While the second city of Syria is just recovering from four years of conflict, Aleppo is starting to think about its reconstruction. In this urban desert, new technologies are invited to contribute at their scale to this challenging process.
Following the Bashar al-Assad regime’s victory over rebel Syrian forces, a silence fell over an Aleppo sky that had just a few weeks earlier been filled with deafening bomb explosions. Only the throbbing of a drone belonging to Iconem, a French group photographing the city from every angle, cut through the dismal peace. Disfigured, desolate, deserted, “La Blanche,” as the city is sometimes called, is now a gray stretch of wobbly buildings looking like ghosts struggling to stand. The world’s largest bazaar is now a charred labyrinth, debris has replaced the pool of the celebrated Baron Hotel, and bombs have stripped the Great Mosque of its historic minaret. The charming alleys of Aleppo’s ancient city, covered in a thick bed of dust and gravel, are unrecognizable. Schools, hospitals, stores, and houses… not a single building has been spared by the fighting.
Exhausted from six years of conflict that killed more than 21,000 civilians, this ancient Middle Eastern trade hub is only beginning its rebirth, a full year after the end of the fighting on December 22, 2016. A small group of residents have moved back in and are trying, day by day, to breathe life back into the city, starting with its shops.
It’s a good time for both archeology and reconstruction. Though the task may seem insurmountable, initiatives are popping up left and right, and high-tech advances are finding their place in the vast reconstruction process awaiting the ruins of this world treasure. Under the guidance of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums and of international and private organizations, cutting-edge tech companies are leading the way in mapping, surveying, measuring, and imaging to take stock of the damage in what is still a politically fraught region.
So how will new technologies help reshape a broken city?
From Halab to Aleppo
Everything started in the on May 17, 2012 on the University of Aleppo campus. A sea of students, stunned by an hour of tear gas bombs, sang revolutionary chants. They rang out even clearer the next day, igniting whole neighborhoods of the city into rebellion. On the roofs, soldiers of the Free Syrian Army watched over the protests, AK-47s in hand. Formed in the countryside nearby by Abdel Kader Saleh, a honey vender, and Abdel Jabar Al-Okeïdi, a former colonel in the regime army, the movement had grown fast. On July 20, the offensive was launched, and the rebels advanced at lightning speed.
Among the city’s residents, enthusiasm was tenuous. Until now, the country’s second largest city had managed to avoid violence. “Student and activist movements existed as in other cities, but they didn’t have the same impact as in Homs, Hama, or even Damas,” explains Amr Al-Azm, an expert in Middle Eastern history and active member of Syrian opposition. “In part because the regime moved much more quickly and aggressively in securing Aleppo than in other cities, and also because very strong threats weighed on the city’s merchants. The regime told them: if you let your city rise, we will destroy all economic activity.”
Too late. Even reluctantly, Aleppo had now given up its neutrality and become a formidable symbol of the rebellion. Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which knew that controlling the country’s economic capital was key to maintaining an advantage on the opposition, organized a bloody repression, “which began first and foremost with the destruction of the bazaar, the economic heart” of the city. Still, the rebels held their position for two years.
Starting in 2014, the radicalization of large swaths of rebel groups and the infiltration of foreign jihadists into the city divided the opposition. In response to insurgent bombardments of western Aleppo, the regime and its Russian allies tossed barrels of explosions from helicopters. After four and a half years of fighting, regime forces launched their final assault on November 15, 2016 and took control of the city on December 22, at the end of a particularly bloody year that left Syria’s second city profoundly devastated.
Some seven millennia of history did not spare Halab, the ancient name of Aleppo. Historically coveted for its strategic position at a commercial crossroads between Anatolia and the Middle East and between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, the city has seen great prosperity, but it’s also known the devastation of fighting. “Aleppo was always situated at the crossing of several empires and civilizations, and like all great cities, it has suffered from numerous invasions,” explains Amr Al-Azm. Having been under Hittite, Persian, Greek, and then Roman rule, Aleppo became Arab in 637, and under the Shiite Hamdanid dynasty at the end of the first millennium, its now-internationally-famous architectural marvels began to spring up. Besieged by the Crusades, then by the Mongols—the most devastating assault, according to Amr Al-Azm, who recounts how the conqueror Timur built a pyramid there of 20,000 severed heads—it managed each time to recover.
Later, it found itself lying along the Silk Road, its merchants rubbing shoulders with Venetians and Italians. In the 16th century it fell under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire, but the dynamism of its economy and its 14 intermingled, mostly Christian and Muslim religious communities continued. In the 17th century, trade routes started to shift, and Aleppo suffered from European competition, slowly losing its crossroads status. Briefly under French rule after World War One, it continued to weaken until liberalization measures in 1990 and free trade agreements with Turkey revived its economic development.
At the dawn of the Syrian Civil War, Aleppo’s economy flourished and its population was young and growing, with an unemployment rate under the national average. “The city was considered the second in the country, and its population probably overtook Damas’ at the start of the war,” Amr Al-Azm guesses. With thousand-year-old leather and fabric traditions, and world-renowned for its Provincial-scented soaps, the city had become the industrial center of the country, with vital economic importance. A pioneer in the pharmaceutical, chemical, and petrochemical industries, it had more or less succeeded in preserving its traditional economic model alongside the establishment of progressive Western brands, such as the French Carrefour—translated in English as “Crossroads.”
But the brief period of prosperity didn’t last, and once more “La Blanche” was powerless against a violence it hadn’t seen in centuries, and which it would not escape unscathed. For six years, bombs blew up six thousand years of history.
Heritage in Danger
Under a cloud of desolation, a sober assessment of the city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, began. Under the control of UNESCO and the initiative of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, a vast project for the evaluation and inventory of the destruction was underway. An apolitical Syrian organization, the DGAM is in charge of preservation of national heritage. It had “specifically decided, with or without the support of the Syrian regime, to protect the Palmyra collections, by evacuating them as judged necessary,” explains Bruno Deslandes, heritage architect.
Unsurprisingly, the damage is unimaginable, foremost in the Ancient City at the center of town. More than 200 historic buildings fell victim to artillery, destructions “for which the regime is mostly responsible, whose destructive power was incomparable to the opposition’s,” says Al-Azm. Fortresses like the famous citadel were the first to be occupied by both camps for their strategic positioning and symbolic force. Forming a large ellipsis, the citadel dominates the Ancient City. Perched 100 feet above the rest of the city, it was built around the end of the 12th century. Hit in 2012 by a regime shell and then in 2015 by an explosion, the citadel lost one of its towers and a piece of its rampart.
To the south and east of the citadel, one can see the damages on the Khusruwiyah and Al-Sultaniyah mosques, the Hammam al-Nahhasin (occupied for a time by the rebels), the Al-Shibani cultural center, and the Shabba shopping center, used by the Islamic State and then by Al-Nusra Front before its shelling in October 2014 by the regime army. As for the famous Umayyad Mosque, first erected in 715 by the caliph Al-Walid, then destroyed and rebuilt several times, it too sheltered belligerents, first the loyalist army and then later the rebels. On April 24, 2013, its minaret, a gem of Islamic art, was destroyed by an artillery shell that neither side will claim. One corner of the walls of its interior courtyard also collapsed.
At the center of this historic city beat the historic heart of the Aleppo economy: of the seven miles of covered alleyways that comprised the Al-Madina Souq, almost two thirds of it were ravaged, and few traces remain of the 4,000 shops and 40 caravanserais that had once made it the biggest market in the world. Now, these spaces are marked only by the bullet holes and rocket craters that gutted the walls of the bazaar.
The northwest part of the market, fortunately, has been relatively preserved. “The domes were the targets of missiles, but they can be fairly quickly repaired,” Bruno Deslandes explains. “We have to clean up and restore the shops to open them as fast as possible. Soon butchers and vegetable sellers will come to repopulate this part of the souk.”
“Unlike Palmyra, which is an isolated site in a military zone, the historic part of Aleppo overlaps with the economic centers of the city,” the architect says. “There are no supermarkets in Aleppo. People go to traditional markets in these little souk boutiques. To resurrect the souk is to resurrect Aleppo.” The ravages of the markets today illustrate the urgency of breathing life back into the economic lung of the city.
Drones and scanners
After having worked long years as a UNESCO expert in several world regions, Bruno Deslandes signed on in May to Art Graphique et Patrimoine, a specialized firm that, for 25 years, has brought heritage protection together with digital technology. Visual reconstitutions, augmented reality, architectural and archeological surveys, 3D modeling… the business has expanded its toolbelt as technology and graphics have evolved.
“Last February and March, I was on a mission in Iraq in the Plain of Mosul. We’d talked about the subject with Gaël Hamon, director of Art Graphique et Patrimoine, and we decided to combine forces.” Charged with developing the international branch and assigned to heritages in peril, the architect explored and planned a collaboration with the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, which will not fund any of the restorations. Instead, the project is chiefly financed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which aims to help, in this case, merchants affected by the fighting using a system of microcredits.
This collaboration will not only focus on Aleppo, but also on a number of other Syrian sites, such as Homs and its Krak des Chevaliers, or Palmyra and its entryway to the Temple of Bel. The missions will largely consist of taking measurements, which will be used by the architects in charge of reconstruction. “We’re supporting DGAM’s operations to create the hundreds of billions of georeferenced measurements that will allow the architects to do their work. We’re not talking about actual reconstruction yet.” In other words, working on documentation and triage, while missions at the moment focus “on cleaning, removing, inventorying blocks, and reinforcing as soon as possible the parts threatened with imminent collapse.”
After making several visits to the site, the company is now attacking the heart of the problem. On location, the team includes heritage architects, building archeologists, engineers—a full lineup of specialized people who have mastered the use and exploitation of these high-tech tools. “We made initial site visits, until we could bring in scientific equipment, three-dimensional scanners. You can have three or four simultaneously making measurements and emergency diagnostics for the operation. In 10 minutes, the batteries from different terrestrial scanners take at least 475 million measurements. Each point is georeferenced in space and turned in 360 degrees.” In the case of the little palace of Aleppo, measurements have been taken in 280 positions from different scanners on the ground, inside, outside, on the roof, the basement, and in neighboring areas to measure the thickness of its adjoining walls. Occasionally, the company uses a drone to reach exceptionally inaccessible spots.
From the time the hostilities ended, Iconem, a startup specialized in the 3D digitization of threatened heritage sites, has led an ambitious photo campaign with the help of a drone and poles, working in partnership with the DGAM. “In three days, we have done surveys of the Ancient City with 8,000 images, by flying over it with a drone at 100-500 ft altitudes,” said director Yves Ubelmann to Le Monde at the International Exhibition of Cultural Heritage. At the event, held on November 3 at Paris’ Carrousel du Louvre, the group presented snapshots digitized into three dimensions as well as virtual reconstructions of buildings in historic and major archeological sites. It was a technique that Ubelmann had already used “on thirty sites in danger in Syria,” he said.
“The scientific protocol is very different from ours,” Bruno Deslandes emphasizes, “since Iconem worked using drones and poles. Using these images they get a three-dimensional view, while we’re only working with scanners, that is to say, measurements, a degree of precision that is totally different. We’re united in operation. We are not a threatened heritage site when it comes to communication.”
Documentation could prove essential for the long work of reconstruction and restoration in the coming years, especially under the auspices of the DGAM and UNESCO—a process about which Amr Al-Azn is nevertheless uncertain. “For the regime, to take charge of reconstruction equivalates to proof of victory. And yet Bashar al-Assad has no intention whatsoever of restoring the historic center of the city, but rather of destroying the ruins,” he says. “By giving the government financial aid for reconstruction, the international community, and especially the European Union, which wants to help resolve the refugee crisis, are only supporting the regime’s legitimacy. Reconstruction will be impossible as long as the root causes of the war are unresolved.”
In the haze of this uncertain future, there is nothing to do but hope that a day is coming where drones will zip across the Aleppo sky, this time to capture the refurbished beauty of “La Blanche.” Its hum will be lost in the noise of the bustling city, and along its passage the thousand-year-old minaret of the Umayyad Mosque, the citadel ramparts, and the vaulted alleys of the bazaars will be born anew. Halab will rise once more from the ashes.