How Virtual Reality is being used to recreate Iraq’s destroyed heritage

New Mosul Heritage Museum Iraq invites people to experience its greatest historical sites – in Virtual Reality.

Having opened earlier this year as a permanent exhibition, The immersive display gives Iraqis a new way to explore the world’s most destroyed monuments.

Through painstaking documentation, computer technology and the art of virtual reality, Qaf Lab, the center of innovation in the Mosul which supports Iraqi entrepreneurs, has rebuilt five heritage sites destroyed or damaged by ISIS during its three-year occupation of Mosul from 2014.

Abdullah Bashar was 16 at the time and saw firsthand the devastation wrought by the group. Five years later, while studying architecture at the University of Mosul, an idea struck him.

“We were studying the heritage of our city and how it was before,” he says. the National. “I thought then about virtual reality and what a creative way it could be to show people these ruined sites and our heritage.”

Bashar and two of his university classmates have already set about rebuilding the Great Al-Nouri MosqueIt is famous for its leaning minaret known as al-Hadba, or “the hunchback”.

Built in the late 12th century, Al-Nuri Mosque was a prominent landmark and part of Mosul’s visual identity until ISIS destroyed it along with its minaret during the 2017 Battle of Mosul.

despite UNESCOIn partnership with United Arab Emirates And the Iraqi government, efforts to rebuild the building began last year, in 2019, Bashar began to recreate the mosque in the turquoise reality.

When he presented his work to Qaf Lab, the company was so impressed that they hired Bashar and his team to continue their project full-time.

Two years later, after adding four more heritage sites and having their work published online, Bashar was invited to create the exhibition now on display at the Mosul Heritage Museum.

Ayoub Younes, the founder of the museum, saw the project as an opportunity to connect with young people in Mosul. “This exhibition is in line with the three aims of the museum,” he says.

“The first, to revive the intellectual legacy of this city. The second, to revitalize the tourism industry. And third, to work on initiatives that we hope will preserve the legacy of this civilization.”

Physically reconstructed heritage sites visualize and document their current state, along with digital restorations of what they looked like before they were destroyed by ISIS.

Also on display is the Umayyad Mosque—the first built in Mosul and the fifth in the Islamic world, constructed in 642—along with the Syriac Catholic Church of Al-Tahira, built between 1859 and 1862, the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus, home to what is believed to be the tomb of the Prophet Jonah, and the Temple of Hatra Al Kabeer, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features a massive structure made of pillars and smaller temples.

Left, the current state of the Prophet Younis Mosque.  Correct, Abdullah Bashar's virtual reality view of the building and its location before it was destroyed.  Photo: Qaf Labs

Younis says that while the visitors, most of whom are residents of Mosul, are emotionally connected to the exhibition, modern technology is also a vital tool for educating and creating awareness of the city’s heritage.

“The feedback from many visitors has been positive,” says Younes. “Not only because this is something new but also because visitors can also experience stepping into ancient heritage sites that have since been destroyed.”

After seeing displays of reconstructed heritage sites in Mosul, says architect Raffaele Carlani, founder of Progetto Katatexilux, an Italian studio that also produces multimedia exhibitions in the field of cultural heritage. the National Virtual reality is becoming more important in terms of how we experience such historical relics.

“Virtual reality is a mature technology but as a media tool it is something completely new,” he says.

Left of the current position of Al-Nouri Mosque.  True, he displayed it in VR before it was destroyed.  Photo: Qaf Labs

However, he points out that reactive digitized renditions of damaged, destroyed or unsafe sites must be accurate.

“My company consists of archaeologists and art historians who are in constant conversations with the scientific directors of antiquities to ensure that the information conveyed is correct from a scientific point of view.”

Accuracy was one of the biggest challenges that Bashar faced when reconstructing the ruins of Mosul.

Using a combination of blueprints, photographs and drone footage – when safe to do so – was necessary, but finding accurate sources depicting the original structures proved more difficult.

Left, urban current status.  Corrects its VR rendering before destroying it.  Photo: Qaf Labs

Juan Aguilar, a digital archaeologist and PhD student at the University of Luxembourg who works periodically on Mosul, specifically the Prophet Younes Mosque, with Bashar and Qaf Lab to obtain photos and videos of this building from members of the public.

Bachar and Aguilar received hundreds of personal documents that provide them with enough evidence to create hypothetical reconstructions that are historically accurate.

“Not only were we able to learn the additional architectural details of the mausoleum, but it was a great example of how the public can be involved in creating cultural heritage content,” says Aguilar.

Professor Mohamed Gamal Abdel Moneim, Head of Architecture at Nottingham Trent University, whose research on the digitization of endangered cultural heritage sites won the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in November last year, is working on a similar project to preserve the heritage of ancient Mosul.

Abdel Moneim says the Bashar project is an important way to counter violence by extremist groups by preserving Mosul’s heritage of ethnic and religious diversity and harmony.

However, he stresses that while virtual reality is an important educational resource, digitally reconstructed sites should not be seen as a substitute for their physical twin.

“What you get from a virtual and digital screen is a simulated, curated experience for the audience to interact with. It does not replace the original. It does, however, counter its willful erasure.”

The virtual reality exhibition at the Heritage Museum in Mosul serves as a digital archive of these historical sites and as a means for public participation and learning.

However, it was also marred by grief.

“I knew very little about these heritage sites when they existed,” says Bahsar. “And after I got to know more about them, I thought, How could I not have known that our city has this history and civilization? I regret not visiting them when they were here.”

Bashar’s hope that these relics may exist again one day is within the realm of possibility. The sites shown in the exhibition are in various stages of reconstruction with the help of UNESCO and other international partnerships.

For now, the virtual versions created by Bashar and his team can serve as a source of inspiration and knowledge for the people of Mosul, and a link to a respectable past that is hard to forget.

“It’s great to see people using headphones,” says Bashar. “We see their memories come back to them and it feels good.”

Updated: November 24, 2022, 7:59 a.m

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