Only the bas-relief bull and serpent-dragon gods were present to see the two flak-jacketed German surveyors and their security guards painstakingly moving laser equipment through Iraq’s most famous archaeological site, the ruins of ancient Babylon.
Nervous about working in a country that had been tearing itself apart for years, Dirk Hausleigner and Erwin Christofori concentrated on the four-day task in hand — laser-scanning the towering 2,600-year-old walls of Ishtar Gate and the nearby Nabu-sha-Khare Temple which was partly, and damagingly, reconstructed during Saddam Hussein’s era.
“We were a little bit nervous, yes,” Hausleigner said in a recent interview about his trip to what was once the neo-Babylonian capital of Nebuchadnezzar II, the biblical king, now a pile of partly excavated remnants 50 miles south of Baghdad. “But you feel honored to see this place and to preserve it, because it is world heritage.”
The trip was in 2010, before the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, achieved worldwide notoriety with its relentless campaign to destroy, and loot, ancient sites across Iraq and Syria.
Babylon survived because it lies farther south and east than its less fortunate ancient neighbors of Nimrud, Hatra and Palmyra, which are within the jihadis’ self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate.
But what seemed back then to be a straightforward job of conservation planning — albeit with an unusual degree of three-dimensional precision — today appears to have been a prescient use of digital technology in a conflict zone that others are now scrambling to adopt.
Faced with the apparent impotence of governments and international agencies to stop ISIS’ fanatical levelers, other cultural organizations are trying to create 3-D records of heritage sites to preserve them, at least in digital form, for future generations.
“We were ahead of the curve on this,” said Jeff Allen, a program director with the World Monuments Fund, the New York-based nonprofit charity that commissioned the laser scan and that works at Babylon with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.
“We scanned the gate, thinking, ‘You never know, there might be a problem in the future,’ and, lo and behold, there is a problem throughout Iraq. For sites such as Nimrud and Hatra, the documentation wasn’t as detailed, and it is very difficult to reconstruct sites when you don’t have a good base of information.”
The damage inflicted on antiquities in Iraq and Syria pales beside the hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions uprooted in countries whose structures — human, political and cultural — may never return to what they were. But attacks on people and their cultural heritage are inextricably linked, those charged with protecting it argue.
“Cultural cleansing is a war crime that it is now used as a tactic of war,” said Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, in a speech in November. “This is not a choice between protecting people or protecting culture. It is part of the same responsibility because culture is about belonging, identity, values, common history and the kind of world that we want to live in.”
Cultural organizations are working with Iraqi and Syrian experts, drawing on local knowledge and providing equipment and training, to create digital records of endangered ancient sites.
Among the pioneers is a nonprofit organization called CyArk, based in Oakland, Calif., which is dedicated to the 3-D digital preservation of cultural heritage. It has sent teams to scan a dozen high-risk but still-accessible sites in Syria and Iraq, and plans to extend the project to 200 other locations in neighboring countries.
CyArk’s founder, Ben Kacyra, 75, is an Iraqi-American engineer who was born in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that is now under ISIS control. He remembers his father taking him to ancient Assyrian sites such as Nineveh, Nimrud and Khorsabad. His passion for preservation is driven by his memories of a Mosul in which different communities lived peacefully together surrounded by reminders of the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations that helped shape the modern world.
“Our human nature impels us to ask, ‘Where did we come from?’ ” he said. “By destroying these heritage sites, we are not just losing the sites, we are losing the stories they tell us. People like ISIS want to obliterate these stories because they want to obliterate all memories in order to bring to the forefront their own story, and their kind of logic. I abhor it.”
Plenty of nondigital work is necessary too, of course. The site of Babylon needs laborious and costly conservation work — which will be helped by a $530,000 U.S. Embassy grant announced last week — if its vulnerable monuments are to be preserved in the real world, not just virtually strong.
However, tens of thousands of Babylonian artifacts already lie far from ISIS’ reach in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, because they were excavated by German archaeologists in the early 1900s.
Markus Hilgert, director of the Museum of the Ancient Near East at the Pergamon, said that it would be possible one day to 3-D scan the material in Berlin, combine it with the digital model already done in Babylon and create a physical walk-through exhibition combining every stage of the ancient city.
“The idea is to have a virtual reunification of the archaeological objects extant in Babylon and Berlin,” Hilgert said. “This is what is so important about the time we are experiencing. We have to learn again that cultural objects, elements of culture, have very much to do with who we are, what we identify with, how we orient ourselves in this world.