‘Heritage activists’ preserve global landmarks ruined in war, threatened by time

Eight years ago, French architect Yves Ubelmann was working in Afghanistan when he took a seemingly minor picture of a village brimming with mud homes. It was a quick snapshot, separate from his archeological work. When he returned to the site two years later, the village was gone – destroyed – and one of its few remaining traces was an elderly man who remembered Ubelmann taking the photo. He wanted it.

“’The picture is the only link I have to my personal history,’” the man said, prompting Ubelmann to share it. The small gesture crystallized for him the power of preserving history and helped inspire him to start Iconem, a Paris company that creates 3D digital models of historic landmarks threatened by war, conflict, time and nature.

With drones that can capture thousands of images, Iconem has surveyed sites in 20 countries, including the 109-acre ruins of Pompeii, ancient Assyrian cities in northern Iraq and the mountainous remains of third-century Buddhist monasteries in Afghanistan. The team has documented Angkor Wat in Cambodia and sites in Hyderabad, India, and Delos, Greece. The digital preservations are helping teachers, students and researchers understand civilizations through historic landmarks that are often difficult to access.

“It’s a way to keep history alive,” says Ubelmann. “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you go.”

Man works with equipment on ancient site
Yves Ubelmann, founder and CEO of Iconem. (Photo by Iconem)

Preserving history has been especially urgent in Syria, where seven years of war have destroyed or damaged all six of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, including centuries-old temples, mosques, citadels, tombs and bazaars. Ubelmann’s grandfather was an architect who restored bombed churches in France after World War II and Ubelmann sees Iconem’s work in Syria in a similar vein: preserving the country’s heritage and rebuilding landmarks crumbled by bombs, mortars and looters.

Iconem’s Syrian surveys include the desert city Palmyra, once a bustling oasis of Greek, Roman and Islamic cultures and now a wasteland of fallen temples and pillars – some 2,000 years old and most systematically destroyed.

“It’s really shocking to see the state of the monuments,” says Jonathan Chemla, Iconem’s chief technology officer, who processed data from the surveys in 2016 and 2017. “It’s like you can feel the will to annihilate a culture. But you also feel the spirit of Palmyra is still there.”

Team members took 50,000 photos of Palmyra with drones that allowed them to avoid landmines. In western Syria, they took 150,000 photos of Crac des Chevaliers, one of the world’s most famous Crusader castles now damaged by fighting, as part of a project for UNESCO. And they surveyed Aleppo’s Old City, the devastated historic quarter known for its 13th century citadel, ancient mosque and vibrant souk, or bazaar – all now in ruins.

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“We really feel like a team of heritage activists,” Chemla says. “We want to show different cultures that exist on the planet, existed through time, so people understand the world we know today is a combination of cultures that preceded us.”

Advanced algorithms and the computing power of Microsoft AI enable Iconem to quickly stitch thousands of photos into high-resolution 3D models that help experts assess damage.

“Before, we had to stitch manually hundreds of pictures, one by one, and this lasted hours,” Ubelmann says. Microsoft AI also allows the team to easily scale and globally share its work, and incorporate donated, tourist photos of pre-war Syria and other countries for better models.

Aerial view of stone ruins
Aerial view of where a monumental triple arch, built in the second century, once stood in Palmyra, Syria, before it was destroyed in 2015. (Photo by Iconem/DGAM)

Iconem’s models are so detailed that they can be used to fight archeological looting in Syria, a major problem, by revealing illegal tunnels and clues to missing artifacts destined for the black market. The models are so realistic that viewers feel like they can touch ancient stone walls and walk on storied grounds. They can remember.

“It feels magical, because it has become possible to recreate the world,” Ubelmann says of artificial intelligence.

Last year, Iconem showed its work from Syria and Iraq on large screens at the Grand Palais hall in Paris, where the sight of the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus filled exhibit-goer Leen Toukatli with hope and sorrow.

“I felt like I am in a dream, like I’m really in Syria,” says Toukatli, who fled Damascus in 2015 and now works as Microsoft’s attorney for French-speaking Africa. “I felt the sun inside the mosque, even though it was dark in the exhibit.”

3D model of historic monumental arches
3D model by Iconem shows how Palmyra’s historic arches could be rebuilt.

Toukatli, who is 31, visited Palmyra as a child and likens its significance to that of the Statue of Liberty in America or the Eiffel Tower in France. She remembers feeling protected while standing at Crac des Chevaliers. She applauds Iconem’s work as a way to uphold memory and restore what is lost, and hopes her future children will one day know her childhood landmarks.

“With the technology, we can preserve and rebuild our history,” Toukatli says. “The history is part of us, part of every Syrian, part of our country. By preserving history, you are preserving humanity.”

An exhibition on Aleppo, Palmyra and cities in Iraq, Yemen and Libya will open at the Arab World Institute, in collaboration with Iconem, in Paris on Oct. 9, 2018. Learn more on Iconem’s Twitter and discover other new projects on Iconem’s blog, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Learn more about Microsoft AI at www.microsoft.com/ai.

Top image: Yves Ubelmann, Iconem founder and CEO, works in Palmyra, Syria. (Photo by Iconem/DGAM)