Fighting the Good Fight Against ISIL with 3D Art

Michael In the News

The tragedy that has been unfolding in Syria for the past several years has seen the death toll rise to nearly 300,000 under Assad’s command. The uprising and struggle for power has displaced millions and helped give rise to ISIL. ISIL, short for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS), is trying to establish their own separate caliphate in those two countries. In doing so, they have kidnapped, rapped, and murdered countless people by beheading and mass execution. There is universal consensus, especially among Muslims, that ISIL poses a direct threat to human rights wherever they have influence.

ISIL And Culture Cleansing

Unfortunately, human suffering is not the only byproduct of ISIL. Besides the murders, torturing, and displacement of millions, ISIL also threatens remnants of human history. Much like their attitude to humans, anything that violates their ‘beliefs’ is subject to destruction. As the violent group has taken control of eastern Syria and western Iraq they have destroyed  or damaged numerous historical sites. Some of which have stood for thousands of years.

It is already too late for many sites. Antiquities like the Mosque of The Prophet Younis (known as Jonah in the Bible) have already been destroyed by ISIL. This site is believed to be the place where the man who was swallowed by a whale in both the Bible and Koran was buried.

The ancient city of Nimrud which was founded in 13th century BC has been at least partially bulldozed and damaged by military vehicles. The destruction of this site was declared a war crime by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Recently, ISIL took control of the Mosul Museum, the second largest museum in Iraq. They took control just before it was scheduled to reopen after being shut down for years because of the Iraq war. Once inside, ISIL members destroyed at least 2 rooms by using sledgehammers. ISIL also recently gained control of Palmyra, one of Syria’s greatest archaeological treasures. Since, they have released propaganda video showing executions taking place on the grounds as well as explosions destroying sections of the ancient city.

We don’t have time to lose because extremists are trying to erase the identity, because they know that if there is no identity, there is no memory, there is no history. This is a way to destroy identity. You deprive them of their culture, you deprive them of their history, their heritage, and that is why it goes hand in hand with genocide. Along with the physical persecution they want to eliminate – to delete – the memory of these different cultures. … we think this is appalling, and this is not acceptable.

-Irina Bokova UNESCO Director General

Not only is ISIL destroying religious monuments that have significant meaning in other religions but they are also making a profit off of relics as well. Estimates put the terrorist group’s profit at US $200 million per year by selling these looted goods. International agencies, museums, and auction houses are now taking steps to make sure these stolen antiquities don’t get sold.

If You Can’t Beat Them- Take Pictures of Stuff Before They Destroy It

ISIL is showing no signs of slowing down, especially in their holy war against ancient cultural monuments. There is little anyone can do short of armed intervention. So activists are doing the next best thing to preserving the original  artifacts. They are preserving them digitally.

Through several different methods, activists hailing from different organizations from across the world are preserving sites and artifacts before ISIL has the chance to get their hands on them.

One such project is known as the Million Image Database. This project, started by Oxford Institute of Digital Archaeology, is handing out 3D cameras to local activists in Syria and Iraq in order to capture relics within the surrounding area of the individual. By taking pictures of artifacts at different angles the activists are able to capture 3D images precise to within a few centimeters. Once the images are captured, they can then be downloaded to the project’s website.

At a price of just $50 per camera the Million Image Database has been able to hand out nearly a thousand cameras so far. They hope to have 5,000 cameras distributed to Syria and Iraq by this time next year.

Other activists are taking a more practical approach by crating artifacts and sandbagging important sites from incidental damage and air raids aimed at ISIL. American Schools of Oriental Research supplies and funds local volunteers and experts to complete the work. Project manager, LeeAnn Gordon had this to say about their efforts:

What we are really looking for is these kinds of small projects that can have big impact. Syria has so much. In my opinion, there is still more intact than there is destroyed.

Despite a much greater risk to personal injury, a third project called Anqa, is also measuring monuments in peril. By using lasers to take measurements on site the Anqa team is able to obtain accuracy down to within a few millimeters. Here again, they can create 3D images, models, virtual tours, and even full scale replications before they are damaged by ISIL.

Obviously Anqa, which is the Arabic word for phoenix, is a much bigger gamble. Not only does it take an extended period time of exposure- especially compared to the $50 3D cameras of the Million Image Database- but it also takes a trained team to execute: not to mention precise equipment. Local volunteers simply wouldn’t be able to pull it off. With that, they must also have a security detail to watch their back while the work was being done.

While several groups and governments are now involved with the fighting in Syria and Iraq it is important for these NGOs to complete their work as well. In order to preserve the identity and culture of ancient civilations and religions activists must put themselves in harms way. Although ISIL may take lives at free will, we may be able to at least protect history for future generations.

feature image courtesy of Wikimedia commons

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