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Preserving Syria's threatened treasures in digital

© Iconem / DGAM | The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, one of the oldest and largest mosques in the world.

Text by Amara MAKHOUL-YATIM

Latest update : 2016-03-27

Syria's threatened archaeological treasures are set to be preserved as 3D digital reconstructions by a French company. They will be made available to all online as part of an effort to preserve the heritage of this war-torn country.

Iconem, a French start-up specialising in digital surveying and 3D reconstructions, is leading the project, known as Syrian Heritage, and working with the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums.

For months, Iconem and a team of Syrian archaeologists have been imaging some of Syria's most important historical monuments and museum artifacts, from the holy Umayyad Mosque in Damascus to the Krak des Chevaliers Crusader castle near Homs.

"We go on site to take photos with the help of new or emerging technologies, such as drones equipped with laser scanners," explained Yves Ubelmann, who founded Iconem in 2013.

Digital reconstruction of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

Umayyad Mosque from Iconem on Vimeo.

The images are digitally processed back in Paris and reconstructed in 3D, using a cutting-edge technique known as photogrammetry, which allows for thousands of images to be collated and the monuments to be digitally reproduced with pin-point accuracy.

Azem Palace, former residence of the Ottoman governor of Damascus, the Roman theatre in Jableh and the Phoenician ruins in the ancient port city of Ugarit where the evidence of the first-ever alphabet have been found, are among the sites to be captured with this technology. 

The full database of images is set to go online in May, while a handful of 3D reconstructions are already available to view on Iconem's website.

A different image of Syria

Located at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, Syria is home to a vast archaeological wealth left behind by many of the world's great empires and civilisations.

But its five-year civil war has seen many such sites damaged or destroyed completely, often at the hands of the Islamic State group, which has made a point of demolishing ancient monuments and shrines it considers as idolatry.

The destruction by the terrorist group of the famous temples of Bel and Baalshamin in the ancient city of Palmyra caused particular outrage. Ubelmann says he wanted to act before it was too late.

"Contrary to what one might think, the whole of Syria's heritage has not been destroyed, far from it," he told FRANCE 24. "But we don't know what might happen next."

Iconem has worked on similar projects before, including in Mali, Afghanistan and Iraq. But the company's work in Syria holds a place close to Ubelmann's heart.

"I lived in Syria from 2006 to 2009 as part of archaeological projects. I've seen what it was like before the war," he explained.

He hopes that by making the digitalised images freely available online, others will get to share that experience.

"We wanted to show that image of Syria – its beauty – and not the one shown by the war."

This article was adapted from the original in French.

Date created : 2016-03-27

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