Glimpses of Girton: Robert Wood's books on Palmyra and Baalbek

The exact date of Robert Wood's birth is unknown (either 1716 or 1717, working backwards from the information that he was a third-year student at the University of Glasgow in 1732) but 2017 marks roughly the 300th anniversary. A classical scholar and tutor, in 1750-1751 he was part of a small group who toured the Near East. They visited both Palmyra and Baalbek in March 1751, measuring and drawing plans of the ancient buildings and recorded the inscriptions. Robert Wood's diaries of the expedition are held in the Joint Library of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, in London: see http://library.icls.sas.ac.uk/about-collection.htm.

Today, Palmyra and Baalbek are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and also household names due to the devastation wreaked at Palmyra by Islamic State (ISIS) but in the eighteenth century, the two cities were largely unknown except to scholars.  Little wonder, then, that the two books written by Wood following the expedition – The ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tedmor in the desart (1753) and The ruins of Balbec, otherwise Heliopolis in Coelosyria (1757) – were hugely popular and helped influence the neo-classical style in Britain.

Girton is fortunate to have a first edition of each book, donated in April 1939 by Lorna Johnson as part of a collection that included a 1539 edition of Petrarch. She had read Classics here in 1900-1903 and it is perhaps no surprise that she is described as "a generous benefactor of the Library". Both books are now part of the Rare Books Collection, one of the Library's special collections.

The first edition of Palmyra is recorded in the English Short Title Catalogue in two issues, distinguished by the errata page and form of the date on the title-page, with one issue giving the date in Roman numerals and the other using Arabic numerals. Ours is an unusual but not unique combination of both, with the date on the title-page in Roman numerals but containing the errata of the issue that used Arabic numerals on the title-page.

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However, the first thing the reader really notices about the two books is their size; they are literally an armful. The catalogue record gives the height of each as 54 cm (librarians traditionally round up the height of books to the nearest whole centimetre), which belies their true enormity. As shown here by Palmyra, opening the book requires table space at least 75 cm wide and spreading open the plans can require up to 154 cm – not far off the height of the Librarian!

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The second is the deceptive nature of the title pages. Here is Balbec's comparatively sparse title page:

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Yet within the pages are glorious images such as these (not shown here to scale):

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The neo-classical appeal can clearly be seen but perhaps what comes through more strongly to us today is the poignancy of what were then romantic ruins, as shown below by Palmyra, but have now lost that romance.

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Published: 26 October 2017