A rendering of how the 3D-printed arch will be installed in London's Trafalgar Square.
Institute for Digital Archaeology A rendering of how the 3D-printed arch will be installed in London's Trafalgar Square.

In August 2015, the self-declared Islamic State (ISIS) orchestrated attacks on the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, destroying one of the best preserved sites among the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, in present-day Syria. With this loss, preservationists and archaeologists have reason to believe that its arch, the entryway to the Mesopotamian-era site, is either seriously damaged or destroyed.

In what has been described by several news sources as a “gesture of defiance” against extremists who aim to wipe out any evidence of the Middle East’s pre-Islamic history, the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) announced it would create life-size, cement-based 3D-printed models of the 15-meter tall (roughly 49 feet) relic. The installations will be on display in London’s Trafalgar Square and New York City’s Times Square in April, during UNESCO's World Heritage Week, which this year will focus on replication and reconstruction. The joint venture, co-located in Oxford, England, and Cambridge, Mass., comprises Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and Dubai’s Museum of the Future, and encourages the use of digital imaging and 3D printing technologies for archaeology, epigraphy, art history, and museum conservation.

The Arch of Palmyra, circa 2010.
Courtesy Flickr user Alessandra Kocman via Creative Commons The Arch of Palmyra, circa 2010.

Located 130 miles northeast of Damascus, the arch was originally the welcoming structure for the temple and has since functioned, at separate times, as a Christian church and Muslim mosque, the Guardian reports. Before ISIS took control of the ancient city in May 2015, more than 150,000 tourists visited the site annually. But in August, satellite images confirmed that the extremist group wrecked the Temple of Bel. The group also executed its former chief of antiquities, the 82-year-old Khaled Mohamad al-Asaad, for not disclosing the location of artifacts from the site that had been relocated and hidden for preservation.

Organizations such as the World Monuments Fund have called attention to the destruction of Palmyra, along with that of other cultural heritage sites, by including the ruins repeatedly on its annual list of at-risk locations. To lend a hand in preserving the region's targeted heritage, IDA came up with the "Million Image Database.” Through the project, IDA distributed 5,000 low-cost, 3D cameras to volunteer photographers across the Middle East and North Africa whose photographs will be added to IDA's open-source database of threatened objects and structures. IDA and its partners will then take the images for research, appreciation, education, and, of course, 3D replication.

The duplicated arches are the first projects in this initiative, which intends to reproduce more threatened or destroyed monuments in the coming years. In doing so, IDA hopes to raise awareness for the site's cultural significance. Although this will not offer the same experience as the real thing, future generations have opportunities to to learn about the past with these renditions.