In the Salaheddin district, which is only 50% under government control, streets are blocked off with rubble and a bus. Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.
In the Salaheddin district, which is only 50% under government control, streets are blocked off with rubble and a bus. Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos
In the Salaheddin district, which is only 50% under government control, streets are blocked off with rubble and a bus. Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.
A view inside the ancient Souk of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, March 2016.
In the Meydan district, which is 75% under government control, residents still live in partially destroyed houses. Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.
On the road between Homs and Aleppo, a Syrian army commander in charge of keeping the road to Aleppo open points out army and ISIS positions on a map of the area. March 2016.
Mourners gather for the funeral of Syrian army soldier Amar Siraj Ali, 24, who was killed fighting ISIS militants in Deir-ez-Zor. Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.
A woman takes a picture of a Christian congregation during Easter celebrations in a government-controlled section of Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.
Destruction inside the former Maronite Cathedral of Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.
Framed portraits of Pope Francis and Syrian President Bashar Assad hang on a wall inside the offices of the Maronite Bishop of Aleppo, March 2016.
A view of the government-controlled area of Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.
In a former university housing building, converted into housing for IDPs from the surrounding districts, residents repair electric cables running from a generator. Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.
A family living in one room in a former university building, converted into housing for IDPs from surrounding districts, in Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.
An internally displaced woman holds her baby in the building where they now live in the Salaheddin district of Aleppo, Syria, March 2016.
A view of the destruction in Homs, Syria, March 2016.
Artwork is seen inside the former media center of the Free Syrian Army in the Bab Amr district of Homs, Syria, March 2016.
A Syrian boy sits in a hallway of a former school, now a complex used by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to house internally displaced persons, in the Bab Amr district of Homs, Syria, March 2016.
Internally displaced persons live in a former school, converted into a refugee center by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, in the Bab Amr district of Homs, Syria, March 2016.
Internally displaced persons live in a former school, converted into a refugee center by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, in the Bab Amr district of Homs, Syria, March 2016.
Paintings of flowers are seen on a destroyed building in Homs, Syria, March 2016.
The ancient cemetery in the Bab Amr district of Homs, Syria, March 2016.
A volunteer soldier from the Syrian National Defense Forces holds up an ISIS flag, discovered in a street of downtown Palmyra, Syria, April 1, 2016.
A Syrian army soldier removes his helmet while sitting on rubble of the former Temple of Bel, one of several sites destroyed by ISIS militants, in ancient Palmyra, Syria, April 1, 2016.
The medieval hilltop citadel is seen from the ancient ruins in Palmyra, Syria, April 1, 2016. Before the war, this was one of the country's most popular tourist destinations.
Syrian army soldiers at the Roman theatre in Palmyra, Syria, April 1, 2016. ISIS militants used the amphitheatre as an arena to carry out public executions.
The medieval hilltop citadel is seen from the main road into the city center, which is strewn with detritus of the Syrian army's offensive to retake Palmyra, April 1, 2016.
A defaced statue lies amongst holes left by the controlled detonation of mines planted by ISIS militants in central Palmyra, Syria, April 1, 2016.
Syrian Army Colonel Samir Ibrahim stands in front of an iron ISIS structure erected in a fountain of the main square in Palmyra, Syria, April 1, 2016. This is where ISIS decapitated Khaled al-Asaad, the octogenarian who headed Palmyra’s antiquities department for decades, stringing up his body to terrify local people.
Syrian army generals and soldiers gaze over modern Palmyra from the medieval hilltop citadel, April 1, 2016.
The tarmac of the road leading into the center of Palmyra, torn open by mines laid at 50-meter intervals by retreating ISIS militants, is seen on April 1, 2016. These could not be deactivated and had to be detonated by Syrian and Russian bomb disposal teams.
In the Salaheddin district, which is only 50% under government control, streets are blocked off with rubble and a bus. A
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Lorenzo Meloni—Magnum Photos
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Inside War Ravaged Syria

Apr 07, 2016

The killing fields in Syria spread quickly. Blood has spilled from streets to neighborhoods, urban centers out to the countryside, and eventually to ancient ruins. No corner of the country has been spared. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions have fled internally, crossed into neighboring countries or Europe, exacerbating a global refugee crisis. A cease-fire between the government and opposition factions hangs in the balance six months after Russia officially entered this intractable fray to support President Bashar Assad.

Magnum photographer Lorenzo Meloni, who for years has documented the grind of war and its toll on civilians, fighters and their surroundings, recently returned from a weeklong trip inside Syria. Based in Paris but often in Beirut, he obtained a visa and, after arriving to Damascus on March 26, soon ventured out to three major cities — Aleppo, Homs and Palmyra.

In Aleppo, he observed the mourning of a government soldier who died fighting ISIS, and photographed internally displaced men, women and children living in a former university building that was converted into a refugee center by a Syrian aid group. He stood in the city’s famous souk, one of six UNESCO World Heritage Sites around Syria that have all been damaged—not solely by jihadists. In one surreal scene, he watched the protestant vicar's wife use a selfie stick to take photos of the congregation gathered outside the new church as part of the Easter celebrations.

The city has two sides: the sections that have retained an essence of normalcy—“it still feels like you’re in a warzone, but a different kind,” Meloni says—and their counterparts, the war-torn areas have been so bombed and shelled that the mind struggles to understand how it can be rebuilt. In this two-faced city, Meloni says, “most people have lost at least one relative in this war.”

In Homs, Meloni saw streets and districts that had been bombed-out, like in the Bab Amr district, where the February 2012 shelling of a makeshift media center in an opposition-held area killed journalist Marie Colvin, an American working with London’s Sunday Times, and French photographer Remí Ochlik. Some families displaced by the war had taken refuge in the shell of a school, or returned to their own half-collapsed homes. Flowers had been painted on the shell-ridden exterior of one building.

During this trip Meloni received permission from the Syrian government to enter Palmyra, the city in central Syria that has recently been recaptured from ISIS after 10 months. Palmyra’s ancient ruins are among the world’s most coveted cultural sites. Meloni and a handful of journalists got there early in the morning and left in the evening, spending the day shadowing government forces and seeing what remained of the ancient site.

“We arrived at a very important moment,” he says. “The first thing that the commander wanted to get across was the importance of commemorating the fighters who died there.”

From the hilltop citadel, Meloni observed smoke rise from the modern city where, he was told, bomb disposal teams were detonating booby traps and mines—ISIS parting gifts. He photographed Syrian soldiers at the amphitheater where ISIS militants conducted executions, and watched them traipse around the new ruins of the ancient ruins. “Before being there, I was really afraid that everything was destroyed,” he says. “After we arrived, I saw that many of the [structures] had survived.” Among the losses was the Temple of Bel, reduced to a sole portico above a bed of rubble.

The Tetrapylon, in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra, 2009.They were built as landmarks at significant crossroads or geographical 'focal points', as a 'sub-type' of the Roman triumphal arch.
The Tetrapylon, in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra, 2009.Peter Aaron—OTTO
The Tetrapylon, in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra, 2009.They were built as landmarks at significant crossroads or geographical 'focal points', as a 'sub-type' of the Roman triumphal arch.
Triumphal Arch and grand colonnade.
Tourists visit the site of the Temple of Bel ruins in Palmyra.
The Temple of Bel ruins were considered among the best preserved at Palmyra.
The grand Roman amphitheater in Palmyra.
Qalaat Shirkuh, a reconstructed 13th Century castle perched on a hilltop to the west of Palmyra's Roman-era ruins.
Qalaat Shirkuh looms above the ancient Roman city of Palmyra.
The Valley of the Tombs in Palmyra contains numerous tower tombs mostly dating from the first century AD.
One of the Towers of Yemliko in the Valley of the Tombs.
During the Muslim holy day of Friday, many locals picnic, stroll, ride horses, motorbikes among the ruins of Palmyra.
The Tetrapylon, in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra, 2009.
Peter Aaron—OTTO
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He found statues that had been defaced and ancient columns which, despite weathering empires, had been felled. He stood near the fountain where ISIS showed off the decapitated body of Palmyra’s octogenarian antiquities scholar and top local preservationist.

Teju Cole, the photography critic of The New York Times Magazine, put it best in a column last October. He wrote that a temple, “as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory.” It is that photograph, he continues, that is “shadowed by its vanished ancestor.”

This notion is not limited to ruins of ancient times. It can be applied to the living and the dead, and the numbing destruction in parts of Aleppo and Homs that Meloni shows us in his pictures—in this evidence.

Lorenzo Meloni is a Paris-based photographer represented by Magnum Photos.

Alice Gabriner, TIME's international photo editor, and Andrew Katz, TIME's international multimedia editor, edited this photo essay.

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