IMA provides ‘virtual tour’ of damaged Arab heritage sites

3D render of the Mosque in Mosul. (Supplied)
Updated 07 January 2019

IMA provides ‘virtual tour’ of damaged Arab heritage sites

  • IMA’s recent endeavor is exploring a facet of contemporary Arabia in the shape of an all-digital exhibition
  • The exhibition highlights the alarming status quo of threatened or destroyed heritage sites in the Middle East

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.”

eL Seed: ‘I want my art to spark a dialogue between cultures’

The calligraphic artist talks us through some of his favorite work. (Supplied)
Updated 27 February 2020

eL Seed: ‘I want my art to spark a dialogue between cultures’

  • The Tunisian-French “calligraffiti” artist talks us through some of his most significant works

DUBAI: In his studio in studio in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, Tunisian-French artist eL Seed, 38, wears a smock filled with colorful smudges — remnants of a recent painting session. Working here is actually a rarity for eL Seed these days. He has become known — and in demand — the world over for his unique method of incorporating the aesthetic traditions of Arabic calligraphy into his large-scale outdoor graffiti works. He merges a variety of influences: from the graffiti culture of Paris (he was born and raised in France) and New York to French hip-hop and Arabic poetry. And, crucially, there is always a message. “I want my art to spark a dialogue between cultures,” he says.

A search for his identity was at the heart of his early artistic practice. “Every summer we would go to Tunisia, but in Tunisia people made me feel like I was not fully Tunisian and in France they made me feel like I was not fully French,” he recalls. “Because of my name and how I looked, I decided to learn to speak, read and write Arabic. This was how I discovered calligraphy and it led me to the art that I create today.”

     eL Seed became known as a “calligraffiti” artist. “Calligraffiti became a tool for me to reconcile my French and my Tunisian identity,” he says. “Today I don’t need to decide whether I am French or Tunisian — it is not in my head anymore.” He adds that he no longer associates himself with the term. “I used to define myself by it and now I wish to be known simply as an artist,” he says.

Here, he talks us through some of his most significant works. Just as his art allowed him to bridge his Tunisian and French heritage, it now allows him to forge bridges across cultures and generations.

‘The Bridge’

This was created along the security fences of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. It is unfinished. I was asked to create the work by South Korea’s Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art in order to celebrate the reunification of the two nations; I was given the freedom to do whatever I wished. It was created during a time when tensions were mounting as North Korea had launched several ballistic missiles and conducted nuclear tests. The UN, by December 2017, had issued new sanctions against the country. ‘The Bridge’ was supposed to start in South Korea and end up in North Korea but the military then told me that the only place I could put it was on the border fence. Two months later we saw the two Korean leaders talking together for the first time in more than 60 years. I believe that art gives hope. It’s always good to be part of something that is bigger than you, and this project was one of the most relevant ones that I’ve worked on.

‘The Vidigal Favela’

Using my favorite color — fuchsia pink — my aim for this wall in the Vidigal Favela in Rio de Janeiro was to attract the attention of the international community to raise the status of the people inside the favelas and to remind us of our common humanity. Later, I discovered that the rooftop I had painted on was that of an art school — Escola Do Vidigal built by the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. A few days after I left Brazil, I received notifications of a post by the artist saying, ‘This morning, the roof of the school was painted with this huge tag by an unidentified artist, and I must say, it's quite beautiful [...] Thanks, awesome tagger.’ I was thrilled at this coincidence.

‘Mirrors of Babel’

We installed this 3.5-meter sculpture in a square in Toronto, and the idea was to play on the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel. Toronto is (reportedly) the most diverse city in the world, and in the Bible the Tower of Babel tells the story of a human trying to reach God and God scares them by making them speak different languages, so the people find themselves in a position where they cannot understand each other. Toronto is actually the opposite; people who come from different places and around the world and speak different languages come to Toronto and speak English — not to build a tower but to build a society. I used the words of a Canadian-Mohawk Indian poet called Emily Pauline Johnson from an homage she wrote to Canada and I translated it into Arabic.


I created this for Desert X Alula, based on the 7th-century love story of Jameel Bin Ma'mar and Buthayna, from neighboring tribes. Buthayna’s people turned down Jameel’s marriage proposal because they felt Jameel’s verses praising the couple’s love had compromised her honor. Buthayna was forced to marry another man, but she and Jameel continued to be in love, even though their love was never consummated. Even after Buthayna was married, Jameel continued to visit her at Wadi ‘I-Kura, now present day Alula, and spoke in verse of his longing to be with her. His verses are not only an ode to his love but also to the natural surroundings.


This was one of my most ambitious projects: A mural of Arabic calligraphy in the Cairo neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasr — a Christian Coptic community where the people call themselves Zaraeeb or ‘pig breeders’ because, for years, they have been collecting and sorting Cairo’s garbage. With the help of my team and locals from the neighborhood, we created this work across 50 buildings in order to illustrate the changing image of the Coptic community. I feel it was a project that really affected our lives. The painting could only be viewed in its entirety from the Muqattam Mountain, and reveals a powerful quote (from a Coptic bishop) that we should all think before we judge somebody: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first.”


This is the wall of my grandfather’s house in the town of Temoula. My father was born and raised in this little house. But in 1986 my grandfather passed away and so my grandmother moved into the city where my uncle lives, so this house was abandoned for around 27 years until I came back in 2013 and painted the wall as part of my “Lost Walls” project. I wrote, “Temoula, there is no one like you.” I came back with my family and we found some tools and other items that used to below to my grandmother there. My uncle also showed me under which palm tree my father was born. I had a very beautiful time there.