The legendary phoenix, a symbol of renewal from Greek mythology, is poised to recreate important cultural heritage sites that are in danger of being damaged or destroyed by the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Project Anqa—the Arabic word for phoenix—is a joint initiative to digitally preserve high risk heritage sites in the Middle East and North Africa using reality capture technology. The project is being undertaken by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Yale University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH), and CyArk.
CyArk is an international non-profit organization that uses reality capture technologies to digitally preserve cultural heritage sites around the world that are in danger of being destroyed by human aggression, or lost due to time or natural disasters. The group uses laser scanners and camera-mounted drones to capture detailed 3D representations of the sites and generate 3D digital models that are stored in an online library available to the public.
Anqa is now training and deploying teams of international professionals who are paired with local experts to capture sites in Syria. While many of the country’s cultural heritage sites are in conflict zones that are too dangerous to visit—there are many more in areas that are accessible. Teams can quickly and inexpensively capture these sites using laser scanners and drones, and create digital 3D models of the monuments.
Beyond the digital preservation of the sites, the reality capture data can be used for site management and risk preparedness, as well as reconstruction or restoration if the site gets damaged. In addition, the detailed nature of the reality capture data can be used to generate documentation of individual objects that can be used to help combat antiquities trafficking. Finally, by storing the data online and providing background narratives, the sites can be virtually explored for interpretive and educational purposes.
As a part of Project Anqa, CyArk has conducted three training sessions for Syrian heritage professionals so far, with more sessions planned for the future. All three sessions took place at UNESCO offices in Beirut, Lebanon under the auspices of UNESCO’s Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Cultural Heritage project. During these sessions, the participants were trained to use reality capture technologies, including laser scanners, hand-held structured light scanners, and photogrammetry. Some of the sessions also included training on ReCap, enabling the heritage professionals to process the captured data in the cloud for their own review and evaluation.
Applying their training, Anqa teams have already documented three important sites Damascus:
- the Al Jaqmaqiyya Madrasa—Located in Damascus, Syria, this religious school was built by in 1420. The structure has elaborate multi-colored masonry and mother of pearl inlays, which have already been damaged by shelling from the ongoing Syrian civil war.
- the Nur al-Din Bimaristan—This is a large medieval ‘bimaristan’ or hospital, founded in 1154 and built under the Zengid ruler Nur ad-Din.
- the Al-Azem Palace— This lavish Ottoman period palace was built for the governor of Damascus As’ad Pash al-Azem in 1750. The Syrain team will continue working to document other important sites in Damascus including the Hammam of Nur al-Din, one of the oldest continually operated hammams or public bathhouses in the world, the House of Saint Ananias, a subterranean Christian church from the early days of Christianity and the Tekkiye al-Suleimaniyeh Mosque, an Ottoman period mosque designed by the preeminent architect Sinan.
CyArk is working to include data from these sites on its website, while Yale’s IPCH team is digitizing photographs, field drawings, reports, and other pertinent documentation that will accompany this online data. Looking to the future, CyArk is actively engaged with Iraqi, Syrian, and regional Kurdistan officials—as well as local heritage professionals throughout the Middle East and North Africa—to arrange access and ensure more sites in the area are digitally preserved.