Two Years after ISIS, Mosul Tallies Up the Cost—and Looks to Laser-Enabled Reconstruction of its Ancient Glory

The Mosul Museum once held hand-chiseled reliefs and statues from three civilizations across three millennia. It exhibited two 13th-century coffins inscribed with verses from the Qur'an, statues depicting Hercules, and a series of ninth-century-BC bronze bands that wrapped a series of enormous doors known as the Balawat Gates. The museum is most famously known as the home of two-ton winged Assyrian bulls with human heads, called Lamassus.

Then the Islamic State arrived in 2014. When they reached the museum they smashed and destroyed everything in the Assyrian wings of the museum. Militants burned books, cracked the cuneiform tablets, and sold priceless works of bronze and gold to fill their coffers. The Lamassu were smashed, their wings clipped.

The devastation spread far beyond the pillaged galleries. Some 35,000 claims from victims of the war against ISIS in Mosul were lodged with the central government in Baghdad, according to a report last month from the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights and Minority Rights Group International. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced from the Iraqi city of Mosul where the World Bank estimates $1.6 billion in damages to the housing sector encompassing the ancient homes of its Old City.

Iraq's cultural heritage sector suffered $858 million in damages to archeological sites and both contemporary and historic religious facilities. "The crisis has created an emergency at the global level, due to the universal value of Iraqi heritage," according to the World Bank.

Around the city ISIS members smashed the holy shrine of the Prophet Nabi Yunus, knocked minarets from atop their mosques, ransacked religious schools and ancient synagogues and used them as a military barracks and toilets. They sprayed graffiti onto shrines and memorials and ancient walls, and they reduced nearby Assyrian ruins to rubble. Outside, in the east of the city, ISIS fighters destroyed the Adad Gate, which was built along a wall surrounding Nineveh by the Assyrians around 700 BC.

It is estimated that across both Iraq and Syria, ISIS destroyed at least 10 churches, nine historical sites, and more than a dozen mosques and shrines. They stuffed the Central Library of Mosul full of explosives, splashed the shelves with gasoline, and blew it up. Millions of dollars of property and antiquities were lost. The damage to Iraqi moral and earthly heritage is impossible to quantify.

Now, technology, long a staple in the proverbial Mesopotamian handbook, may be the first bit of aid reaching the city and part of a long succession of efforts aimed at rebuilding the city and its people.

Crowdsourcing, photogrammetry, and other digital tools are aiding researchers and preservation specialists in their efforts recreate artifacts and heritage sites across the war-torn Middle East. It's a field called digital archeology, and it deploys satellites, cameras, scanners, computers and 3D-generated models to recreate what has been lost and to preserve what is not yet lost but could easily be.

Google Arts & Culture, "an online platform through which the public can access high-resolution images of artworks," is one of the groups at the forefront of this project. It has used three-dimensional renderings, 360-cameras, and virtual reality footage to give anyone with an internet connection the ability to visit historical sites like the Syrian ruins in Palmyra, where ISIS destroyed the Temple of Baal and a 1,800-year-old Roman Arch of Triumph (a team from Oxford University's Institute for Digital Archeology also recreated the arch), or important works of art and architecture, like the Ishtar Gate from the city of Babylon. (The team excavated the site and then used three-dimensional laser scanners to map a brick-by-brick reconstruction of the gate. Similar techniques went to reconstructing the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II.)

"Digital helps the physical," says Chance Coughenour, a program manager at Google Arts & Culture. Coughenour gathers data from digital documentation companies and museums that may be used in current renderings of ancient sites or artifacts, but also for use in future reconstruction efforts.

"Let's say the physical object is so fragile that it is on display in a museum and its behind glass. But it would increase the visibility of that object if you were able to capture that object with photographs, produce a 3D model, and print it on a one-to-one scale. You could be touching the 3D print while looking at the original," Coughenour told Newsweek.

The replica could also be sent to another museum where the cost of transporting the fragile original is unfeasible.

The World Monuments Fund and a nonprofit digital documentation company called CyArk, founded by a Mosul-born engineer named Ben Kacyra, assisted in Google's recreation of the city of Babylon.

The company's goal it to digitize hundreds of the world's heritage sites—everything from Antarctic expedition huts to an ancient stepwells in India. Using laser scanners they scan what remains of the sites, and then compile the data into visualizations such as 360-degree photographs or virtual tours.

But is a VR tour or a 3-D printed recreation the same as visiting the actual site? Well, no, but a relic doesn't have to be real for us to form an attachment to it—to have some kind of profound experience of history. Many of the statues smashed by ISIS in the Mosul Museum weren't real either. They were plaster copies; the real versions having been transported to Baghdad earlier in advance of a remodel. But their loss feels just as visceral.

Despite the efforts of companies like Google, CyArk, and the Smithsonian Institute to preserve vulnerable and damaged artifacts, Layla M. Salih, the former head of the heritage department of Nineveh Antiquities for Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, says it is not enough. Local corruption and mismanagement of funds are hampering reconstruction.

"We have many archeological and heritage sites and we don't have an idea what happened. No one is doing anything or any damage assessment after the liberation," she told Newsweek.

Historical sites in need of protection from looters and profiteers are crumbling because of corrupt politics and sheer disorganization. "Most international organizations are using satellite images to conduct damage assessments" from afar, she said. "But on the ground there is nothing."