World

Rebuilding Palmyra: 3D Printing an Ancient City

Although the West is excited at the opportunity to 3D print ISIS out of Palmyra’s history, rebuilding an ancient city in a complicated war zone is not quite that straightforward.

The Arch of Triumph in the eastern section of Palmyra's colonnade , seen before being destroyed by ISIS. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Arch of Triumph in the eastern section of Palmyra’s colonnade, seen before being destroyed by ISIS. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On the March 27, under the cover of Russian air support, the Syrian Arab Army, Hezbollah and other pro-government militias took back Palmyra from ISIS, ending its ten-month occupation of the UNESCO world heritage site. During their time in Palmyra, also known as the ‘Venice of the sands’, the group looted and destroyed priceless Roman style artefacts and monuments, some of which were around 2000 years old.

Seeing them as monuments to idolatry, ISIS blew up the famous Arch of Triumph, the Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel, a site for worshiping the Roman sun god dating back to A.D. 32. However, pictures emerging from Palmyra after ISIS fled show that the destruction appears to be less extensive than first imagined. How to deal with the remains and undo the destruction caused by the group is now a topic of debate among experts in the field of archaeology, restoration and conservation. How should its ancient monuments be restored? Who should be in charge of the process? Should we even be attempting to rebuild the past?

An aerial view of the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria, is seen in this still image taken from a drone video courtesy of Rossiya 24, made available to Reuters on March 28, 2016. Credit: Reuters

An aerial view of the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria, is seen in this still image taken from a drone video courtesy of Rossiya 24, made available to Reuters on March 28, 2016. Credit: Reuters

Restore the past or conserve the present?

It is likely that ISIS fighters who destroyed the city will eventually be replaced by an army of archaeologists intent on restoring Palmyra to its former glory. “We will not leave the temples destroyed,” said Maamun Abdelkarim, the Syrian director of antiques, after the city was recaptured. “Palmyra will rise again. We have to send a message to terrorists.”

This idea of refusing to let the terrorists ‘win’, of rebuilding what ISIS wanted to destroy, is the sentiment behind the work of the Oxford Institute for Digital Archaeology, a group leading the reconstruction project on Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph. “Every time we resurrect from the rubble one of these monuments, it undercuts the message of fear and ignorance that these people are trying to spread,” said Roger Michel, the executive director of the institute. “If they knock it down, we will rebuild it. If they knock it down again, we will rebuild it again.”

The focus on restoring and rebuilding Palmyra as an act of determination and defiance against ISIS has so far drowned out the voices of those who believe Palmyra’s monuments should be left as they are, a reminder of the destruction caused by the group. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones belongs to the ‘conserve as found’ camp. Believing that the “preservation of antiquities has to mean accepting the finality of loss where rebuilding might be deceitful,” Jones argues that it is never legitimate to rebuild and “refabricate” ancient monuments using modern materials and techniques, even if we have the technology to do so.

3D printing a new ancient city

A digital reconstruction of the Temple of Bel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A digital reconstruction of the Temple of Bel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So far, restoration, not conservation, has dominated the discussion on Palmyra’s future, and it is the use of modern technology such as 3D printing that has taken centre stage. For instance, Michel’s Million Image Database Project at the Institute for Digital Archaeology has used hundreds of photographs of Palmyra to create a 3D model of the Arch of Triumph, which is currently being printed using cement-based 3D printing techniques. When completed, the 12-tonne replica of the arch, which Michel claims is “completely indistinguishable from the original,” will be displayed in London’s Trafalgar Square next week before moving on to New York and Dubai. Michel intends for the arch to finally make its way to Palmyra to stand near the site of the original.

Similar digital 3D printing technology is being used by Italy’s former culture minister, Francesco Rutelli, to reconstruct Palmyra’s fallen temples. However, without 3D scans, both Michel and Rutelli are relying extensively on photographs and records to create their models.

Despite the ability to produce exact replicas in a short amount of time, the idea of 3D printing Palmyra’s most famous monuments has met with some concern. Annie Sartre-Fauriat, a specialist in Greco-Roman heritage, is worried that speedy solutions risk creating modern buildings from industrial stone with little respect for the traditions of the original architecture. “I do not want to see a Disneyland park in Palmyra,” she says.

The rush into 3D printing may overlook other methods available to rebuild Palmyra. One expert has suggested that the Arch of Triumph could be reconstructed using a process called anastylosis where the rocks are marked on the ground and put back together piece by piece. This may be possible because unlike other monuments at Palmyra, the arch was only partially destroyed by ISIS with the fallen rocks strewn around it.

Who’s in charge?

Besides questions over if and how Palmyra’s rebuilding should be done, there is also competition on who should do it. The Syrian government, UNESCO, Russia, and private initiatives from Italy and Britain are among those eager to work on the site. London Mayor Boris Johnson has announced his support for British archaeologists to rebuild Palmyra, backing the Institute for Digital Archaeology, whereas Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini has emphasised his country’s participation.

Russian troops are leading the demining process in Palmyra. Credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

Russian troops are leading the demining process in Palmyra. Credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.

Russia has also laid claim to the project. Partnering with UNESCO, Russia’s renowned Hermitage Museum believes it has the experience to take up the challenge of rebuilding Palmyra’s heritage site, citing Russia’s expert restoration of the tsars’ summer palace after it was close to destruction during World War II. Russian troops were involved in the recapture of Palmyra and are currently leading the demining process in the city, perhaps giving Russia a bigger stake than most. The director of the museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, has no intention of handing over Russia’s lead in Palmyra, saying, “We will never find anything more beautiful in the annals of Russian history in the Middle East” than the liberation of Palmyra. However, it appears that Piotrovsky recognises the enormous task that rebuilding Palmyra presents, conceding, “restoring Palmyra is the responsibility of all of us.”

Although the Syrian director of antiques has said that Palmyra will be restored within five years, the security situation is still too dangerous for international archaeologists to get to work on the city. Furthermore, the cost of the restoration is another obstacle. Critics have argued against costly plans to rebuild the ancient monuments when half of Syria’s population remains displaced – including thousands from Palmyra itself – and others are still fighting in the continuing conflict.

If they remain unsettled, these disputes over how to restore Palmyra will increasingly threaten the survival of the city’s heritage sites. For instance, the impetus to restore the 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas that were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 has all but disappeared. Given the current uncertainties surrounding the Syrian conflict, Palmyra’s ancient sites may also risk lying in rubble for the foreseeable future. Although the West is excited at the opportunity to 3D print ISIS out of Palmyra’s history, rebuilding an ancient city in a complicated war zone is not quite that straightforward.