Experts scramble to document what’s left of Syria’s heritage

Nearly 1,000 cameras have already been deployed or are on their way to the Middle East including countries like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as experts seek to protect cultural heritage that risk getting destroyed by war in these territories

BEIRUT // Scientists are slipping 3-D cameras into Syria to local activists and residents to scan antiquities.

A US-funded project aims to provide local conservators with resources to help safeguard relics. Inside Syria, volunteers scramble to document damage to monuments and confirm what remains.

The rush is on to find creative and often high-tech ways to protect Syria’s millennia-long cultural heritage in the face of the threat that much of it could be erased by the country’s war, now in its fifth year. Experts are desperate to stay a step ahead of ISIL, which has destroyed and looted sites that fall into its hands as it spreads across Syria and Iraq.

The efforts are tempered by a recognition of the realities – that in some cases the best that can be hoped for is to document ancient monuments in as great detail as possible so that if they are destroyed they can still be studied in the future, or possibly accurate replicas could one day be built.

The campaigns are fraught with risks. Getting supplies to activists on the ground can expose them to retribution from ISIL militants or others suspicious of outside powers.

As a result, the various efforts underway are mostly cloaked in secrecy.

But among experts, there’s a feeling that something – anything – must be done.

“I don’t want to be having this conversation with somebody three years down the road, and they say, ‘Why didn’t you start in 2015 when they [ISIL] only controlled three per cent of the sites’,” said Roger Michel, whose Million Image Database, began distributing hundreds of 3-D cameras around the region to activists.

The Unesco-backed project aims to “flood the region” with low-cost, easy-to-use 3-D cameras, Mr Michel said. “The idea is to have as many images made of as many objects and buildings as possible in advance of the destruction by the ISIL forces,” Mr Michel said.

Nearly 1,000 cameras have already been deployed or are on their way to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. A separate project would carry out far more detailed scans of antiquities in Syria and Iraq using laser scanners. While the scanning brings the highest precision, it also requires experts, accompanied by security teams, to visit the sites to scan them over extended periods of time using precise equipment – a much more unwieldy footprint in potentially dangerous areas than the 3-D cameras.

The projectaims to laser-scan 200 objects in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the region, said its director Ben Kacyra. It will work with the government antiquities departments in Syria and Iraq, and Unesco, to deploy teams in northern and southern Iraq, Damascus and other areas, Mr Kacyra said. “We have a story to tell there that we can’t lose for our children and grandchildren,” Mr Kacyra said. “Our heritage is much more than our collective memory. It is our collective treasure.”

* Associated Press