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.
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.