It’s great that new technology can reconstruct Palmyra’s vandalised temples, but is that the right course to take? asks Ellis Woodman
Given the scale of the human tragedy that continues to play out in Syria, the reconstruction of archaeological remains might hardly be thought the country’s most urgent priority.
Yet, following the routing of Isis from Palmyra, figures ranging from the mayor of London to the director of the Hermitage in St Petersburg issued calls for an immediate international effort to rebuild the ancient Roman city. Happily, the early indications are that the damage is less extensive than had been feared but, as Isis’s media operation has been at pains to communicate to the world, a number of key monuments were deliberately destroyed over the course of the city’s 10-month occupation.
If we accept a definition of vandalism as an act of senseless destruction, we have to conclude that these incidents resist such categorisation. While serving no strategic military purpose, the demolitions of the temples of Bel and Baalshamin were far from senseless acts but, rather, piercing statements of ideological intent. The message intended for the local community was clear: these all-too-literal erasures of memory denied the country’s history of pantheism and heralded a new age of religious theocracy.
Demolishing these monuments is an assault not just on Syrians’ cultural heritage but on ours too
The fact that the targets were works of ancient Classical architecture also imbued their destruction with particular potency for western observers. Demolishing these monuments represented an assault not just on Syrians’ cultural heritage but on ours too – a shared Classical inheritance on which 2,000 years of civilisation have been founded and which Isis has committed itself to destroying.
There is strong precedent in international law that attacks on targets of no strategic military value are war crimes. The Croatian general Slobodan Praljak is currently serving 20 years in prison for crimes that included his role in the destruction of the 16th-century Ottoman bridge at Mostar, designed by Mimar Hayruddin.
A symbol of resistance to Isis’s iconoclasm will be erected in London’s Trafalgar Square later this month in the form of a full-scale reconstruction of the Temple of Bel’s Triumphal Arch. A project of the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA), the replica will be based on digital scans of the original and realised in concrete using a 3D printer.
Visualisation of reconstructed Triumphal Arch in Trafalgar Square
Source: Institute for Digital Archaeology
The initiative also showcases the ways in which new technologies are revolutionising conservation. The arch will be the first full-scale reconstruction based on information drawn from the IDA’s open-source Million Image Database, a resource comprising scans of imperiled structures in conflict zones across North Africa and the Middle East. The database has been put together by close to 5,000 volunteers to whom the IDA has issued low-cost, discreet and easy-to-use 3D cameras and is certain to be crucial in guiding any future reconstruction of Palmyra.
The question now is what form that reconstruction should take. While the prohibition against direct copying that John Ruskin articulated in The Lamp of Memory (1849) continues to form a fundamental principle of good conservation practice, the arrival of digital technology has suddenly dispensed with any risk of conjecture. It is now perfectly possible to construct a simulacrum of the Temple of Bel, faithful in every respect to the condition that the fabric presented in the early part of last year.
Yet, much as such a course of action may attract support, the premise on which it is founded surely demands questioning. The impulses behind demolition and reconstruction are not ultimately so far apart: just as Isis’s assault on Palmyra represented an attempt to wipe out one episode of Syria’s past, now the digitally produced copy promises to erase another. In a country where the reductive narratives enforced by successive leaders have resulted in so much suffering, it would be a sad irony if the solution adopted at Palmyra represented a further suppression of the complexity of Syria’s history.