Bamiyan 2.0

09.02.15 5:00 AM ET

Can We Digitize History Before ISIS Destroys it?

With ISIS waging war against the Middle East’s ancient monuments, can archaeologists capture digital renderings of the sites before it’s too late?

This past June, 14 years after the Taliban bombed Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddha statues, a Chinese couple created life-sized holograms of the ancient artifacts and projected them back into their cliffside home.

Now, archaeologists hope that the Middle East’s historical sites can be captured with 3-D photography, printed out and reassembled if they’re ever destroyed.

As ancient sites across Syria and Iraq crumble under bombs and mortar from the region’s battles, archaeologists and technologists are racing to be able to one day reproduce them. In the coming months, they will be distributing thousands of low-cost, high-quality 3D cameras across the Middle East that will hopefully capture these ancient sites before they disappear.

The Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint venture between Oxford and Harvard universities, is spearheading a $2.3 million project to digitally preserve the world’s most treasured sites.

One of Syria’s top tourist attractions, the ancient city of Palmyra, has been turned into a battleground by ISIS’s forces. Just as the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas, the jihadists have been on a culturally destructive rampage. Earlier this year, militants destroyed priceless statues in Mosul’s museum and bulldozed the 3,000-year-old city of Nimrud, both in Iraq. Now, with news that the Baal Shamin temple in the ancient site of Palmyra was destroyed by militants in late August, the project has become increasingly urgent.

“Digital archaeology, in my view, is the best hope that we have for preserving the architecture, the art history, of these sites,” Roger Michel, the Institute for Digital Archaeology’s executive director, told the BBC.

The institute has spent five years developing the project, but is now expediting its efforts. Michel told the BBC that the push to record these images is “a race against time.”

The program plans to send out 5,000 cameras by the end of 2015 and 5,000 more next year.

Multiple institutions have come together to halt the battle against history. New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World will help store the pictures, which could also be used by investigators tracking antiques being illegally trafficked out of Syria. If there’s a need, MIT will be able to print out scaleable 3D models of the sites in its Three Dimensional Printing Laboratory.

UNESCO will collaborate with the institute, NGOs, and local officials to hand out the cameras in inaccessible areas. Each camera, which costs around $30, is simple to use and comes with batteries, storage cards, and instructions. In total, the collaborative effort hopes to result in a database of 1 million pictures.

The institute is deciding which monuments to target first, but told CNN it was keeping its rankings secret. There’s no shortage of ancient monuments that need protection in the historical region once known as the Levant.

In 2013, UNESCO added six Syrian sites to the list that catalogues the most endangered world heritage sites, including Aleppo’s 5,000-year-old citadel to the ancient northern villages. Yemen has three under threat, Afghanistan has two, Egypt has one, and Israel-Palestine contains three. Palmyra’s temple may be gone, but dozens of other threatened and damaged sites are still standing, and hopefully will continue to—at least until the cameras can save a copy.