Opened earlier this year as a permanent exhibition, the immersive show gives Iraqis a new way to explore their most cherished monuments that have been destroyed.
Through meticulous documentation, computer technology and virtual reality artistry, Qaf Lab, has become an innovation hub in Mosul which supports Iraqi entrepreneurs has reconstructed five heritage sites destroyed or damaged by ISIS during their three-year occupation of Mosul from 2014.
Abdullah Bashar was 16 at the time and saw firsthand the devastation the group caused. Five years later, while studying architecture at the University of Mosul, he got an idea.
“We studied our city’s heritage and how it used to be,” he says The national. “I then thought about virtual reality and what a creative way it could be to show people these destroyed sites and our heritage.”
Bashar and two of his college mates set about reconstructing the greats virtually Al Nuri Mosquefamous for its leaning minaret known as Al Hadba or “the hunchback”.
Built in the late 12th century, Al Nuri Mosque was a prominent landmark and part of Mosul’s visual identity until it was destroyed along with its minaret by ISIS during the 2017 Battle of Mosul.
When he presented his work to Qaf Lab, the company was so impressed that it hired Bashar and his team to continue their project full-time.
Two years later, after the addition of four more heritage sites and their work posted online, Bashar was invited to create the exhibition now on display at the Mosul Heritage Museum.
Ayoub Younes, founder of the museum, saw the project as an opportunity to connect with young people in Mosul. “This exhibition aligns with the three objectives of the museum,” he says.
“The first, to bring to life the intellectual legacy of this city. The second, to revive the tourism industry. And third, to work on initiatives that we hope will preserve the legacy of this civilization.”
The heritage sites that have been virtually reconstructed show and document their current state, alongside digital restorations of what they looked like before they were destroyed by ISIS.
The Umayyad Mosque – the first built in Mosul and the fifth in the Islamic world, built in AD 642 – is also featured in the exhibition, alongside the Syriac Catholic Al Tahera Church, built between 1859 and 1862, the Al Nabi Yunus Mosque, home to a tomb believed to be that of the prophet Jonah, and the Great Temple of Hatra, a Unesco World Heritage Site with a massive structure made of columns and smaller temples.
Younes says that while visitors, mostly residents of Mosul, are emotionally connected to the exhibition, modern technology is also an essential tool to showcase and create the city’s heritage.
“The reactions of many visitors are positive,” says Younes. “Not only because this is something new, but also because visitors can also experience entering ancient heritage sites that have since been destroyed.”
After seeing the reconstructed heritage sites of Mosul, architect Raffaele Carlani, founder of Progetto Katatexilux, an Italian studio that also creates multimedia exhibitions in the field of cultural heritage, says: The national virtual reality is becoming increasingly important for how we experience such historical monuments.
“Virtual reality is a mature technology, but as a media tool it’s something completely new,” he says.
However, he points out that digitally interactive representations of damaged, destroyed or unsafe sites must be accurate.
“My company consists of archaeologists and art historians who are in constant dialogue with the scientific managers of the monuments to ensure that the information passed on is correct from a scientific point of view.”
Accuracy was one of the biggest challenges Bashar faced in reconstructing Mosul’s monuments.
It was necessary to use a combination of blueprints, photography and drone imagery – when safe to do so – but finding accurate sources depicting the original structures proved more difficult.
Juan Aguilar, a digital archaeologist and PhD student at the University of Luxembourg who has worked regularly in Mosul, particularly on the Al Nabi Yunus Mosque, worked with Bashar and the Qaf lab to obtain images and videos of that building from members of the public.
Bashar and Aguilar received hundreds of personal documents that provided them with enough evidence to make historically accurate virtual reconstructions.
“Not only were we able to learn about additional architectural details of the mausoleum, but it was also a wonderful example of how the public participated in the creation of cultural heritage,” says Aguilar.
Professor Mohamed Gamal Abdelmonem, the chair of architecture at Nottingham Trent University whose research into digitizing endangered cultural heritage sites won the Queen’s Anniversary Prize last November, is working on a similar project to preserve the heritage of ancient Mosul.
Abdelmonem says Bashar’s project is an important tool to counter the violent actions of extremist groups by preserving Mosul’s legacy of ethnic and religious diversity and harmony.
However, he emphasizes that while virtual reality is a critical learning tool, digitally reconstructed sites should not be seen as replacements for their physical twins.
“What you get from a virtual and digital representation is a simulative and curated experience for the audience to engage with. It does not replace the original. However, it does prevent deliberate erasure.”
The virtual reality exhibit at the Mosul Heritage Museum acts as both a digital archive of these historic sites and a vehicle for public engagement and learning.
Yet it is also marred by sadness.
“I knew so little about these heritage sites when they existed,” says Bahsar. “And after learning more about them, I thought, how did I not know that our city had this history and civilization? I regret not visiting them when they were here.
Bashar’s hope that these monuments will someday physically exist again is within the realm of possibility. The sites featured in the exhibition are in various stages of reconstruction with the help of Unesco and other international partnerships.
But for now, the virtual versions Bashar and his team have created could be a source of inspiration and knowledge for the people of Mosul, and a link to a revered past that is hard to forget.
“It’s great when you see people using the headsets,” says Bashar. “We see their memories come back to them and that’s a good feeling.”
Updated: November 24, 2022, 7:59 AM