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Age Old Cities: A Virtual Journey from Palmyra to Mosul

posted on: Apr 10, 2021

By: Dani Meyer/Arab America Contributing Writer

When ISIS occupied parts of Iraq and Syria, they destroyed world-famous heritage symbols in the region. It was a carefully staged propaganda that destroyed monuments and cities perceived to have some connection to the Western world. Discourse turned to heritage specialists, who assessed the importance of and damage to these sites. With this in mind, the Arab World Institute in Paris, in collaboration with UNESCO, created a virtual exhibit of three cities: Palmyra, Aleppo, and Mosul.


Image credit: Iconem – DOA – MAFL – La mécanique du plastique

The destruction of monuments and cities by ISIS and other similar groups was shocking; it came as a surprise that terrorist groups would seek to destroy age-old monuments. However, once the shock passed, many in the historical community began developing solutions. On the recommendations of the Louvre Museum’s President – Director Jean-Luc Martinez, and thanks to the diplomatic action of Jack Lang, President of the Arab World Institute (IMA) in Paris, French President François Hollande initiated the creation of the international foundation ALIPH (International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas).

After 2015, many heritage specialists began to develop new initiatives to preserve both the present and ancient data of important historical sites. On December 14, 2016, the Réunion des musées nationaux inaugurated at the Grand Palais in Paris. The exhibition Eternal Sites: From Bamiyan to Palmyra, which was the first exhibition to offer an immersive virtual journey to threatened sites.

The Exhibit

Cités millénaires Voyage virtuel de Palmyre à Mossoul. Du 10 octobre 2018 – 10 février 2019, Institut du monde arabe, Paris.

Similarly, Age Old Cities represents an important part of the movement towards virtual exhibitions of ancient sites. Created for the Arab World Institute, Paris, ​the Age Old Cities virtual reality experience features six iconic monuments from across the Arab world: Palmyra’s Temple of Baalshamin and Aleppo’s souk in Syria; Leptis Magna’s basilica in Libya; and the Al-Nuri Mosque, the Nabi Yunus tunnels, and the Church of Our Lady of the Hour in Mosul, Iraq. Ubisoft partnered with Iconem, UNESCO, and the University of Lausanne to design these immersive and lifelike reconstructions.

“What it narrates is cultural destruction and — and I emphasize — and the remarkable strength and resilience of men and women who chose to remain behind in those cities to fight for their survival, indeed to fight for the reconstruction,” said Chase F. Robinson, Dame Jillian Sackler director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art.

The exhibit first debuted in Paris, and was brought to the Smithsonian in the beginning of 2020. At the exhibit, people can watch interviews of those who witnessed the destruction of their cities and participate in a virtual reality experience at five cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria. In the virtual reality experience, created by video game company Ubisoft, participants can see first-hand the damage done to historical locations such as the souks of Aleppo and the mausoleum of Nabi Yunus. It was on display in the Sackler Museum until October 25, 2020.

How was the Exhibit Created?

The creators of this exhibition chose particular sites that either had experienced destruction as a result of conflict, or were at risk for destruction. For example, the inclusion of Leptis Magna in Libya was a deliberate statement that, although this site has not suffered major destruction, it still is at risk of destruction due to political instability in Libya.

Aurélie Clémente-Ruiz, Director of the Exhibition Department at IMA, regretted the absence of Yemen in the selection. She recognized that the inability to obtain images and plans of Yemeni cities and sites made their virtual reconstruction—an element critical to the exhibition concept—impossible.

Each site or city required a particular approach. The general staging concept for each city or site was developed by an architect, Sylvain Roca; photographs and drone images were taken of each site. These images were combined with archival images to create a sense of what each of these sites might have been like before any destruction had taken place. The feeling of immersion was further augmented by Ubisoft, a video-game company that created a virtual reality experience, that visitors can experience with a headset.

The digital experience offered by Age Old Cities is definitely worth the trip.

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