How this photography project conserved Aleppo's 5,000 years of history before it is lost forever: 'A war reporter for culture'

Yves Ubelmann’s start-up Iconem takes digital snapshots of war-torn cities

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An art centre in Brussels is presenting a snapshot of time that most of the world was unable to see: the moment after the destruction of Aleppo. Grand arches falling into piles of rubble, streets blocked by shards of concrete, empty door frames with not a person to be seen: this was Aleppo after its four-year battle, which ended in December 2016. The Syrian city's eastern parts were evacuated, and its extraordinary historical monuments damaged or destroyed.

Soon after the battle, in April 2017, Yves Ubelmann and his team at the French start-up Iconem headed to Aleppo. Their goal was to capture images of as much of the city as they could.

They concentrated on the Old Town, staying in the one hotel that had just reopened. Aiming to take two levels of data, they attached cameras to drones to get an aerial view of the damage. They also headed out on foot into the empty winding corridors of Aleppo’s famous souq and into the abandoned houses, affixing gadgets to long poles if the terrain was too unsteady for them to venture out on.

Boghossian Foundation Aleppo.
Iconem's rendering of Aleppo's famous Citadel, which was used as a base by the Syrian Army and damaged in the four-year battle. Courtesy Villa Empain

They photographed 10,000 images in total, generating enough to create a 3D map of more than three quarters of the Old Town. Now, for its exhibition Aleppo, A 5,000 Year Journey, on view at the Villa Empain in Brussels until  January 31, the team has rendered this data into a series of images and videos mapping the destruction.

“Yves is a war reporter for culture,” says Louma Salame, director of Villa Empain, an art foundation housed in an Art Deco villa.

“He has created a new, revolutionary approach for a database of universal cultural patrimony.”

Iconem, which Ubelmann founded in Paris in 2013, documents sites threatened by conflict to gather information about important artefacts and historical buildings before they are completely destroyed.

French researcher Yves Ubelmann looks on in the Palmyra Exhibit, a three-dimensional projection featuring never-before-seen images of Palmyra taken by a drone in April after the city was liberated from IS fighters, at Grand Palais in Paris, Tuesday, Dec.13, 2016. As Islamic State extremists recapture the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the French president and the UNESCO chief are inaugurating an exhibit in Paris to educate the public about the wonders of endangered UNESCO heritage sites in Palmyra and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Iconem chief executive Yves Ubelmann looks on in the Palmyra Exhibit, a three-dimensional projection featuring images of Palmyra taken by a drone in April 2016. AP

In 2015, the team flew long-range drones over Mosul to shoot images of the walled Iraqi city while it was still under the capital of ISIS control, launching the devices from the Peshmerga borderline.

These shots are some of the last remaining images of Mosul before the 2016-2017 campaign to retake the city from ISIS.

After the Palmyra offensive in April 2016, Iconem flew drones to document the ancient city’s famous theatre, capturing images before ISIS unleashed a second round of destruction on the site.

Ubelmann says Iconem are conservators of the last resort, moving in when it is clear that a site or objects of world historical value cannot be protected, either by soldiers on the ground, or because of a lack of resources.

Boghossian Foundation Aleppo.
Beit Achiqbash, part of a group of traditional houses in the Christian quarter, was built in 1757. Rendering by Iconem / courtesy Villa Empain

“When I was an architect [before starting Iconem], I was working in Syria, Iran and Afghanistan with archaeologists, and I was shocked by the fact that artefacts from these sites could disappear completely from one year to another,” Ubelmann says.

“They are not protected. Sometimes there was a very old element from antiquity that was there just a few months ago, and you could not see it any more in the field, because of many reasons: because of looters, because of urban spread, because of climate change. That is why I decided to work on this new technique of imagery, because for many sites, there is no other solution.”

Iconem’s team of programmers use algorithms and forms of AI modelling to reconstruct what the monuments and artefacts would have looked like in 3D. They use the results as stand-ins for world patrimony that would otherwise have been irretrievably lost – as well as to aid in the reconstruction of historical sites.

It's not only a matter of archiving historical knowledge, it's a matter of building the future of these countries

“When there is a conflict, it’s very important to have a good understanding of your past,”  Ubelmann says.

“When the community is struggling, it’s important to have the right evidence of how the country was a long time ago, and how you can build an identity through this past. It’s not only a matter of archiving historical knowledge, it’s a matter of building the future of these countries.”

The data is particularly useful in the case of Aleppo. Unlike a site such as Palmyra, Aleppo is a living environment. Inhabitants came back to the city within months, and in the rebuilding efforts removed rubble with historical value or erased information about the original construction of ancient buildings. Concrete, especially, can hide historical details and it can be almost impossible to remove.

“In Aleppo, it was important for us to document the destruction at this time, before the cleaning, before the restoration,” Ubelmann says. “These monuments make us understand how this building was destroyed, and give policy experts about cultural heritage an idea of what is remaining on the site after the battle.”

Boghossian Foundation Aleppo. Photo by Laurent de Broca
Iconem's rendering of the Old Town, on view at the Boghossian Foundation's Villa Empain. Laurent de Broca

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, for example, has relied on Iconem’s documentation in its project to restore Aleppo’s souq, which once measured 13 kilometres.

Iconem also exhibits its work to the public, such as its touring show two years ago for which it created large-scale impressions of Mosul, Aleppo, Palmyra and Leptis Magna in Libya.

For Aleppo, A 5,000 Year Journey, a 16-person team made large-scale videos and images of key sites in Aleppo, including the Old Town, its souqs, the Umayyad Mosque, the 15th-century Hammam Yalbugha and Beit Achiqbash, an 18th-century house  in the Christian quarter.

Some of the show’s renderings are photorealist. In others, Iconem has used small triangles of changing colours to denote the buildings’ shapes, underscoring the fragility of the city. The two layers of their imagery – those captured by drones and those captured on  foot – also enabled them to generate a bird’s-eye  view of the entire Old Town.

Rendered as if in night-time, the bomb craters are shown under spotlight spotlit. spotlit. They are deep enough that they appear, as if in another life, to be perfectly round, innocuous municipal pools.

Aleppo, A 5,000 Year Journey is particularly poignant for Villa Empain. The art centre was established 10 years ago as an exhibition site by the Boghossian Foundation, a philanthropic organisation run by the Boghossian family, who are generational  Armenian jewellers. After they left Armenia, they settled in Aleppo, Beirut and eventually Belgium. Brothers Jean and Albert, who have carried on their father's business, were born in the Syrian city.

For them, as for everyone who visited Aleppo before its destruction, Villa Empain director Salame says, “Aleppo exists only in our memory.”

Aleppo, A 5,000 Year Journey, at the Villa Empain in Brussels, runs until January 31