After ISIS militants seized control of Palmyra—the ancient Syrian city called the “Venice of the Sands”— last May, they immediately set out to destroy it. Bit by bit the UNESCO World Heritage site was blown apart and became the backdrop for unfathomable acts of cruelty: ISIS beheaded the site’s 82-year-old curator and staged public executions in its second-century Roman amphitheater.
The site was recaptured by Syrian forces in late March, but by then it was too late: Many of the site’s monuments had been reduced to rubble, including the Temple of Bel and the Arch of Triumph, both of which stood for nearly two millennia.
“Blowing things up is a kind of censorship. It’s like burning books—it’s detracting from the marketplace of ideas,” says Roger L. Michel, founder of the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA), an organization that leverages technology to document and recreate cultural artifacts. “No one person, no one group should make the decision for another what their history is going to be,” he says.
Tuesday, Michel and his team at IDA unveiled a monumental recreation of Palmyra’s destroyed Arch of Triumph in London’s Trafalgar Square. Though the 25,000-pound, 20-foot-tall marble recreation is slightly smaller than the original (Trafalgar Square has enforced weight limits), it is nearly an exact replica. “It is accurate to such a high degree that if the structures were placed side by side—except for the scaling issue—it would be very difficult to tell one from the other,” says Michel.
Such a high degree of accuracy was achieved by using images of the original edifice—captured by volunteers—to create high-resolution 3D renderings. These renderings were sent to Tor Art an Italian company that specializes in robotics and large-scale reproductions of artist maquettes. The fabricators then used a 3D carving machine to sculpt the arch from Egyptian Marble.
Trafalgar Square was the appropriate place to display the arch because of the classical buildings around it; the revival of Greco-Roman architecture in the west can be attributed to the rediscovery of monuments such as Palmyra in the 17th century. “We have this shared history and perhaps by thinking about that we would begin thinking about our commonalities rather than our differences,” says Michel.
While some historians and preservationists may be cautious of the idea of recreating destroyed monuments, Michel disagrees. Tuesday evening after the arch’s unveiling, he encountered a group of young Syrian expatriates admiring the monument. They thanked him.
“In the West people are obsessed with physical objects—we want to hold on to the object the master touched,” he says. “The reality is for people in other parts of the world, the symbolism is where the importance lies.”
The recreated Arch of Triumph was dismantled in Trafalgar Square Thursday, but will next travel to Oxford this summer and will be shown in New York this fall.