When news broke out about the desecration of the ancient City of Palmyra in 2015, the world was stupefied. With their guns and their pickets, ISIL guerrillas tore apart the historic city that has existed on Syrian lands for centuries. As pictures emerged of the razed city, UNESCO and archeologists pleaded to the world to save the heritage site, to no avail.
Today, after Palmyra has been haphazardly taken and retaken by ISIL guerrillas and Russian and Syrian militaries since 2015, the city lies in ruins. A large number of artefacts was transferred, photographed, and hidden in Damascus between 2015 and 2017. Experts say the more recent damage to the city and its artefacts is repairable, which comes as a relief.
But for those who have never laid eyes on Palmyra in all its galore, there is no going back. #NEWPALMYRA, a revived initiative, is working to document and keep the memory of Palmyra alive. As warfare has reduced Syria’s heritage to rubble, #NEWPALMYRA, with a history deeply rooted in the Syrian conflict, is now trying to digitally reconstruct Syria’s destroyed City of Palmyra.
We speak with the head of #NEWPALMYRA, Barry Threw, to get a better picture of how the initiative is changing remembrance, recreation, and helping to shape the future of Palmyra.
The Loss of Palmyra
On May 20th 2015, ISIL militants gained control of Tadmur, the residential city lying nearby historical Palmyra. The ancient city, also known as Tadmur in Arabic, is a desert oasis that dates back to the first millenium BC. Palmyra was also of historical significance to the world, being a primary point along the Silk Road trade route. The takeover and subsequent destruction of Palmyra was just one peg in the ongoing violence in Syria.
Following intense fighting in other cities, ISIL militants successfully took over Tadmur in 2015, sending Palmyrene residents fleeing for their lives. The Syrian Ministry of Antiquities was quick to evacuate as many artefacts as possible to Damascus, fearing their destruction as a result of ISIL’s obsession with conflating historical artefacts with idolatry.
The city’s historical sites, however, were anything but safe from ISIL. The centuries-old city was held by ISIL for almost an entire year before Syrian and Russian forces attempted to take it back, during which a number of temples and statues were destroyed. In 2016 and 2017, Syrian, Russian, and ISIL forces battled for control over the city a number of times before ISIL retreated.
The aftermath of ISIL’s takeover of Palmyra was catastrophic. The Asad-Al-Lat statue guarding the old city was among the first statues destroyed by ISIL as well as the Temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, which were both demolished. Only one arch in Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph survived ISIL’s virulent presence, while the Tetrapylons and the Roman Theater remained intact.
When the city was reclaimed from ISIL militants, their presence remained visible in the rubble and the graffiti that read “Here to stay” on column walls. Although Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s Director of Antiquities, believes that large parts of the city can be rebuilt, the city will never return to its original form before ISIL. Armed with digital technologies, the legacy of a Syrian who loved his country, and a group of dedicated volunteers, #NEWPALMYRA is trying to keep both Palmyra’s heritage and memory alive.
The Legacy and the Memory
Founded in 2015, #NEWPALMYRA is an initiative that is working to digitally reconstruct Palmyra by creating 3D images of the city’s sites and landmarks. The organization, currently headed by Barry Threw, finds its roots in reviving an older effort to document the ancient city by Bassel Khartabil, a Syrian open-source developer, who was slain by the Syrian regime in 2015.
Khartabil, a Palestinian born in Damascus in 1983, was a photographer and developer whose work became the seed of #NEWPALMYRA. Through his work with open source data, he worked as the Chief Technology Officer of Syrian-based research organization Al-Aous, which focused on Syrian art and archeology. The core ethic of the work that Kharbatil did was documenting, collecting, and releasing as much information and data to the public as he could – a value that continues to be at the core of #NEWPALMYRA’s work today.
In 2005, Khartabil began documenting the ancient City of Palmyra with Al-Aous with hopes of creating a 3D model of the city online. Al-Aous initially used his work for tourism flyers, but never released his earlier work, which Threw tells us is why Khartabil’s original documentation has since been lost. He continued to document Syrian heritage until 2012, when he was kidnapped and detained by the Syrian regime for his political activism. Three years later, news broke out that he was murdered by the government while imprisoned in an unknown location.
Salvaging what is left of Palmyra, both a city of Syrian heritage and part of a larger world history, speaks to more than saving centuries-old stone. Rather, many have said that it attests to keeping alive the plurality and religious diversity that Syria’s heritage has always had because of sites like Palmyra.
This, however, seems to have been paused indefinitely as a result of Syria’s revolution-turned war that has entered its seventh year.
The founding of #NEWPALMYRA, Threw says, was the ripple effect of two events: Khartabil’s kidnapping and the taking of Palmyra. “Our relaunch and “open-sourcing” of #NEWPALMYRA was predicated by two events in October of 2015: the “disappearing” of Bassel Khartabil by the Syrian regime and the capture of Palmyra by ISIL,” he says. “[ISIL made] clear that the ruins were a symbolic battleground for control over the Syrian people.”
Together with a diligent and diverse group, #NEWPALMYRA has been creating 3D images of the sites and landmarks that were destroyed by ISIL since the city was first occupied in 2015. The goal is to share these images as widely as possible to engage the global community with the preservation of cultural heritage and encourage its reuse in creative explorations.
Threw believes that #NEWPALMYRA is “freeing Palmyra digitally to turn agency over this cultural heritage to the Syrian and global communities, following Bassel’s visionary work of transparency, open internet, and free culture for the advancement of the Syrian people.” Although the initiative began following his detention in 2012, Khartabil remained the main mastermind of the project from behind the bars of a cell in Adra prison camp until his disappearance and execution in 2015.
Palmyra is not lost
At the moment, #NEWPALMYRA has 10 core contributors that help create the images that can be found on the organization’s website. Other contributors to the virtual site range from architects, artists, and software developers to musicians, virtual reality artists, and educators. The initiative is supported by private donations, much of which comes from Kharbatil’s friends and loved ones as well as from others around the world.
Earlier last year, #NEWPALMYRA, Creative Commons, and Austin-based 3D printing company re:3d successfully recreated the ancient city’s Tetrapylons that were confirmed to be partially destroyed in 2017. The 200 pound (90 kilograms) 3D printed rendering of the Palmyrene column showed the artefact in its original form, intricate stone etchings included.
Using 3D imaging to restore the memory of cities battered by conflict is not unique to Palmyra, though. What started as a student-run initiative known as Somali Architecture soon grew into a collective that is working to bring back to life pre-war Mogadishu in Somalia. Like #NEWPALMYRA, the collective is doing that by designing 3D images of the renderings of Somali architecture.
Although #NEWPALMYRA is one of many organizations working on Palmyra as a space of cultural and heritage importance, it remains one of the few organizations that keep their data and research readily available to the public. “From the beginning,” Threw tells us, “#NEWPALMYRA has had community engagement and open-source methodology at its core.” The importance of maintaining an open-source approach to the data and imaging #NEWPALMYRA and contributors produce is unsurprisingly rooted in the work that Khartabil was dedicated to prior to his death.
“We believe that the best way to ensure that this heritage stays alive is to share it as widely as possible, to build on the history of Palmyra to point a way towards the future,” he adds. “Instead of focusing on recreating the past, we are interested in engaging the global community around cultural heritage to construct the future [Palmyra].”