hold such an extensive, geographically separated community together. Cuper established a network that served both his political and scholarly needs, keeping up a voluminous correspondance all over Europe (more than 5000 of his letters are still preserved in Dutch archives). Like many powerful politicians and merchants of the time, he had the means to contribute to the discovery and circulation of knowledge, either by becoming patron to younger or less pecunious researchers or by participating directly in the learned community.  Once he arrived at the States General in The Hague, Cuper was also able to mobilize diplomatic and consular networks for the satisfaction of his own antiquarian curiosity, corresponding with diplomats, representatives of merchant communities, and their entourage abroad, to transfer scholarly information and objects.

That’s how this ‘oracle of the world of learning’ knew about the discovery of Palmyra, even before the news had reached England.

The Dutch Connection 

Gisbert Cuper (painted between 1681-1689)

Cuper was a scholarly link between East and West, as is attested by his voluminous correspondence with Jacob Colyer, Dutch Ambassador in Constantinople, and his brother-in- law, Daniel Jan de Hochepied, Consul in Smyrna [today, Izmir]. Colyer and De Hochepied inhabited the cradle of civilization in which Cuper, as an antiquarian scholar, took so much interest.

With the aid of another Dutch Consul, Coenraad Calckberner, in Aleppo, Cuper was able to furnish European scholars with new material for the study of the ancient past. Before Calckberner even arrived in Aleppo (probably when he was about to leave Amsterdam), Cuper wrote urging the new Consul to gather copies of all the inscriptions that were found in the region of Aleppo, to buy ancient coins for him and to deliver pictures of ancient statues and reliefs.

In July 1692, Calckberner came up trumps. He wrote a letter saying that he would be sending Cuper some rare ancient coins, plus a copy of the travel report written by a minister [Halifax] in the company of the first Europeans who had visited Palmyra — undoubtedly the source for Cuper’s scoop in the Journal des Sçavans — and a painting depicting those ancient ruins, which the painter was still working on.  The promised items, including the painting (below), were shipped to Cuper on 3 April 1693.

Oil painting, The Ruins of Palmyra, sent to Gisbert Cuper in 1693. Photo credit: Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam.

Cuper intended to publish a complete account of the expedition to Palmyra, together with a historical commentary, after having translated the original manuscript from English into Latin — as few continental European scholars of the time could read English.  Thomas Smith himself was aware of this project: he announced in Philosophical Transactions of 1695, that the accounts published in that volume were meant to be nothing more than “a not unpleasant appetizer until the well-known and very learned man, Cuper, shall publish additional material….”.  Because this never happened, the reports in Philosophical Transactions remain the first published accounts of the journey to Palmyra.

Yes, but the painting, you say.  What about the painting?  Who painted it?  How and where did he do it?  Did he travel to Pamyra with Halifax in 1691? Why was his name not given in the official report?

So many questions … and they do have answers.

We’ll elucidate the Mystery of who was the first to paint Palmyra in Part II of this post.  The solution could not be more timely.

* Among the vast number of manuscripts Huntington collected in Syria is an illustrated 12th-century manuscript on weaponry commissioned by Saladin for his own library. It is now one of the treasures of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

** The legend is erroneous, the view is not ‘on the southern side’ but from the north(east).

*** I have confirmed this date (online). There is some confusion about the date of the letter of July 1692 from Calckberner (referred to a little later); more of that in Part II. A report of Cuper’s  French account was translated into English by John Ray in his Collection of Curious Travels and Voyages, printed in London in 1693; still beating the official report by two years.

Part II

Who drew this ‘Curious Prospect’ of Palmyra?

Engraving, ‘View of the ruins of Palmyra alias Tadmor: taken on the Southern Side’,** published in Philosophical Transactions, 1695. Reprinted in G. Astengo, ‘The rediscovery of Palmyra and its dissemination in Philosophical Transactions’, Notes Rec R Soc Lond 2016 Sep 20, 70(3): Fig. 1, published online 2016 Mar 16.

At the end of his report on his successful visit to Palmyra (‘A Relation of a Voyage from Aleppo to Palmyra in Syria’, 1695), the Rev.William Halifax added a note to announce the very latest news:

Extract from a letter written by Coenraad Calckberner to Gisbert Cuper, 1692 (KB 72 C 3, fols. 49r–50r).

True to his word, Halifax reproduced that ‘curious prospect’ (‘curious’ in the sense of an impossible panorama), in the very next Philosophical Transactions, together with extracts from the travel diaries kept by two eminent merchants,Timothy Lanoy and Aaron Goodyear.  Those gentlemen had been on the first disastrous attempt to reach Palmyra in 1678 and gave it a second, successful try in 1691. Their journals recount both voyages in great detail: what they saw on the trail to and from Palmyra/Tadmor (tracks, rocks, ruined villages, empty wells and cisterns, and, the climax of the second diary, a vivid account of their visit to the ‘King of the Arabs’ in his camp on the Euphrates River).  Lanoy and Goodyear also provided Halifax with the very large (71 x 149 cm/2.4′ x 5′) copperplate engraving (the Noble Ruins, taken on the Place) which he duly published.

Now, look at A View of the Ruins of Palmyra alias Tadmor (above) and mentally strip out the English legend and all those labels. With them gone, you can better compare the engraving with this painting of Rudera Palmyrae, ‘Ruins of Palmyra’, (below) in living colour:

Detail taken from oil painting, signed G. Hofstede, dated 1693.

This oil painting on canvas (ignore its Latin legend which was added much later, as explained below) was shipped to Gisbert Cuper by Coenraad Calckberner, the Dutch Consul in Aleppo in 1693; and we know from the Consul’s earlier correspondance that the artist was busy painting it during 1692.

Despite some artistic insertions — such as the colourful figure and exotic natives in the centre foreground — and, here and there, differing architectural details (e.g. height of towers, tumbled column drums, architraves and such), everyone will agree that, for all intents and purposes, the panoramic views are identical.

Who made the original drawing, the first drawing of Palmyra, then?

The engraving is unsigned and neither Halifax nor Lanoy nor Goodyear ever mention who was responsible for the drawing. However, in their journal of the return trip from Palmyra to Aleppo in 1691, there is this nugget: the travellers had stopped on the Euphrates to visit Assyne, ‘King of the Arabs’, and casually remark, we let [Assyne] see, too, a kind of rude draught [draft] which we had taken of the Place [Palmyra]; which he seemed to like.

Could this draft be the original master drawing? Unquestionably, some such rough original, made on site, must underlie both the engraving and the painting.  If so, Lanoy or Goodyear could have been the draftsman.  Perhaps, as eminent gentlemen, they were too modest (or too snobbish) to make a public claim. So, if one or the other were the artist, this easily solves our Mystery … but, alas, there are serious problems with this solution.

We mustn’t forget that the travellers remained only four days in Palmyra. It would have been virtually impossible for anyone other than a trained architectural draftsman to have measured and drawn such an expansive, detailed panorama in such a short time. Lanoy and Goodyear were merchants; classically trained, of course, and probably capable of decent sketching, but their interests were elevated: they did not draw buildings; they copied inscriptions. Besides, in those four days, even the indefatigable Halifax couldn’t describe in words all that he saw — let alone draw it all in approximate scale and perspective; in truth, Halifax left out sections of the Great Colonnade, the whole western part of the city, the Funerary Temple, and Diocletian’s Camp.

I suspect, too, that Lanoy and Goodyear had a slightly lackadaisical attitude to the actual structures. In page after page, they tell us of their travels, often closely observed, but say almost nothing about the city, with no details of their stay nor descriptions of the sights they had come so far to see.  In fact, this is the sum total of their account of the city itself:

Having tired ourselves with roving from Ruin to Ruin and rumaging among old Stones, from which little Knowledge could be obtained, and more especially not thinking it safe to linger too long …. we departed from Tadmor, being very well satisfied with what we had seen, and glad to have escaped so dreaded a Place…; but else with some regret, for having left a great many things behind, which deserved a more particular and curious Inspection.

That doesn’t sound like men who spent every daylight hour measuring and drawing ruins; does it?

So, if probably not Lanoy or Goodyear; then, who?

A Dutch painter?

Unlike the engraving, the monstrously large painting (.87 x 4.31 m/2’10″x 14’2″) is signed and even dated.  What does it say?

G. Hofstede fec: 1693. 1 aug.

Well, that should settle the question of who made the master drawing of Palmyra; except, of course, it doesn’t.

In fact, it makes matters worse. For who is G. Hofstede and how did he make (fec.) it?

What do we know about Gerard Hofstede?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

That is astonishing.  The study of 17th century Dutch art and artists has been going on for centuries and there are huge databases online (e.g. Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon – Internationale Künstlerdatenbank).  Yet, other than being the artist of the ‘Ruins of Palmyra’, Hofstede (also named Hofstede van Essen), draws a blank.  Even the very learned Herr Professor Doktor Friedrich von Duhn, who studied the painting in 1894 (Archäologische Anzeiger) could find nothing to say about him. The man simply vanished, as if into the thin air of the desert.

What facts do we have?  Only that Coenraad Calckberner, the Dutch Consul in Aleppo, wrote to Gisbert Cuper in mid-1692 telling him that an (unnamed) artist was painting the ruins of Palmyra and that he would send him the painting when finished; a year later, he confirmed that it was on its way — which agrees with the date on the painting.

Von Duhn concluded that Hofstede must have been the artist of the original drawing … since nobody else could have been. The learned professor is both right, and wrong.  The solution, I think, is found in Calckberner’s letter (written in a rather old form of Dutch, which  might be stretching my linguistic abilities too far).  This is the relevant extract from his letter to Mr Cuper in 1692:*

He is sending an aftrektekening — not as usually translated, ‘a painting’; but, rather, an old word for a copy, even a calque (tracing), of an existing drawing. In other words, Hofstede is putting into paint the drawing(s) he has made on the site.

What I think happened is this.

1678 and All That

The eminent merchants Lanoy and Goodyear had both been to Palmyra in 1678, a brief and fearful visit, but which nonetheless allowed them a glimpse of the ruins. On arrival, the company realized their great danger and rode to the top of a hill to defend themselves if need be.  From that eminence, they could discern these vast and noble ruins. Persuaded to descend, they pitched their tents inside the Town Walls, which is in the ruins of a great Palace, the Wall yet standing very high [in fact, the grounds surrounding the Temple of Bel]. Thus, Lanoy and Goodyear had a far better idea of Palmyra than those who only joined in the second voyage. Might they have hired a draftsman to accompany them in 1691, precisely in order to prepare drawings of what they knew they would find?

Enter Cornelis de Bruijn

Five years after their first, abortive visit to Palmyra, a Dutch artist named Cornelis de Bruijn arrived in Aleppo (May 1682 – April 1683).  De Bruijn had been travelling in the eastern Mediterranean since 1678 (Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Holy Land), drawing views of old monuments — perhaps not the most beautiful of drawings but better than anything that was known in Europe at the time. Despite the dangers, de Bruijn was eager to attempt another visit to Palmyra … but the local Arabs would not cooperate, and his plans came to nothing. Disappointed, he started on the long journey homewards.

Cornelis de Bruijn, by Godfrey Kneller (c. 1698). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.  Photo credit: Wikipedia. 

It’s by no means impossible that de Bruijn, an agreeable person who was welcome in the highest Dutch diplomatic and mercantile circles, met Lanoy and Goodyear during his stay of almost a year in Aleppo.  That might have given them the idea of hiring an artist to accompany them on their second voyage to measure and draw the ruins. Cornelis de Bruijn had returned to Holland, but, if you needed an artist, who better than another Dutchman — who then happened to be resident in Aleppo?  And that was Gerard Hofstede.  This is speculation, of course. Yet we might well have a bit of evidence for Hofstede’s actual presence on site in Palmyra in 1691.  Oddly enough, the proof is due to Cornelis de Bruijn….

In 1698, de Bruijn published his hugely successful book, Travels in the Principal Parts of Asia Minor, illustrated with over 200 pictures of spectacular oriental monuments:

I want to offer accurate pictures, of those cities, towns, and buildings that I have visited, and without recklessness I can claim to have done something that no one has done before.

Meanwhile, back in Holland, at sometime between 1693 when he returned home, and before the publication of his Travels, Gisbert Cuper invited de Bruijn to Deventer to study the giant painting of the ‘Ruins of Palmyra’ which was now in his collection. Accordingly, De Bruyn included in his book a copy of the engraving of the ruins of Palmyra that had been published by William Halifax in Philosophical Transactions (top of this post). But, as he boasted, he was able to add to it details that he had discovered from close inspection of Mr Cuper’s painting.  For example, he added a fallen (dark) porphyry column beside the six standing (white) columns in the lower centre, which was not on the published engraving. This porphyry column can only mean that, as he was painting, Hofstede was slightly reworking the panorama — either from memory or from sketches he had made on the site.

And there he is: he painted himself standing on a stone slab bang in the middle of the painting (detail, left), his hand pointing to his signature written as if incised on the stone.[See update below]

So, I think that Hofstede’s original drawing was the basis for the engraving published in Philosophical Transactions in 1695, and that this was also the ‘rude draft’ that Lanoy and Goodyear showed to the Arab king on their way back to Aleppo in 1691. Hofstede left the engraving unsigned, partly because it was based on an unfinished drawing, and partly because it was the property of his patrons (in modern terms, they owned the copyright).  Meanwhile, Hofstede worked on his painting during 1692-3, and sold it, when finished, to the Dutch Consul who bought it on behalf of Mr Cuper.

What happened to Gerard Hofstede after that, we know not.

He disappears from history, but his painting lives on.


Last page of the list of Cuper’s books and antiquities auctioned in 1717.  Photo credit: Communications Dept. Deventer Museum, to whom I am most grateful for this illustration.  I take this occasion, too, to thank the PR staff for their generous help.

Gisbert Cuper died in 1716. In the following year, his collection of 4,100 books and a few antiquities was sold in an auction that lasted nine days. The ‘Ruins of Palmyra’ was knocked down to Gerard van Papenbroeck (1673-1743), a great art collector and future burgomaster of Amsterdam, for 17 florins — not a large sum considering its size and historical importance, but the art market was poor in this long period of economic decline.

In memoriam 1743

When he, in turn, died in 1743, Van Papenbroeck bequeathed his antiquities to the universities of Leiden and Amsterdam.  The Illustrious Athenaeum of Amsterdam got the prize of Palmyra. Van Papenbroeck won a permanent commemoration with a Latin legend superimposed on the painting in gold letters:



Whereupon the painting, while known to interested scholars, became all but invisible to the public, hanging first in the entrance of the Library of the University of Amsterdam, and then moved next door into a storeroom of  the Allard-Pierson Museum, where I first saw it in 2006.


And now it has moved back to Deventer for the first time in almost 300 years as the centrepiece of a splendid little exhibition that highlights the unexpected historical relationship between Palmyra and the charming city of Deventer.  Finally, members of the public can now see the painting as close up as they like.  There is so much to enjoy in it.

Palmyra. City of a Thousand Pillars in Deventer

The Museum De Waag (the medieval weighing hall) is hosting the exhibition, telling the story of Palmyra from its discovery by the Western world in the 17th century, until the dire exploded monuments and murders that scarred the city in 2015.

The exhibition is triggered by the recent mayhem in Palmyra committed by ISIS. What motivates the violence of ISIS? And how do Syrians themselves experience the loss of their cultural heritage? When the painting by Gerard Hofstede arrived in the home of Gisbert Cuper, ‘the oracle of the world of learning’ and mayor (burgomaster) of Deventer, it was the first representation of the ruins ever to be seen in the West.  It marks the start of western fascination with the almost mythical desert city.

Mystery Solved

I took the opportunity, too, to get a much better view of Gerard Hofstede’s painting.  I was particularly dissatisfied with the image (above) showing a portrait of the artist himself in the middle of his painting — boasting, as it were, that he had made it. Close-up, it’s possible to see much more detail … and my young colleague, Drs Lauren van Zoonen, kindly took this crystal-clear photograph (left) for me.  We can now see that his hand is not only proudly pointing to his signature but is also holding one of his unrolled drawings: even the shadow of the ruins is visible in this sketch.  Hofstede, in short, paints himself with the ‘rude draft’ in hand while simultaneously pointing to his name.  There can be no doubt now that he was there, on site, along with the company of Englishmen.  Game, set and match for solving the Mystery: Who made the first ever drawing of Palmyra?

Gerard Hofstede made it.

* I am immensely grateful to Dr L. Dirven of the University of Amsterdam who kindly sent me the digitalized files of Mr Cuper’s correspondence now archived in the Royal Library in The Hague — a fascinating bundle, as well as (I hope) an instructive one.

** My warmest thanks to Laura Gibbs of the wonderful blog Bestiaria Latina for correcting my rusty Latin translation of the legend; as well as giving me and many others years of fun blogging posts [her cats speak Latin].  Everyone who likes Latin (or even vaguely remembers it) should check out her blog.

Sources.  As in Part I, plus: ‘An Extract of the Journals of Two Separate Voyages of the English Merchants of the Factory of Aleppo, to Tadmor, Anciently Call’d Palmyra’. Phil Trans. 1695, XIX; F. von Duhn,  ‘Die älteste Ansicht von Palmyra, ARCHÄOLOGISCHER ANZEIGER, 1894, 112-15; for the life and works of Cornelis de Bruijn I have consulted with much pleasure the always interesting Articles on Ancient History