In March of 2001, the world learned that the Taliban had destroyed two 1,700 year old, 150 foot tall, sandstone Buddhas. First, they tried anti-aircraft guns. When that failed the Taliban defense minister oversaw the use of dynamite to bring the Buddhas down. When the UN appealed to Taliban foreign minster to save the historic statues it was revealed that the Taliban had destroyed thousands of items in Kabul museums, including large Buddhas. I remember the video the of the Buddhas coming down. It was the first time I had heard of the Taliban. We would learn much more about them soon after.
Now, another theocracy is bent on the destruction of cultural landmarks in the name of religion. The Islamic State has been going around Northern Iraq and Syria destroying the Assyrian ruins–an irreplaceable part of the rich history of the middle east and the human race. Again, using military equipment, they brought down the God Gate put up around 700 B.C. Using pneumatic drills they destroyed statutes at other sites.
They have raided libraries to burn books, they destroy thousands items of ancient art, they destroy irreplaceable works of civilizations long lost to the sand. This is their kinder, gentler side.
Technology may yet preserve these a few of the more than 4,000 archaeological sites controlled by Islamic State. A team of researchers created Project Mosul in 2015 to combat the Islamic State in the war to wipe these sites from the earth. The idea was to collect photographs of the damaged monuments and then create a three dimensional model to bring them back to life for future generations. The photographs are crowd-sourced from individuals, academia, and the antiquities industry. A gallery of the images can be viewed at here.
The project has grown to include preserving the sites lost in the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. When the Islamic State began to destroy the ancient city of Palmyra, the group began work to digitally preserve those sites. The project has widened to collect photographs of monuments, museums, and artifacts “damaged by natural disasters or human intervention, and to use those data to create 3D representations and help to preserve our global, shared, human heritage.”
The project has since teamed up with the Economist to create a virtual museum where the public can view the gallery. These virtual tours come with rich audio and expert discussions about each piece. Some items were physically brought back to life using 3D printing.
Virtual reality tours of ancient sites have the potential to bring history back to life when nature or barbarity rob them from humanity. They also have the potential to bring entire ancient cities, battles and people back to life in a way that no documentary or museum ever could. Intercity Baltimore school children could one day walk the streets of Athens, go to market, take in a play at the Theatre of Dionysus at the feet of the Acropolis, and sit in on platonic discussion lead by Plato himself.
I hope the silver lining of the savage and pointless destruction of our shared human heritage sites is that it quickens the resolve to destroy the Islamic State, that it brings about a renewed interest in these historic sites, and births the advancement and adaptation of technology to preserve and share these places in our new and immersive experiences.