Using Digital Technology, Researchers Reconstruct A Temple Destroyed By ISIS

In a project led by the Institute for Digital Archeology, technology paves the way for a new form of cultural preservation.

After gaining control of Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra last year, the militant group ISIS bombed and nearly destroyed the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, one of the city’s significant religious buildings. Now, as part of an ambitious digital preservation effort, a 3-D printed replica of the monument will be built in both New York City and London this spring.


The project is being led by the Institute for Digital Archeology, a joint venture between Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and Dubai’s Museum of the Future, which promotes the use of digital imaging in archaeological conservation. Using thousands of archived photographs of the temple, IDA researchers have digitally reconstructed the 50-foot-tall concrete archway that marks the entrance to the temple. The replicas will be printed in parts then assembled at Trafalgar Square in London and Times Square in New York, where they’ll serve as the centerpiece for world heritage week in March.

The replicas are part of a larger effort to preserve the ancient artifacts in Syria and Iraq that ISIS is intent on destroying. Attempting to systematically erase all evidence of the Middle East’s pre-Islamic history, the terrorist group has decimated museums and heritage sites, destroying art and antiquities they consider to be idolatry. When the Temple of Bel was bombed in August, it was believed to completely destroyed, but new reports suggest that the archway, at least, might still be mostly intact.

IDA believes the only way to preserve these artifacts is to use new technology, and they’ve paired with UNSECO to equip volunteers with 3-D cameras (of their own design) and document endangered historic sites. Their open-source Million Image Database compiles these photos of artifacts to help preserve their legacy, as well as potentially serve as models for 3-D replicas in the future.

When it came to choosing the first artifact to be reconstructed, IDA chose the archway to Temple of Bel in part because of its uncertain future and in part because of the significant cultural connection it represents. “It’s a very good visual demonstration of the issues we want to raise: that cultural link between the rest of the world and the Middle East. You can really see the link between the neoclassical architecture of that structure and the style that western architecture is built on, ” says Dr Alexy Karenowska, director of technology at IDA. “But its uncertain fate also makes it an interesting symbol. If it’s still standing, it’s in face of resilience. If not, then it deserves to be remembered.”

[via the Guardian]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.