Present-day Iraq sits on historic land once known as Mesopotamia, a region often referred to as “the cradle of civilization” from which the world’s earliest society developed. But today, as a result of years of conflict, much of Iraq’s cultural heritage has been severely impacted—if not destroyed.
In an effort to preserve the country’s historic sites and expand public knowledge of their importance, Google Arts & Culture and the World Monuments Fund launched an online platform in early June that showcases the unique stories of Iraq’s treasured monuments under threat. The interactive site, Preserving Iraq’s Heritage, allows people anywhere to tour a diverse range of the country’s ancient landmarks through a series of immersive digital exhibitions created by a team of archaeologists, researchers, historians, and local experts.
“This is an opportunity to communicate a much broader story about Iraq,” Chance Coughenour, program manager at Google Arts & Culture, said in conversation with AFAR. “Sure, you’ve heard of Babylon, but have you ever seen it in 3D? When you pick up your phone and explore this platform virtually, users will have the opportunity to be exposed to Iraq’s cultural heritage in a completely new way.”
Creating the digital renderings for Preserving Iraq’s Heritage required intensive collaboration enacted both locally and globally. Under the direction of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and the World Monuments Fund, the nonprofit CyArk compiled data from detailed laser scannings of the various archaeological sites, which later informed their digital documentation. But the architectural drawings, 3D models, and drone-shot imagery displayed across the platform aren’t only intended for curious viewers to explore. Much of the information can be used to help conservators make choices for preservation efforts in the area.
“This work is really all about people coming together around sites of cultural heritage and examining how these sites can leverage positive social movements,” said Joshua David, president and CEO of WMF. “Yes, the platform deals with pictures and renderings of these cultural structures, but really what’s important is the people behind them. Addressing the needs of these sites is inseparable from addressing the needs of the communities around them.”
A prominent example of this is the Ctesiphon Arch, one of Iraq’s most recognizable landmarks located south of modern-day Baghdad. The site, which was settled in the 1st century B.C.E. and served as the capital of the Parthian Empire, is an important reminder of some of the deepest roots of human civilization. But destruction from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later assaults by ISIS have put the structure in need of significant repair for which the required resources aren’t readily available. The destruction of these ancient landmarks signifies a major historical loss, but the shortage of initiatives to rebuild them points to a much more pressing issue: the global community’s lackluster support of the rebuilding of post-conflict Iraq.
According to Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president and COO of WMF, the hope of Preserving Iraq’s Heritage is to compel an international audience that wouldn’t normally interact with these issues to expand their knowledge of Iraq’s cultural heritage. Expanded understanding of and attention to these sites is a small but necessary step toward contributing to conserving these sites and the areas and communities that surround them. “We’ve always had tools. We have books, illustrations, documentaries,” Ackerman said. “This is just another tool in the toolbox.”
“The reality is that the storytelling device of our time is the one that I’ve got in my pocket,” David said. “Platforms like this are an important way people can maintain a global perspective. We’re in a moment right now where a lot of nations are turning inward and various governments are making it difficult to go from one place to another. If we’re going to build a global community around the needs of Iraq’s individual communities, being able to tell stories on this platform is absolutely critical to creating positive change.”