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Can 3D imagery save Syria's cultural heritage?

Elizabeth Grenier
March 15, 2016

Hundreds of major heritage sites have been destroyed or damaged during the Syrian conflict. Now detailed 3D mappings of the country's famous monuments provide hope for their preservation.

Smoke at the Baal Shamin temple in Palmyra, Syria, Copyright: picture alliance/AP Photo
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

A French team of digital surveyors has been collaborating with archaeologists from the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) to map in detail the country's cultural monuments threatened by the ongoing conflict in the country.

The French start-up called Iconem has developed a photogrammetric technology that can at least preserve the memory of these buildings.

"This solution gives our archaeological sites a real hope of renaissance and allows the memory of them to be preserved, no matter what happens," the head of DGAM, Maamoun Abdulkarim, said in a press statement.

Krak de Chevaliers Castle in Syria, Copyright: Syrian Heritage Archive/Issam Ballouz
The Krak des Chevaliers is one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the worldImage: Syrian Heritage Archive/Issam Ballouz

Mapping the buildings that are left

Their Syrian Heritage database is said to be the biggest 3D record of the country's monuments and treasures, according to news agency AFP. They began working on it in December and published it online on Tuesday (15.03.2016).

Three sites are available for now, including the eighth-century Umayyad Mosque in the capital Damascus, seen by some Muslims as the fourth-holiest place in Islam. New 3D versions of heritage sites will be published from week to week, Eric Thibaut, an Iconem contributor, told DW.

Another famous site they have reconstructed in 3D is the Krak des Chevaliers, the Crusader castle near the devastated city of Homs. Although the hilltop castle has some war scars, the damage it underwent during the heavy fighting in the region is fortunately limited. It nevertheless remains one of the six Syrian sites on UNESCO's list of World Heritage in danger.

"For now, the mapping focuses on buildings which are still standing, as a preventive measure," said Thibaut. Unlike its sister mosque in Damascus, the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo was destroyed in 2013 due to the civil conflict.

Life-size reproduction of Palmyra arch

Another similar initiative led by the Institute for Digital Archaeology has provided 5,000 low-cost 3D cameras to NGO workers and archaelogists to gather millions of images of these threatened sites.

Arch of Triumph in the 2000-year-old-city of Palmyra, Copyright: Fotolia
"IS" militants blew up the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra; now a huge 3D printer will reproduce itImage: Fotolia/waj

Their Million Images Database is expected to be published by the end of the year. Their goal is also to use the world's largest 3D printer to recreate a life-size reproduction of the triumphal arch destroyed in Palmyra and put it on show in New York's Times Square and London's Trafalgar Square.

"Islamic State" jihadist militants outraged the world by blowing up the first-century temples of Bel and Baalshamin in the ancient desert city of Palmyra in August last year, destroying treasures of "one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world," according to UNESCO.

More on the topic: The "Palmyra - What's Left?" exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne currently presents 18th century sketches of the Syrian city's former splendor.

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