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3D Printing Can Save Syria’s Monuments

By: Andy Greenberg:

When Bassel Khartabil first began creating photographic three-dimensional models of the ancient ruins known as Palmyra, he hoped to preserve one of Syria’s greatest archaeological treasures.

Ten years later, Khartabil is a prisoner of Syria’s regime, and Palmyra is being systematically destroyed by Daesh. Now Khartabil’s friends and fellow activists hope his 3-D models might save not only Palmyra, but Khartabil himself.

Last year a group of online activists, archivists, and archaeologists plan to release the first batch of files from the New Palmyra Project, an online collection of reconstructed 3-D models of the 1st century AD city originally based on photographs taken by Khartabil in a series of trips he took to the site starting in 2005.

The group says its models, created with the Autodesk software Maya, can be used for online visualizations, Oculus-style walkthroughs, or even 3-D printing miniature replicas.

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It’s also inviting anyone who has more data from the Palmyra site to upload it to the group’s crowdsourced repository, the better to create the world’s most detailed digital reconstruction of the ancient oasis city.

Khartabil, a Palestinian-Syrian blogger, coder, Wikipedia contributor, and founder of the Damascus hackerspace Aiki Lab, was arrested without explanation on the streets of Syria’s capital and jailed in early 2012.

After nine months, moved to the corrupt and overcrowded Adra prison near Damascus, still without formal charges against him made public. Nearly three years later, he remains a captive of the Syrian regime and supporters believe he has yet to even see a judge.

Meanwhile Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site near the city of Homs in central Syria, has been controlled by Daesh since March. The extremist thugs have executed locals and obliterated a series of the site’s priceless monuments and landmarks that they’ve declared to be sacrilegious idols.

The latest to fall were the site’s Triumphal Arches, a collection of two-millenia-old structures that the terrorist group destroyed a highly publicized bombing.

The New Palmyra Project seeks to digitally rebuild those structures as they’re being physically deleted—and in doing so, put a spotlight on the project’s creator that could help pressure the Assad regime to release him.

Daesh has wreaked havoc since it captured the area, packed with ruins from both Semitic and Roman civilizations that have been well preserved by the dry desert air.

Daesh has blown up the temples of Baalshamin and of Bel, two of the oldest structures in Palmyra, and then most recently exploded the Triumphal Arches, built by the Romans to commemorate a military victory over the Persians.

When a curator of the site, the renowned 82-year-old archaeological scholar Khaled al-Asaad, refused to lead Daesh to hidden artifacts, the militants beheaded him and hung his mutilated body from one of the site’s columns.

The New Palmyra Project isn’t the only group seeking to use digital modeling to save the Middle East’s treasures from Daesh.

The Oxford Institute of Digital Archaeology has launched a Million Images Database seeks to bring low-cost 3D cameras to activists in Syria who can still document places that haven’t been destroyed by Daesh or by the war’s bombing. Another project by the 3D-scanning focus nonprofit CyArk aims to use laser scanners to create models of endangered antiquities down to a few millimeters of accuracy.

The New Palmyra Project’s Barry Threw admits that Khartabil’s photographic images aren’t so exact. The reconstructions the group has made so far from photographs and satellite images are “artistic,” he says, rather than “scientific.”

But given Daesh’s destruction over the past months, the group’s models may already document structures that are otherwise lost to history. “This is a project about taking Daesh’s destruction and building something new out of it in the virtual space,” says Threw. “It’s an attempt to rebirth this culture with digital tools.”

But Threw doesn’t obscure the fact that the Palmyra models are also a means to an end: Saving Bassel Khartabil. “We want to bring attention to Bassel’s situation by bringing light to this work he did for Syria,” says Threw. “We want to accomplish Bassel’s release. We think this is the best way to do it.”