ISIS has always existed in two dimensions. One is the organization’s slick, high-tech recruiting machine, targeted at media-savvy, misguidedly idealistic Millennials around the world. This one lives online and works to turn minds. The other exists in the physical world, relying on the mass murder of civilians and the destruction of cultural heritage.
So far, the response of the rest of the world has largely been limited to the physical realm, in the form of air strikes and support for Kurdish troops on the ground. Here in the West, our online response has mostly been directed at ourselves, in the form of agonized thinkpieces and social media handwringing.
Don’t get me wrong: this reaction is totally logical, if not especially effective. The physical response makes sense to us—it’s how we’ve reacted to serious threats to national security and human rights in the past. But the streams of young Westerners flocking into ISIS-held territories to join up with the movement, and being convinced, as in Paris, to attack civilians around the world, is clear proof of ISIS’s online power.
But how do we begin to—as Hillary Clinton so entrepreneurially put it—disrupt ISIS? In a political climate where the highest-polling Republican presidential candidate can with a straight face suggest that we “shut down” the internet in Syria and Iraq, how can we, as a nation, develop strategies to defeat ISIS’s propaganda front?
Recently, I spoke with representatives of two initiatives, #NEWPALMYRA and Palmyra 3D Model, both of which are using digital technology to fight ISIS’s cultural destruction in a totally revolutionary—and non-violent—way: by constructing open-source, three-dimensional replicas of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria.
Famous for its beautiful Roman-era ruins and its history as a multicultural trading center, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was captured by ISIS militants in May of 2015. Since then, Palmyra has become something of a symbol for ISIS’s brutal attitude toward historical and cultural heritage.
In addition to its heavily publicized, intentional destructions of the Temple of Baalshamin, the Temple of Bel, and the so-called Arch of Triumph, ISIS has looted and, in some cases, destroyed Palmyrene artifacts. Some of these were previously unknown to researchers, and now can never be studied.
The city remains under ISIS control, and has been used for numerous acts of unimaginable cruelty toward human beings: in August of this year, 81-year-old local archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad was publicly beheaded after months of being tortured for refusing to share information on the whereabouts of Palmyra’s most valuable treasures. Dozens of other men have been executed in Palmyra’s beautiful theater. ISIS’s message is clear: they claim dominance over both past and present. They will show mercy to neither human life nor human culture.
#NEWPALMYRA, the older of the two projects focused on digitally resurrecting Palmyra, was started in 2005, long before the start of the Syrian Civil War. Originally, the initiative was headed by Bassel Khartabil, a Syrian-Palestinian open-source software developer, and funded by Syrian publisher Al Aous.
Two events forever transformed the structure of the project, as well as its goals. First, in 2012, Khartabil was imprisoned by the Assad regime for his pro-free-culture advocacy. Second, in 2015, ISIS seized control of and began systematically destroying parts of Palmyra.
As Barry Threw, Interim Director of #NEWPALMYRA told me,
Due both to Bassel’s incarceration and the destruction of Palmyra by Daesh [another name for ISIS], we decided to re-launch the effort with a new strategy, this time based on open source and community building.
Unlike the project’s previous incarnation, which was closed-source, he continued,
All work done on the project is in the public domain, and we are making active efforts to include as many people as possible: artists, technologists, archaeologists, architects, researchers, musicians.
Currently, #NEWPALMYRA is run by a core team of 5 staff members, but around 30 total people from around the world regularly contribute. Many of them, unlike Bassel Khartabil, never had the opportunity to visit Palmyra before its occupation by ISIS. These contributors see the project as a way to reclaim a site they may never see in person. As Threw put it, “this speculative reconstruction helps us to engage with the history without being physically proximate.”
The ultimate goals of the #NEWPALMYRA project include facilitating historical and art-historical research, but Threw emphasizes that he and his colleagues “are not just offering this project as a history and science project, but also [are] taking the act of building a new Palmyra, where the original is being deleted, as a creative prompt to encourage art, music, writing, and other kinds of output.”
So far, Threw and his staff have been encouraged by the public response to the initiative. “We’ve already had 3D printing, music, visual art, interactive books, and architectural projection as creative outputs from this project.”
Palmyra 3D Model, formerly known as Palmyra Photogrammetry, has a more straightforward origin story as the brainchild of Oxford, UK-based Conan Parsons. Parsons has never visited Palmyra in person, but was appalled by ISIS’s seizure and destruction of the site, and decided to fight back by ensuring that Palmyra’s monuments lived on in some fashion.
Parsons first developed his 3D modeling skills as an archaeologist working in southern England, where he says that “there’s a lot of pressure for models to work, as they have replaced more traditional methods of recording due to time constraints on site.” While he already had the know-how necessary to fulfill his vision of a digitally preserved Palmyra, not having access to the physical site meant that Parsons was unable to take his own photographs for digitization.
“After failing to get enough photo coverage by pillaging the internet,” he told me,
I started crowd sourcing photos in the middle of September. Initially I was overwhelmed by public response, but interest seems to be slowly drying up. That said, whenever I put out a request or a new interview for a blog or journal it gets me small surges of inquiries, so photos still come trickling in.
For this sort of project, more photographs mean a more accurate model. But working with photos taken by tourists presents some challenges for the trained archaeologist.
The biggest challenge is getting photos that overlap sufficiently: Every structure at Palmyra has its own most photogenic angle, the one that pops up again and again between photos, so getting enough photos of the less captured parts of site is an issue. A good example is the monumental arch, I can make a model of the rear of the structure, or I can make a model of the front, but I don’t have enough overlapping photos to join them together.
While Parsons’s models are still very much in progress, he’s already secured a home for them. Finished models will be hosted by Project Mosul, an open-source platform for the digital restoration of cultural heritage lost to ISIS and other threats. Once uploaded, Parsons tells me, “the information will also be there for any avid 3D printers. But,” he quips, “they may want to print them to a scale.”
The real value of these projects for the fight against ISIS? First, they take away part (if only a small part) of the sting of cultural destruction, making it less effective a strategy. Even more powerfully, the models serve as a promise that no matter what monuments ISIS destroys, it will never be able to crush their memory, or the part of human nature that cherishes history and wishes to learn from it. And, ironically, the projects’ commitment to open-source availability means that more people will be able to “visit” the digital Palmyra than ever did the physical one.
What’s more, these projects can serve as models for future digital reconstructions of lost, damaged, or otherwise inaccessible cultural heritage. As Threw put it at the end of our conversation,
I think as long as time keeps passing we will keep mining the past to learn about those who came before us. In our world today we are creating such a huge amount of data that the definitions of archeology will need to expand to accommodate digital ruins. We hope that by sharing our works with Palmyra openly that some of this cultural [heritage] can carry on and survive in ways that are accessible to future generations.
Featured image via #NEWPALMYRA. For more on ISIS and cultural heritage, read our recent interview with archaeologist Christopher Jones about how ISIS profits off some looted artifacts—and destroys others.