Restoring Mosul's lost treasures one byte at a time

Digital technology is the key to rebuilding historic buildings destroyed by ISIS

A general view shows Mosul's Old City, on January 8, 2018, six months after Iraqi forces seized the country's second city from Islamic State group jihadists. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
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If they looked to the skies in 2015, the fighters of ISIS in their enclave of Mosul might have noticed a small drone circling overhead.

At the controls was not a soldier with his trigger finger on a Hellfire missile, as the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces tightened the noose around the extremists’ stronghold.

Instead the drone was being flown by a team of digital archaeologists intent on discovering the extent of destruction of ancient monuments and sites after nearly two years of systematic and targeted cultural destruction.

Two years later, and with Mosul liberated but in ruins, the same team from Iconem, a French company that creates exact digital records of some of the world’s most endangered historic places, is joining the international effort to restore the battered city.

Led by Unesco, the UN cultural scientific and cultural organisation, recently announced its Revive the Spirit of Mosul initiative to reconstruct the Old City, for both: "the physical infrastructure, and restoring the dignity of its people."

The re-conquest of Mosul and the violent iconoclasm of its occupiers have left a terrible scar both on the Old City and its inhabitants. By some estimates 11,000 civilians may have died, and the bodies of many ISIS fighter still lie in the ruins of its buildings, those structures filled with explosive booby-traps as a last cruel gesture of defiance.

Among the historic sites lost or severely damaged was the 12th century Great Mosque of Al Nuri and the almost total demolition of its celebrated minaret, Al Habda, or “the hunchback” because of its distinctive lean.

“The first challenge is the magnitude of the destruction,” says Louise Haxtausen, the director of the Unesco office in Iraq and Unesco representative for Iraq.

“Cultural heritage was taken as a target by Daesh (ISIS) as part of their ideology of destruction, of fragmenting Iraqi society.”

“We want to ensure that this reconstruction process is not only about physical reconstruction, but also revival process for the people themselves. We don’t want to turn the Old City into a museum. We want it to be a lively place.

“We would also like this reconstruction process to contribute to social cohesion and reconciliation in the longer term.”


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Iraqi forces take landmark mosque in Mosul blown up by ISIL


The Unesco director spoke to The National before a conference organised by the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi called Heritage and new technologies in the Arab World: how to revive the spirit of Mosul?

She was joined on the Reem Island campus by Yves Ubelmann, the founder and chief executive of Iconem, whose expertise is drawn from the team's work on over 100 sites worldwide.

They include Mes Anec, an ancient Buddhist settlement and monastery on the Silk Road. The ruins are in an area once used by Al Qaeda as a training camp and still with significant Taliban activity.

What now threatens Mes Anec  - whose name translates as: “little source of copper” – is a three billion dollar contact with China to extract the huge metal resources underneath the site and which will result in its total destruction.

After flying drones over the site, Iconem assembled the hundreds of thousands of images in a computer programme that created an accurate 3-D digital model to preserve Mes Anec at least in virtual reality.

The team was also the first into Palmyra after ISIS was forced out of the World Heritage Site in March 2016. Again, using drones, Iconem recorded the ruins of newly destroyed monuments like the Temple of Bel and the 3rd Century Triumphal Roman Arch.

By comparing the fallen stones with older photographs of the monuments when they were intact, Iconem has developed an algorithm that identifies them by shape and can virtually piece them back together. The hope is that one day this will be done for real.

With Mosul and Iraq, the task has been far more complex and urgent. It was two years before the city was liberation when Mr Ubelmann and his team went to work, joining Peshmerga forces less than 30 kilometres from the frontline.

Using long range fixed wing drones and flying at nearly a kilometre, they began capturing the extent of ISIL’s destruction. “It’s a little plane and hard to see”, says Mr Ubelmann. “Sometimes we got one bullet.”

Among the sites captured from the air was Nineveh, an Assyrian city that was once the largest in the world. The 3-D computer model also featured the distinctive 3,000-year-old ziggurat, a pyramid-like structure that served as a temple.

Several weeks later, ISIS destroyed the mound using bulldozers. “So we had the last pictures of the ziggurat,”says Mr Ubelmann. “And the only 3-D model.”

Digital surveys are crucial to the success of the Mosul initiative, says Ms Haxtausen. “The city is heavily contaminated with explosive devices. You cannot do a tradition assessment, going house by house, because it would be too dangerous. If the old city was to be completely de-mined it would take one year and cost $100 million dollars.

“So that is not something we can do, and we have to work in another way. We can have a very detailed assessment thanks to the drone survey that allows us to start reconstruction and restoration plot by plot, street by street.”

At the launch of the Spirit of Mosul project in Kuwait in February, an appeal was made for international donors prepared to make a long term commitment.

“Money is an issue of course” she says. “Reconstructing the old city? I think it’s possible. We see a lot of interest and support already but it’s going to cost a lot of money. We don’t know yet how much.”

The Unesco chief sees the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War as a possible model, where historic cities were rebuilt exactly as they once were.

“The more conventional approach to conservation is that authenticity is a key criterion, so if something is destroyed we cannot reconstruct (it),” she says.

“That is really changing. and that change started after the Second World War for some cities, Warsaw is very good example, where a decision was made to reconstruct.”

The destruction in Mosul included the Umayyad Mosque, and the university library where over a quarter of a million books were burnt. ISIS also blew up the Prophet Yunus Mosque, said to be the burial place of the Prophet Jonah, known for being swallowed by a whale.

While examining the ruins of the mosque, archaeologists noticed a tunnel nearby dug by ISIS fighters to take shelter during the siege. Following it underground they found numerous artefacts and the lower half of two gigantic stone statues that represented lumasi, sacred god-like creatures with the winged body of a bull and a human head.

Unwittingly, ISIS had uncovered a previously unknown Assyrian palace. “Every time something is destroyed, we discover something else,” says Mr Ubelmann. “It is a positive message. The cultural layers are so deep.”