The Islamic State is rapidly destroying the 4,000-year-old Syrian city of Palmyra, a glittering desert oasis that was once a bridge between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean world. ISIS militants have already obliterated many historic landmarks in the unesco World Heritage Site, including the spectacular Temple of Baalshamin and the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph. A grand Roman theater in the city was recently used by ISIS as a forum for public executions.
Faced with the all-too-real possibility that there may soon be nothing left of Palmyra, several groups of archaeologists, designers, and engineers are working to preserve the city—if only virtually. In April, the Institute for Digital Archaeology—a partnership between Harvard University, Oxford University, and the Museum of the Future in Dubai—will place 3-D–printed replicas of the 50-foot-high grand archway of the Temple of Bel in New York’s Times Square and Trafalgar Square, in London. Another group, called #NewPalmyra, is creating an open-source digital 3-D model of Palmyra. To build it, they’re relying on a large trove of detailed photographs, many taken from the archives of the Syrian technologist and activist Bassel Khartabil, who was jailed by his government in 2012.
Khartabil, the founder of #NewPalmyra, was recently moved to an undisclosed location, and Amnesty International cites unconfirmed reports that he may have been sentenced to death. Barry Threw, the interim director of #NewPalmyra, hopes that the project will attract international attention that will help to secure Khartabil’s freedom.
#NewPalmyra has released free 3-D models of the Temple of Bel for anyone to download (newpalmyra.org), and they plan to distribute files for the Arch of Triumph and the Temple of Baalshamin by March. “We’re trying to make the most accurate reconstruction possible, but in some sense it’s going to be speculative” and constantly improving, says Threw. Eventually, the group hopes that Palmyra will be preserved online in its full glory, a digital testament to the resilience of human ingenuity.