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‘If They Knock It Down, We Will Rebuild It’: Palmyra Redux

New technology has made it possible to reconstruct lost antiquities, whether in three dimensions or in virtual reality. But technology alone cannot be a solution to the problem of forgetting.

By Jacob Mikanowski


A replica of the Triumphal Arch at Palmyra is unveiled at Trafalgar Square in London on April 19th, 2016. The 2,000-year-old arch in the Syrian city of Palmyra was destroyed by Islamic State forces in October of 2015. The replica is intended as an act of defiance against ISIS. (Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

On April 19th, a stone archway was unveiled in front of the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square. It is a scale replica of an archway from Palmyra, an ancient city built around an oasis in the Syrian Desert that was captured by ISIS forces in May of 2015. In the ensuing months, militants affiliated with the Islamic State destroyed many of the city’s most notable surviving monuments, including the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, and the Monumental Arch, a gateway connecting the southern and central parts of the city, built around the year 200 C.E.

The London archway is a reconstruction of the central portion of this gate. It was carved in an Italian quarry out of Egyptian marble, using robots equipped with precise 3-D computer models prepared by the Institute for Digital Archaeology, an Oxford, England-based organization dedicated to using digital means to document and preserve the memory of imperiled heritage sites, especially in the Middle East. Although the work that went into building the model was meticulous — capturing tiny details, including ornament and weathering — it differs in a few regards from the original. It is 20 feet high, where the original measured closer to 50 feet, and the IDA’s model is only the central portion of the gate: a single archway where the original had three.

With the mayor of London presiding, a great deal of fanfare surrounded the unveiling of the Arch, which gained further notoriety as it traveled to New York and Dubai in subsequent months. Yet the Arch is just one of many efforts made in recent years to harness digital technology as a means of safeguarding the past. A number of these projects center on assembling images of imperiled sites. The Million Image Database, also led by the IDA, is distributing thousands of cheap 3-D cameras across the Middle East to create a database of endangered monuments.

Project Mosul, started last year by archaeology students Matthew Vincent and Chance Coughenour and funded through a European Union Marie Curie program grant, has created digital reconstructions of objects destroyed by ISIS in the Mosul Museum in Iraq, while Syrian Heritage Revival, an effort led by Iconem, a French 3-D digitization agency, is doing similar work for archaeological sites in Syria. Other efforts go beyond documentation to full-scale reconstruction, albeit in a virtual space. Palmyra Photogrammetry is using crowd-sourced vacation photos to make 3-D reconstructions of Palmyrene buildings. The New Palmyra Project is building a model of what Palmyra looked like in antiquity, as well as its condition before being destroyed by ISIS’s bombs. The Diarna Project, meanwhile, is using digital maps, photographs, and oral histories to document the history of Sephardi Jewish communities across the Middle East and North Africa.

The accelerating proliferation of these digital archaeology initiatives is at once encouraging in its promise and, occasionally, troubling in its execution. On the one hand, reclamatory technology holds out the possibility of a world where no aspect of the past will ever truly be lost, like having the Cloud, but for the world’s artistic and architectural heritage. With 3-D scanning and printing, if a site is bombed, it can simply be printed in marble once the fighting is over. That is exactly what the IDA hopes to do in Palmyra, once the situation there has calmed down and funding is in place, though they face competition from a number of other international and Syrian agencies.

On the other hand, focusing on purely technological solutions to the destruction of cultural heritage can allow us to ignore the problems plaguing the management of actual sites. These problems can be quite intricate, involving everything from the competing priorities of various agencies, to questions of cultural ownership, to the innate paradox of trying to create historically accurate reconstructions of sites whose remains are still mostly underground and undocumented.

Rebuilding Palmyra is, for the moment, still very much a pipe dream — albeit a dream with different political connotations depending on who is proposing it. A Syrian-led reconstruction would add prestige to the Assad regime. A Russian-led effort would do the same for allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. UNESCO hopes to get involved, affirming its international jurisdiction. And, finally, the IDA would like a chance to scale up its Arch project to city-size, though for reasons of its own: Although Roger Michel, the head of IDA, has described the Arch as a “gesture of friendship and solidarity with people in the conflict regions of the Middle East,” he has also called it a gesture of defiance: “If they knock it down, we will rebuild it. If they knock it down again, we will rebuild it again.” Boris Johnson, who presided over the unveiling when he was mayor of London, played up this aspect of the reconstruction even further, treating the event as an occasion to give the middle finger to the Islamic State, saying “How many digits do Daesh [ISIS] deserve? Two digits to Daesh from London!”

These quotes suggest a narrative in which Western know-how is pitted against Eastern barbarism: Anything you can destroy, we can put back in virtual reality. For all the potential value of large-scale crowd-sourced documentation of ancient sites, this kind of belligerent techno-utopianism seems like an intellectually feeble response to the challenges posed by endangered cultural patrimony. Monuments are not only at risk because of terrorism. Looting, forgetting, and obsolescence all play a role.

The question of who owns reconstructions, and what they mean, is equally fraught. Several artists working with 3-D printing and digital restorations have tried to capture some of its complexity. For her series Material Speculation: ISIS, the Iranian-born, Oakland-based artist Morehshin Allahyari has made models of artifacts destroyed by ISIS during its sack of the Mosul Museum in Iraq. The objects include an Assyrian winged bull, or lammasu, from Sennecherib’s palace in Nineveh, and the statue of a king from Hatra, an abandoned Roman-era city some 70 miles southwest of Mosul, which suffered heavy damage from ISIS in March of 2015. Sculpted out of transparent resin, the statues have a ghostly presence, at once evoking the figures’ presence and suggesting the trauma of their disappearance. Allahyari describes the models as “time capsules.” Inside each figure, she has embedded a thumb-drive with plans for the printing of each sculpture, as well information on the provenance and history of each figure.

For his project Decimate Mesh, Portland-based artist Ryan Woodring has recreated some of the same statues from Mosul as Allahyari. But where Allahyari focuses on the past and future, Woodring trains his lens on the present, basing his templates not on high-quality photographs, but on the grainy YouTube videos ISIS used to document their destruction. As a result, his reconstructions are barely recognizable. The objects from Hatra seem blurry and pixilated, even in three dimensions. This serves as a potent visual metaphor for their current status, caught between remembrance and annihilation.


Boris Johnson watches during the unveiling of a replica of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph in Trafalgar Square on April 19th, 2016. (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

But even as these artistic projects capture something about the nature of cultural memory in the present, they make it hard to learn much about the past that has been obliterated. Technology alone cannot be a solution to the problem of forgetting. The truth is that, despite the recent flurry of press attention, Palmyra and Hatra do not loom large in our historical consciousness. Roger Michel of the IDA has made an attempt to link the classical arch from Palmyra to the architecture surrounding it in Trafalgar Square, saying that, “when you set the arch against the neoclassical columns of the National Gallery and Nelson’s Column, there’s a reason why they all look the same: our past is their past.” This simplifies the reality, though. Both cities sat on the margins of empires, and were places where cultures and influences mingled. It is their hybrid status, not any connection to a single present-day culture, that makes them so fascinating — and important — in the present.

Palmyra was a bilingual city. Its citizens were at home in both Greek and Palmyrene Aramaic. It belonged to the eastern part of the Roman Empire but enjoyed its own native traditions that tied it more closely to Mesopotamia and the wider Arab world. It was a city of traders, the destination of caravans coming across the Arabian Peninsula and up from the Red Sea. Hatra is more of a mystery. It came into existence rather suddenly, in the second or third century B.C.E., and was abandoned just as abruptly some 400 years later. Its rulers belonged to an Arab dynasty, but one beholden to Persian rulers. Its lifeblood was not trade, but religion. It was a city of god, dedicated to Shamash. A temple took up almost a fifth of the space within its circular walls. It is remarkable for the number of well-preserved, larger-than-life stone statues of kings, soldiers, and princes. It was also a place where Greek gods were honored, and where artists adopted traditions from both East and West.

Getting a feel for the complex, cosmopolitan cultures of these cities requires immersing oneself in their literature, history, and art. For me, one set of images exemplifies this glitteringly pluralist past. They’re found in a mosaic pavement, discovered in 2003 by the Polish Archaeological Mission, which has been working there since the early 1960s. It was found in a house just off the main colonnade, in a room that was most likely used for banqueting, as hinted by the pavement’s decorative border, which is full of animals, including fish and two charming goats climbing a tree. Two central panels are the focus of attention. One shows Bellerophon hurling a spear at the monstrous Chimaera from atop his winged horse, Pegasus. The other shows a hunter on horseback firing an arrow at a very upset-looking tiger.

At first glance, the subject matter of both panels seems resolutely classical, but a closer look reveals something else. For one, this Bellerophon is dressed in Persian garb. He is wearing trousers and an embroidered tunic, which he has paired with a Roman helmet. The tiger-hunter, who is being followed by a Roman eagle, is wearing the same thing. The motif of the hunt comes from the royal art of Sasanian Persia (see this example from a silver plate in the collection of the Freer Museum in Washington, D.C.). The tigers are recognizable as an extinct variety called the Hyrcanian Tiger, which used to live on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Michal Gawlikowski, director of the Polish excavations at Palmyra, believes these scenes can be dated to a specific moment — 260 C.E., when the Roman Empire was trembling on the brink of collapse. The year before, the Roman Emperor Valerian was taken captive by the Persians and left to die in captivity. The King of Palmyra, Odainat, seized this crisis as an opportunity. The new emperor, Galienus, appointed him ‘‘Corrector of the Whole East,” and Odainat began waging a successful war against the Persians. The mosaics commemorate his victories. One uses a Greek myth as an allegory for the victory of an Arab ruler over his Persian opponents. The other uses a Persian motif to illustrate a client king’s loyal service to the Roman Empire. Together, they are a window into a city and a civilization made up of multiple interwoven strands of allegiance and influence.

Ninety percent of Palmyra still lies underground, and, if the site can be saved from looting, more discoveries like this may be made in the future. Thanks to written sources, we already know a fair amount about what happened in Palmyra after the mosaic was completed. A few years after his initial victories, Odainat died in battle with his son. His wife Zenobia took up his mantle, though, and proclaimed Palmyra’s independence from Rome. For a few years she presided over an empire that stretched from Egypt to Anatolia.

Zenobia surrounded herself with what historian G.W. Bowersock calls “one of the most luminous collections of Greek intellectuals ever to adorn an ancient salon,” including orators, Christian and pagan philosophers, and Longinus, author of the iconic treatise on the sublime. After she was defeated at last by the Romans, she was honored with a villa outside Rome. Her name lived on among Roman patricians and early Christian saints. In Arabic historiography, she is remembered as the leader of a confederacy of tribes, embroiled in one of the many wars that racked the Persian-Roman frontier. Both versions are true. Her culture, like that of the Palmyra mosaics, was at once Arab and Greek. The world she navigated defies easy binaries of East and West.

This would be a good time to recapture, or at least remember, some of that world’s complexity. For the time being, that goal may lie beyond digital archaeology’s capabilities. A true return to the legacy of Palmyra will require more engagement with texts than with objects, as well as a more sustained attention to the people and beliefs that made them meaningful to begin with — before we turn our attention to making them whole again.