The brutal Middle East wars of recent years, combined with the Islamic State’s fanatical interest in erasing all traces of pre-Islamic religion and culture, have led to the destruction of ancient city centers and magnificent UNESCO-registered mosques, temples, and other historical landmarks in Iraq and Syria. In other countries, heritage sites have been destroyed as much by neglect as by conflict.
Now the most ambitious effort to date to virtually recreate some of what has been lost is on a tour of some of the world’s leading museums.
“Age-Old Cities: A Virtual Journey from Palmyra to Mosul,” was organized by the Arab World Institute, in Paris, an organization and museum founded by 18 Arab countries and France in 1980 to promote Arab art and civilization.
The exhibit uses the latest 3D digital technology to show in stunning detail both the original beauty and the current destroyed state of four ancient cities: Palmyra and Aleppo in Syria, Mosul in Iraq, and Leptis Magna in Libya. The latter, founded by the Phoenicians and dubbed by the Romans as “the Rome of Africa,” is the only one of the four that has not been damaged by war, but by looting and neglect.
The exhibit contains a dozen stunning three-minute videos projected on giant screens that allow visitors to fly over devastated city landscapes before zooming in on destroyed landmarks. These include Mosul’s 12th century Great Mosque of Al-Nuri, whose leaning minaret was one of Mosul’s most famous landmarks and where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate in 2014, and Palmyra’s first century Temple of Bel. Both were blown up by ISIS. In the video, viewers can watch them virtually re-emerge from the rubble. (See the related articles “Two Caliphates Fall: Mosul Survives” and “Hope Emerges for Historic Sites in Palmyra.”)
In addition to the fly-over videos, visitors can enter and explore the haunting remains of several badly damaged landmarks in virtual reality by donning special goggles. The exhibit also tells the stories of each of the cities from their origins to their modern-day state, using archival documents and images, as well as video testimonials by inhabitants, local archaeologists and cultural experts.
Protecting Cultural Heritage
The idea for the exhibit began some four years ago, as the leaders of the Arab World Institute grew increasingly alarmed by the Islamic State’s policy of dynamiting and bulldozing cultural monuments, as well as the destruction of large parts of Aleppo during fierce fighting in the government’s military offensive to retake the city in 2016.