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Devastated Middle Eastern Heritage Sites Are Recreated Digitally

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.

These ancient cities are considered cornerstones of world culture. “We thought presenting artifacts was not the right solution,” said Aurélie Clement-Ruiz, the Arab World Institute’s director of exhibitions and curator of Age-Old Cities. She and her colleagues decided to work on a virtual exhibition that would both educate the public about the destruction that took place and collect digital documentation to help in reconstruction efforts.

“Today’s technology offers the possibility of a total view of the situation, better than human vision or photography could provide.”

Jack Lang
 Director of the Arab World Institute

“This heritage is a common good,” said the institute’s director, Jack Lang, at a ceremony to mark the exhibit’s opening last month in Washington, D.C. “Safeguarding it is the responsibility of all.”

The Arab World Institute partnered with Iconem, a Paris-based startup that specializes in the 3D digitization of endangered cultural heritage sites. The private company has worked with UNESCO, national governments and other organizations to document in detail damaged or endangered monuments in more than 20 countries.

Virtual reality goggles allow visitors to explore the remains of badly damaged landmarks (Photo: The Arab World Institute).
Virtual reality goggles allow visitors to explore the remains of badly damaged landmarks (Photo: The Arab World Institute).

Technology for Rebuilding Iraq and Syria

Yves Ubelmann, an architect specialized in preservation of heritage sites and co-founder of Iconem, said that over the last decade, he and other experts have been developing algorithms and an artificial-intelligence system to create 3D virtual blueprints of monuments and built landscapes—whatever state they may be in.

Their technology uses both drones and people taking thousands of digital photos on the ground. These are stitched together digitally to form a “point cloud,” which can be turned into three-dimensional replicas that can be projected or printed.

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The technique can use recent or old photos to create finely detailed digital models of the damaged structures in their original state and superimpose the images over the piles of rubble where the buildings stood. In the large projected videos in the Age-Old Cities exhibition, detailed, gossamer, see-through images of the original monuments rise out of their present-day ruins before viewers’ eyes.

“Today’s technology offers the possibility of a total view of the situation,” said Lang, “better than human vision or photography could provide.”

UNESCO and other organizations are making use of these digital documents in various projects to rebuild parts of the cities. “With the new technique, reconstruction is much easier and faster,” said Iconem’s Ubelmann.

The exhibition opened in October 2018 at the Institute in Paris, then last year moved in slightly abbreviated form first to the National Museum in Riyadh and then to the Bundeskunsthalle (the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany) in Bonn. It opened in January at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art, in Washington, D.C. It will stay there until October 25.

Chase F. Robinson, director of the Asian Art museum, called the show a “landmark exhibition,” both “for the poignant story it tells” and “for its innovative use of digital technology within a museum context.”


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