On a summer day in 2014, with the high Syrian sun beating down, a volunteer with a camera made his way toward the rose-gold ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra. The stifling heat was immediately forgotten as he approached the site, an oasis for travelers since the 19th century B.C. The volunteer drew comfort from the shade of the monuments and stood in awe of the history they carried. But he was there to work; bringing himself back to the present, he readied his camera.
A few months later, Palmyra lay in ruins, another casualty of ISIS’s crusade in Syria and Iraq. Its towers and colonnades had been reduced to rubble and its temples looted. From above, it looked as if someone had taken a broom and swept away what had remained of the ancient city, tidying it up for the extremists who now control that patch of ground.
The volunteer, now hundreds of miles from the site, watched images of the destruction flash across the evening news. He was pained, but also knew that all was not lost. The pictures on television, he knew, wouldn’t be the last the world saw of these ancient wonders.
The contribution the Monuments Men made to the Western artistic heritage is unquestionable. Made up of historians, professors, arts professionals and curators, the Monuments Men (there were also a few women) worked during World War II to recover and protect looted works of art from the Nazis. Without them, much of Europe’s most important artwork—Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Vermeer’s The Astronomer, Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb—would have been lost forever. More than 70 years later, the world of historic art and architecture has found itself in similar threatening circumstances. Areas of the Middle East have been embroiled in warfare for years, and the casualties include ancient, priceless architecture.
Since taking over much of Syria and parts of Northern and Western Iraq in 2014, the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS, has been on a campaign to destroy the cultural heritage of those countries, obliterating ancient sites it believes to be sacrilegious and idolatrous. ISIS has posted footage of temples being destroyed by fire, dynamite, bulldozers, pickaxes and sledgehammers. Christian and Muslim shrines are being targeted: the ancient Assyrian Northwest Palace at Nimrud; Mosul Museum in Iraq; and temples of Baal Shamin and Bel, both in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, have all been looted and destroyed. ISIS’s actions have gotten the most attention, but it isn’t the only group despoiling these ancient sites. As various factions vie for power in Syria, it seems that all parties, including the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Free Syrian Army, and unaffiliated locals, are guilty of attempts to plunder and profit from ancient artifacts.
The destruction and exploitation of art and architecture has parallels to what occurred during World War II, and it would be criminal for the world to stand aside and let it go on unchallenged. Yet, unlike much of the artwork rescued during World War II, the endangered architecture in the Middle East can’t be carted away to safety. But as the obstacles of preservation have evolved, so has the ability to address new situations. That’s why a team from the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) is turning to the next best option—using technology to protect cultural heritage.
Founded in 2012 by Roger Michel, IDA is a joint effort between Harvard University and Oxford University to create an open-source database of high-resolution images and three-dimensional graphics of things like paper and papyrus documents, epigraphs and small artifacts. The work began in the lab and eventually moved into the field, where project participants began to digitally document ancient architecture with the thinking that they could help to ensure the legacy of these sites would be protected from things like environmental disasters and aging foundations. They didn’t expect to be battling ISIS.
Work on what IDA has named the Million Image Database began in early 2015. In order to quickly create photographic equipment unique to this project, a technology team, led by magnetician Alexy Karenowska, was assembled at Oxford to develop a low-cost, easy-to-use 3-D camera. They took an off-the-shelf model and heavily modified it, adding features like macro mode (which enables focusing on close-range objects), the use of file formats that could store anaglyph information—different-colored layers of a photograph superimposed to create a stereoscopic three-dimensional effect—and automated GPS stamping.
The GPS function is particularly useful for tracking down looted artifacts, especially when dealing with a group like ISIS that has its own “ministry of antiques” helping to smuggle items into art markets. If an item that has been pillaged shows up in the marketplace, investigators can consult the time- and location-stamped images to see if the artifact had previously been in one of the documented locations. This past August, the FBI put out an alert for art dealers to be on the lookout for stolen artifacts from the Syria and Iraq regions, reminding them that purchasing such items is a federal crime. If looted artifacts become unsellable, it will be one less factor motivating the devastation of treasured ancient sites.
With the camera development underway, it was time to choose the targets. UNESCO and IDA came up with a list of the most threatened sites in Jordan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Iran and Iraq. The specifics can’t be publicly discussed due to the sensitive nature of the project and concerns for the safety of those involved. But many of the sites chosen were on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger—including Palmyra, which the team was able to reach and document before its destruction.
Once sites were chosen and the cameras designed and built, UNESCO and IDA needed to get them into the hands of willing participants. That task fell to IDA Field Director Ben Altshuler, who worked with UNESCO, which already had a good number of people on the ground in the affected areas and field organizations in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Altshuler also assembled a “veritable army” of museum employees, members of antiquary societies, archaeologists and others involved in preserving cultural inheritance.
The volunteers have ample local knowledge of the targets, which in many ways makes them more equipped to assess an area than any third-party security detail. But there are obvious risks still involved for those on the ground working to check ISIS’s cultural cleansing. They’ve taken strict precautions: All volunteers are told to avoid areas directly controlled by ISIS or its sympathizers. They have also built in a three-month lag time between when pictures are taken and when they are posted, making it difficult to ascertain the photographer of any given site. While volunteers have not had any direct confrontations with those looking to do them harm, other challenges have arisen. For example, the team discovered that high-speed Internet was not always available in parts of the Middle East. To remedy this, cameras are now given out with prepaid mailers so participants can send back filled memory cards.
Overall, Michel has noted that the project has been going smoother than anticipated. He estimates they have about 1,000 cameras in the field now and plan to have up to 5,000 by the end of the year. With over 200,000 images already scanned, they are on track to have 1 million or more by year’s end. And despite the risks, “people seem to have an appetite for this,” says Michel.
The project is about more than just averting the loss of some old piles of stone. Katharyn Hanson, a University of Pennsylvania fellow whose archaeological work focuses on the protection of cultural heritage, notes that the loss of ruins in places like Palmyra and Nimrud—a 3,000-year-old city in Iraq with hundreds of registered historical sites—can inflict acute suffering on people in the region. “It is vitally important that we remember that the built cultural heritage of a place is deeply connected to a local population’s sense of identity,” she says.
The Middle East has been a crossroads for centuries, and it is one of the most culturally textured places on the planet. For example, as one of the longest-inhabited cities in the world, Palmyra featured styles of architecture ranging from pre-Hellenistic to high classical, with structures built from the fifth century B.C. to the first century. Its temple complex had served as a Roman trading post, a mosque, a Christian church and a major crossroads for the Silk Road, and the city had “the best-preserved Roman architecture in the eastern Mediterranean,” according to Hanson.
“If ISIS is successful in wiping the slate clean and blotting out from the landscape these objects and architecture, it won’t be long until people forget that they ever existed,” says Michel. We can’t recover the original Palmyra, but thanks to the work of IDA, the ancient sites there will still be accessible by the public in some form. And in some cases, the project will even allow for certain sites to be rebuilt.
Buildings that were destroyed could be built in the exact likeness of the original, thanks to new 3-D concrete-printing technology. According to Michel, “Concrete was one of the most widely used materials in the classical period, so we’d be using essentially the same materials that these structures were built from originally.” There are already plans to construct a replica of the Temple of Bel arch, a second-century triple archway built in Palmyra by the Romans, for World Heritage Day in London during March of next year. The temple’s main building and colonnade were leveled between August and September of this year, but satellite images had shown that although it had been heavily damaged, the arch avoided complete destruction. “T he structure’s remarkable resilience, yet still uncertain fate will make our reconstruction of it, we feel, a powerful and thought-provoking centerpiece for the March event,” Karenowska noted. The reconstructed arch will be retained in England until it can one day be placed back in Palmyra.
Reconstruction may not be the “purest” form of preservation, but in cases where there aren’t many other options, it might be the best course of action. “When you watch satellite images of structures like the Temple of Bel in Palmyra just reduced to rubble over the course of five minutes,” says Michel, “I think you realize that the normal rules have kind of gone out the window.” Hanson supports the reconstructions, though she believes preserving the architecture is less important than what the efforts to rebuild would symbolize. “ After the shrines are exploded,” Hanson says, “the sites themselves are bulldozed and wiped clean [by ISIS] in order to physically erase their memory.” A reconstruction of any sort, in any location, would be working against what ISIS hoped to accomplish.
Last month, a major partnership was cemented between IDA, UNESCO, and the Dubai Museum of the Future Foundation in the United Arab Emirates. The museum, slated to open in 2017, aims to become a center of innovation by attracting engineers, designers, scientists, researchers, financiers and pioneers of all kinds to come together and collaborate on future technologies. By partnering with the Dubai Museum of the Future Foundation, IDA will have the resources to more than double its output of reconstructions. Originally hoping for three or four projects in the next 18 months, they are now aiming for close to 10. The partnership has been a real “moral booster,” Michel says. “This is a true 24/7 job, and having the strong endorsement of important regional stakeholders really encourages us to give the proverbial 110 percent.”
Currently, an online portal is being developed by IDA that will house all of the collected images from the project. They will be available to the public sometime in early 2016, giving many an opportunity to see places they never knew existed until they’ve become headlines as casualties of war.
Michel and his team are focused on fighting back, using means that are “constructive instead of destructive.” It seems to be working: Despite an attempt to eradicate the cultural heritage of the Middle East, ISIS has inspired new ways for it to spread. By stimulating IDA’s plans for creative collaborations taking place on a global scale, ISIS has opened up a dialogue between those it most desperately wanted to silence.