New Palmyra Project

A group of online activists is crowdsourcing the preservation of one of the most significant heritage sites in the world while pressuring for the release of a key advocate for free-access Internet in Syria. Launched earlier this week, New Palmyra (#NewPalmyra) is an online archive and data repository that seeks to re-construct its ancient namesake city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, using models generated from photos gathered by Syria-based open-access-Internet advocate Bassel Khartabil from 2005 until his arrest by the country’s Assad regime in 2012. 

The city, which had long been a desert oasis, rose to prominence under Roman rule in the 1st-century A.D. The ruins of its structures, which married Greco-Roman building styles with Persian influences, were discovered and made public by travelers to the region during the 17th and 18th centuries. Since then, the site has informed architecture and archaeology, among other fields, but in the past year has been all but obliterated at the hands of ISIS, which has controlled Palmyra since May.

Bassel Khartabil
New Palmyra Project Bassel Khartabil

That the ruins of Palmyra have been destroyed isn't stopping preservationists from maintaining its legacy. New Palmyra seeks to digitally replicate the individual structures of the ancient city in as close to their original form as possible. The project is being released under a Creative Commons "0" license, which allows the public to access and build on the archive with their own visual and artistic works, the project’s interim director, Barry Threw, told ARCHITECT. The team is also honing its models and has plans to use them to create virtual walk-throughs and other interactive online viewing and learning experiences. New Palmyra is working with organizations including the MIT Media Lab, tech consultants Fabricatorz, the United Arab Emirates–based Barjeel Art Foundation, and Recombinant Media Labs, in San Francisco. 

“We think the best way to preserve this sort of data is to get it into as many people’s hands as possible,” Threw says. “The idea is not only to use this as a more scientific 3D-modeling or architectural–archaeological project but also to take [on] the idea of rebuilding a new Palmyra—to build community around a new sort of [virtual] culture where the old one is currently being deleted.”

The first 3D model posted is of the Temple of Bel (shown at the beginning of this article), one of the most significant structures at Palmyra and whose main building and surrounding columns were destroyed by ISIS in August. Upcoming 3D-model releases include the Temple of Baal-Shamin and the Triumphal Arches, both of which have been blown up by ISIS in recent months, as well as the ancient city’s Theater, the Agora, the Allat Temple, and the Temple of Nabu, Threw says. 

Ruins of the Temple of Bel as photographed in 2009. Currently, a group of activists is aiming to re-construct the UNESCO World Heritage site with their online archive New Palmyra (#NewPalmyra). 
Courtesy Flickr user Johan Siegers via Creative Commons Ruins of the Temple of Bel as photographed in 2009. Currently, a group of activists is aiming to re-construct the UNESCO World Heritage site with their online archive New Palmyra (#NewPalmyra). 

New Palmyra isn’t the only group using cutting-edge technology to revive civilization’s earliest architectural feats—particularly those that have found themselves at the center of cultural and political conflicts. Early this week, CyArk, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that specializes in 3D scanning and digitally preserving heritage sites worldwide, announced plans to work with the French non-governmental organization the International Council of Monuments and Sites to digitally scan and model dozens of heritage sites in the Middle East, including in Syria and Iraq. Called Project Aqua, the initiative will collaborate with local experts to record at-risk archaeological and architectural sites using technologies like 3D-laser scanning, photogrammetry, and conventional surveying. So far, the team has released scan results of the Ziggurat of Ur, an Early Bronze Age temple complex in Iraq.

The Ziggurat of Ur as photographed in July 2006.
Wikimedia Commons The Ziggurat of Ur as photographed in July 2006.

“The beloved heritage in the ancient ‘Cradle of Civilization’ is under threat, evidenced by the destruction of landmarks at Palmyra and Mosul,” CyArk president and co-founder Ben Kacyra said in a press release. “The digital technology exists to preserve measurable 3D models of these historical sites before they are damaged or destroyed.”

Ultimately, digitizing and globally sharing replications of places like Palmyra helps to maintain centuries of preservation work as those responsible for building such a knowledge base are themselves made targets of the destruction. In perhaps the most brutal attack on the Syrian cultural site and its legacy, ISIS members beheaded a prominent Syrian antiquities scholar, the 82-year-old Khaled al-Assad, and displayed his body in Palmyra's main square after he resisted demands to disclose the location of historical artifacts removed from the site for safekeeping, The Guardian reported in August.

Ruins of the Roman triumphal arch at Palmyra as photographed in 2006.
Courtesy Flickr user Neil and Kathy Carey via Creative Commons Ruins of the Roman triumphal arch at Palmyra as photographed in 2006.

In the case of New Palmyra, the stakes are particularly high. Khartabil, who was arrested on the street in Syria in 2012 and has yet to have any formal charges against him made public, was relocated from Syria’s notorious Adra prison near Damascus to an undisclosed location earlier this month, possibly for a trial, Wired reports. The inital arrest was likely due to Khartabil's work advocating unrestricted Internet access in Syria. “It’s hard to explain to a security services official in a country like Syria why you’re spreading information freely for the benefit of humanity,” Danny O’Brien, international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Wired.

Threw hopes that the project will raise awareness of Khartabil's detention and pressure Syrian officials for his release. Though a part of Khartabil's vision, the project was expedited with his latest relocation. The group hopes to one day expand the scope of New Palmyra to include other threatened heritage sites. “The two main contributing factors on the timing are the active destruction by ISIS of the site and [that Khartabil's] particular situation would benefit in a raise of awareness,” Threw says. "Right now we’re trying to keep the focus on Palmyra and trying to get our poor friend out of jail and released so that he can be an active contributor to this project again. If that were to happen, then there are a whole number of ways that this can expand.”