Studio el Karawan: Deir ez Zor’s Forgotten Faces

Deir ez Zor is a city in eastern Syria on the banks of the Euphrates, which dates back to the third century BCE. Recently, it has earned a reputation as a civil war battlefront between the Syrian Army, the rebels, and ISIS. However, before it was sucked into Syria’s bloody events, Deir ez Zor, or the Monastery of the Grove, had a prosperous and, at times, turbulent record.

In its early history, the city was ruled by the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, and later by the Greeks and Romans. Throughout the Roman period, Deir Ez Zor flourished as a trading hub. However, during the third century CE, when civil wars wreaked havoc throughout the Roman Empire, Queen Zenobia of Palmyra conquered Deir ez Zor and made it part of her kingdom. After Zenobia was defeated and captured by Roman Emperor Aurelian in 271, Deir ez Zor changed hands numerous times until it was completely destroyed in the thirteenth century during the Mongols invasions.

A bridge  connecting the east bank of the Euphrates River with the town of Deir ez Zor. Circa 1920s. Phot. Norbert Schiller Collection

A bridge connecting the east bank of the Euphrates River with the town of Deir ez Zor. Circa 1920s. Phot. Norbert Schiller Collection

Present day Deir ez Zor was re-established on the west bank of the Euphrates by the Ottomans in 1867, and became the seat of government for that part of the empire. During the 1915-1916 Armenian Genocide, Deir ez Zor was one of the cities where Armenians were forced to relocate after being driven from their homes by the Turks. Camps were set up around the city to house the tens of thousands who sought refuge here. A genocide memorial was built beside the Armenian Church in 1991, but was destroyed by ISIS in September 2014.

After the collapsed of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI, modern day Syria came under French mandate and the French army established a military base near Deir ez Zor. When Syria gained independence in 1945, Deir ez Zor became a farming backwater. It wasn’t until the discovery of oil in early 1980s, that the city reinstated its status as a hub.

The following exhibition features two galleries. The first shows twenty-two rare hand-colored studio portraits by Armenian photographer Karawan. Patrick Godeau discovered the collection when he visited Deir Ez Zor in 2003, and acquired the photos from the late photographer’s family which, at the time, still ran the studio. In the accompanying story Godeau describes how he acquired the photos. The second gallery features photographs of Deir ez Zor from the 1920s to the early 1970s.





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