DUBAI: When the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) opened its doors to the public in Paris in 1987, an essential objective of this multipurpose institution was to establish a link of cultural understanding between France and the Middle East through the arts, amid a climate of political tension and division. Its museum collections, library spaces, and diverse programming have taken millions of international visitors on a journey into the Arab world’s rich cultural heritage, in addition to modern interests and developments.
Remaining true to its vision nearly 30 years later, IMA’s recent endeavor in exploring a facet of contemporary Arabia takes shape in the form of an innovative, all-digital exhibition that highlights the alarming status quo of threatened or destroyed heritage sites in the Middle East. Specifically, four significant case studies are thoughtfully surveyed, starting with Mosul in Iraq, Aleppo and Palmyra in Syria, and ending with the ancient city of Leptis Magna in Libya.
“Cités Millénaires” (or ‘Age-Old Cities’) — which runs until February 10 — is an exhibition that is the first of its kind in IMA’s history. There are no paintings, sculptures, or artifacts on display. Instead, in a dimly lit, somber atmosphere, one is confronted with massive screens that offer a variety of up-close, arresting projections of digitally (re)constructed architectural monuments that have fallen victim to violent warfare, fundamentalism, and looting in the recent years of political instability.
“We thought that it was important to contextualize the different kinds of damage to heritage,” Aurélie Clemente-Ruiz, an Islamic arts specialist and co-curator of the exhibition, explained to Arab News. “People need to be aware of what’s happening now in the Arab world during conflict, because if they know about it, maybe they will want to try to do something to preserve its heritage.”
Transporting the viewer to the heart of each site, the animated projections reveal the tragic aftermath of damaged ancient churches, mosques, temples, mausoleums, and souks. In the case of the multi-ethnic city of Mosul — which was occupied by Daesh forces between 2014 and 2017 — some of the most severe damage was done to the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri. Built in 1172, the majority of the mosque’s structure, including its famous leaning minaret, was reduced to rubble by bombing. Another architectural gem that was vandalized and ransacked was the mosque’s neighboring Our Lady of the Hour Church — erected in the 19th century. While the city was under the control of Daesh, the terror group used the church as a court.
In Palmyra, the majestic temples of Bel and Baalshamin, dating back to the days of the Roman Empire, have also been flattened to piles of stones by Daesh. And a bird’s eye view of Aleppo shows the centuries-old Citadel overlooking the Ummayad Mosque, which — in the early years of the Syrian war — saw its minaret destroyed, and its tiled courtyard covered in rubble.
Leptis Magna, meanwhile, was once known as ‘The Rome of Africa.’ Experts view the city as a less-serious case than Mosul, Palmyra or Aleppo, as it has not been targeted by intentional attacks. Nevertheless, ever since the unrest in Libya in 2011, concerns have been raised about the welfare of the prominent Roman site’s amphitheater and basilicas, which were vulnerable to looting and natural deterioration.
The risky yet commendable effort of preserving heritage through technology is the vocation of French architect Yves Ubelmann, who sees digitization as a form of cultural activism that needs to be pursued.
“We will lose track of our past and our history, and we are not aware of that,” he told Arab News. “It’s a very deep problem because we are cutting a link between generations. We want to be able to transmit all this data to future generations. When people talk about emergency, they think of health care, food shortage, or refugees, but not culture. If we don’t care about culture, it disappears. If culture disappears, societies will take more time to rebuild themselves because there is no base or identity.”
In 2013, Ubelmann founded Paris-based start-up Iconem. Its mission is to document and digitize endangered heritage sites, something it has so far done in more than 15 countries — from Pompeii’s iconic ruins to Afghanistan’s monumental Bamiyan Buddhas. In close partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Iconem’s diligent team of computer scientists, graphic designers, architects, and archaeologists designed the graphics that are on display at “Cités Millénaires.”
While the large-scale projections may look incredibly complex and intricate to the untrained eye, the development of the 3D graphics is a three-step process. First, members of the Iconem team are granted access to the sites (arranged through often-long negotiations with local archaeologists and officials), which are then photographed by a variety of drones. Next, back in Iconem’s Paris office, the processed images are computer-generated into precise 3D models of the sites. Finally, with the help of archival documentation and archaeological research, Iconem’s designers contribute add-ons (in the form of transparent drawings) to the 3D models, ‘rebuilding’ missing parts of the destroyed structures.
As part of the exhibition, you are able to ‘visit’ the sites through a virtual reality headset. Leading French video-game developer Ubisoft crafted the vivid VR imagery of six heritage sites for the exhibition: The Aleppo souk; the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri; Palmyra’s Baalshamin Temple; the Severan Basilica of Leptis Magna; Our Lady of the Hour Church; and the tunnels below the Mosque of Prophet Yunus in Mosul.
Although the exhibition makes clear the extent of all that has been lost or destroyed in these cities, it still offers some hope. Aside from the fact that several major restoration projects have already commenced in these areas, the camaraderie among those who have placed politics to one side and joined forces for the sake of safeguarding culture is inspirational.
Clemente-Ruiz said she hopes the exhibition will later travel abroad to help raise awareness of the heritage crisis. And she pointed out that the exhibition can hopefully encourage visitors to take action in their immediate surroundings.
“The idea is that we need to preserve heritage everywhere in the world,” she said, “saving it for the next generation.”