For once, there is no doubting the drive. Syria’s director of antiquities, Maamun Abdelkarim, is visiting Palmyra this week to survey the wreckage of his celebrated site, pleading for its rebuilding. His benefactor and Syria’s principal ally, Russia, has compared Palmyra’s restoration with that of Leningrad after the second world war. In Italy, the former culture minister Francesco Rutelli has ambitious plans to use digital “printing” to reconstruct Palmyra’s fallen temples from their rubble and dust.
Private initiatives aren’t far behind. Oxford’s Institute for Digital Archaeology is the creation of American lawyer/archaeologist Roger Michel, with help from Harvard and Dubai. Michel is currently using similar technology to Rutelli’s – better, he claims – to build a 3D facsimile arch from Palmyra’s destroyed Temple of Bel. It is to be unveiled in London’s Trafalgar Square on 19 April and will then travel on to New York. “My intention,” declares Michel, “is to show Islamic State that anything they can blow up we can rebuild exactly as it was before, and rebuild it again and again. We will use technology to disempower Isis.”
With the recapture of Palmyra all these ambitions must confront reality. The talk stops and something must happen. New 3D printing technology in particular opens a new front in the old argument among conservationists: between restoration and “conserve as found”, or between treating heritage as “done and dusted” as opposed to seeing it as an opportunity to discover new meaning, and new enjoyment, in the past.
Michel claims his printers can reproduce not just the texture and surface contour of stone but its physical make-up. They can extrude layers of the same sand, water and sodium bicarbonate that formed the artificial stone often used by the ancients. They can reconstitute the original dust of a ruin in situ. It is no different in concept from French archaeologists who, in the last century, re-erected Palmyra’s colonnade.
Meanwhile in a quarry in Carrara outside Rome, the decorative features of the Bel temple uprights are being etched by a CNC router-engraver. They are, says Michel, “completely indistinguishable from the original”. He is offering the Syrians two printers that, he claims, can operate at a speed that “should enable us to rebuild what has been destroyed inside six months”. Robotic artificial intelligence can be an aide to art as well as science.
Michel is backed by London mayor Boris Johnson, an enthusiastic sponsor of the Trafalgar Square arch. Johnson demanded that “British archaeologists be in the forefront of the project”, especially given Britain’s “ineffective” role in failing to defend the site in the first place. David Cameron has yet to respond.
In Italy Rutelli’s 12 metre-high Big Delta printer is built by the Wasp Corporation and was first displayed at Rome’s Faire Maker digital fair last year. It has already been used to recreate portions of Pompeii and is being used to recreate the 4 metre-high winged bull of Nimrud in Iraq, smashed by Isis last year. While both Michel and Rutelli are handicapped by the lack of 3D scans of Palmyra, hundreds of photographs coupled with the new accessibility of the ruins should make amends.
At this point difficulties arise. First is that of sovereignty. Italy and Britain may have the technical edge, but the Russians are on the ground. Moscow has shown open contempt for the west’s actions in leaving Syria’s army unsupported last year, when it had secured the ruins against Isis. For fear of seeming to back President Assad, American and British air cover was denied him, and the Syrians had to retreat. Isis moved in and began its orgy of destruction.
The director of the Hermitage museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, has no intention of relinquishing Russia’s triumph. Last week he declared: “We will never find anything more beautiful in the annals of Russian history in the Middle East” than the liberation of Palmyra. His museum already houses a collection of artefacts from the city, including the Silk Road’s “Palmyra Tariff”, round which the museum has built a computerised market place. With Putin’s explicit support, Piotrovsky sees Russia’s “reconstruction and restoration” of the temples as a project “to raise the spirit of not only the Syrian people but of all mankind”.
The Palmyra ruins are supposedly under the aegis of Unesco as a “world heritage site”. Few hold out much hope that this body, to whom all parties pay lip service, will be an agile party to what happens next. With security uncertain and Syria’s government beholden not to the west but to Russia, the likelihood is that Unesco will retreat into its familiar indecision and bickering. It has already fallen back on what it does best, summoning a conference later in the spring.
So far Unesco’s director, Irina Bokova, has struggled to hold the ring. She spoke at the weekend to Putin, who promised to de-mine the Palmyra site and send experts from the Hermitage. Where that leaves Italy’s current culture minister, Dario Franceschini, is unclear. He claims to have a unit of 60 “blue helmets for culture” on standby to protect the site.
Also champing at the bit are Michel and Rutelli, both with their machines at the ready, though Michel appears to have his dispositions most in place. He is proposing to bring his arch direct to Palmyra after London and New York and erect it near the site as a demonstration of what can be done. He is determined that his 3D machines be available to rebuild the new town as well as the old. At present Palmyra is reportedly a ghost town, its population forced to drive east by the retreating Isis. The danger is that, if Abdelkarim does not see his temples rebuilt in the current wave of enthusiasm, the moment will pass. Palmyra could then sink into the same looting and decay as have afflicted Iraq’s monuments since 2003 – and the indecision that hovers over Afghanistan. In the latter case, the sixth-century Bamiyan buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban, have lain in rubble since 2001. When western forces subsequently liberated the country, the new Afghan government and the local Hazara people pleaded for the statues to be reinstated. They had been much restored before and were much-loved and a potential tourist site.
Initially German archaeologists began reconstruction, under the conservation NGO, ICOMOS. Unesco intervened, an argument ensued and work was stopped. A decade of fruitless debate resulted in a 2012 Unesco order that any work on the site would be “inauthentic”.
Top: the Temple of Bel in March 2014. Bottom: the same site two years later
It added none the less that it was in principle “neither for nor against reconstruction”. Le Monde reported “endless dithering, underhand rivalry, pointless discord and mistakes” in Unesco’s handling of the site. Similar feuding enveloped the reconstruction of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat following the ousting of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1990s.
After the destruction of the second world war, the Council of Europe evolved what amounted to a new ideology towards heritage. It should be stabilised and “conserved as found”. The Victorians might rebuild, but the 20th century should enshrine its destructive urges as memorials. The Romantics’ cult of the ruin was reborn as a cult of penitence.
This “modernist” approach infused Britain’s failure to restore the towns destroyed in the Blitz. It had less impact on defeated nations, frantic to repair the emotional wounds of war by rediscovering the familiar from the past. French, German and Polish cities struggled to rebuild what bombs had destroyed, witness Caen, Dresden and Warsaw. As a result, Germany’s destroyed but rebuilt town of Lubeck is now a world heritage site; Britain’s Coventry certainly is not.
What in most of Europe was seen as recovered memory was in England seen as meaningless nostalgia. At least in matters of archaeology, the British approach won. The reconstruction in the 1900s of Minoan Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans was never to be repeated.
The sheer nihilism of what Isis has done in Iraq and Syria may yet shift the terms of this debate. Why should the forces of darkness be allowed to determine what we may experience of the past? The former British Museum expert John Curtis, doyen of Iraq’s ruined sites, declares himself ready to welcome Michel and others to Palmyra. “Many of these ruins had been restored over the years,” he says. “Provided we know exactly what we are doing, I would certainly favour restoring them to what they were a year ago.” Curtis can add more than a hundred sites and shrines in Iraq that appear to have gone for good, and might be added to Michel’s list.
They include “all the Christian churches in Mosul, most of the monasteries – some of the earliest Christian sites in the world”. He offers as a starter for reconstruction the ancient al-Arbain mosque in Tikrit, “then Nimrud, then perhaps Hatra, almost entirely a rebuild before its destruction by Isis”.
In Syria perhaps the greatest task lies in Aleppo. Its ancient Silk Road market lies in ruins, as does the great Umayyad mosque and its 11th-century minaret, felled by artillery in 2013. Not to rebuild the minaret would be as unthinkable as to not to have rebuilt St Mark’s campanile in Venice after its collapse in 1902.
In this, archaeologists still seem to have a terror of “going back too far”. Curtis finds restoration “after overnight destruction” fine, but “so far and no further”. It seems likely that Unesco would take the same view. It is hard to imagine what it would make of the renewal of Gothic cathedrals and abbeys in 19th-century Europe. It leaves out of account Chinese and Japanese historicism, which rebuilds constantly, finding meaning in design and setting rather than in physical fabric – and finding none in ruins.
The possibility is now that 3D printing technology can restore whole swaths of 20th-century ruination. It can recapture artistry and a sense of place, much as photography can recapture forgotten faces and disseminate great paintings. Of course it is a “copy” and thus lacks “authenticity”, but so what? Photography did not die for want of authenticity.
The west has visited political and military catastrophe on the Middle East. The obligation to rectify that seems overwhelming. Even now, western (and Saudi Arabian) jets are pulverising the ancient Arab city of Sana’a in Yemen. More recently, drones and manned bombers have been targeting Isis-related sites in northern Libya. That coastline is probably the richest resource of undiscovered archaeology in the Mediterranean. Deep-action munitions can destroy any site in seconds. Are steps being taken even now to record what our bombers ape Isis in destroying?
This is a world that dates from the earliest eras of classical, Christian and Muslim cultures. It is everyone’s heritage. Perhaps from these wars could emerge the greatest enterprise of historical revival since 1945.
In the regions concerned, there seems a craving for normality, to put back the clock on the destruction wrought by Isis. The obstacle is not the will or the means. Both are now present in abundance. The obstacle could yet be an inability on the part of so many enthusiasts to work together, and an obtuse academic dismissal of a technology that can release to the world a new delight in the past.