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Aerial Photos of Palmyra Show Extent of Damage Done by ISIS

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The main entrance of the Temple of Bel (all photos courtesy Iconem/DGAM)

Working with the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), a team of digital surveyors have shared what it describes as some of the first images and videos to emerge from Palmyra since the ousting of ISIS in late March. Iconem, a French 3D digitization agency made up of architects, engineers, and graphic designers, was among the first to visit the ancient site. There, its team surveyed the damage at the Temple of Bel, Palmyra Castle, and the Roman theater, using drones to capture high-resolution images.

The Temple of Bel in 2009, before its partial destruction by ISIS. (image via flickr.com/azwegers)
The Temple of Bel in 2009, before its partial destruction by ISIS. (image via flickr.com/azwegers)

The 2000-year-old temple, described by antiquities officials as “the most important temple in Syria,” was hit by an ISIS-triggered explosion last September that destroyed most of the complex. Iconem’s photographs reveal that its main entrance remains standing.

“We were keen to study the site as soon as it was liberated in order to provide both DGAM’s archaeologists and the entire scientific community with exact information on the condition of the archaeological site immediately after the departure of Daesh,” Iconem, which has been working with DGAM since 2014, said in a release. “On the basis of this survey, we have begun to produce highly accurate 3D models.”

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Palmyra Castle
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The Roman theater of Palmyra

The models are part of Iconem’s ongoing Syrian Heritage project, which aims to build the world’s largest 3D database of at-risk archaeological sites in Syria using technologies such as photogrammetry, with visuals collected with the help of local archaeologists. Iconem’s analysis of its digitized 3D model of the Temple of Bel apparently shows that most of its stone blocks of a remaining entrance are “almost intact.”  The Castle, also known as Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle, suffered damage as ISIS fighters were retreating, but its basic structure still stands. The amphitheater, too, is well preserved but is known for serving as the grizzly stage for several executions by ISIS militants, captured in a widely shared, graphic video last July.

Iconem did not respond to Hyperallergic’s inquiries regarding the primary purpose of the photographs, but it writes on its website that the images and models will serve as a resource for DGAM specialists, UNESCO, and other international experts. It’s worth noting that DGAM is invested in partnering with tech-focused companies as part of its preservation efforts: the government-owned agency recently worked with the UK-based Institute for Digital Archaeology to create a precise but small-scale 3D model of the destroyed Arch of Triumph that is currently touring the world to both praise and skepticism. Iconem’s Syrian Heritage project is ongoing, but in its current, public form it relies more on the visual effect of its 3D models and lacks the information necessary to fully understand not just the history of the sites but also the project’s process and intentions.

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Aerial view of the Temple of Bel
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Aerial view of the Temple of Bel

The release of Iconem’s images follow UNESCO’s own preliminary assessment of Palmyra after a three-day inspection of its museum and archaeological site at the end of April. Statues in the museum were found “defaced, smashed, their heads severed, their fragments left lying on the ground”; officials have already started to document the various pieces. UNESCO’s experts also describe the complete devastation of the Temple of Baalshamin, blown up in August, and the Arch of Triumph. The Temple of Bel and the Mamluk Citadel, however, remained inaccessible as security forces had not completed demining procedures. Overall, the UNESCO report noted that the site “retains a large part of its integrity and authenticity.” The agency will present a full report to the World Heritage Committee during its 40th session in Istanbul this July.

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The Temple of Bel complex
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A comparison of Sketchfab models showing the Citadel of Palmyra over the years
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A comparison of Sketchfab models showing the Citadel of Palmyra over the years
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3D restitution of the Temple of Bel

Temple of Bel
by Iconem
on Sketchfab

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