Beirut, Lebanon – Located in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Baalbek – also known in antiquity as Heliopolis – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to some of the largest and most ancient Roman temple ruins most impressive in the world.
A newly launched virtual tour, Baalbek Reborn: Temples, offers visitors from all over the world the opportunity to see these awe-inspiring feats of ancient architecture and engineering, not only as they are today, but also as they are today. ‘they would have been over 2000 years ago.
“There is just something very special about this place,” Henning Burwitz, building historian and architect at the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), told Al Jazeera.
“It is scientifically an extremely interesting place, being one of the most eastern Roman cities and sanctuaries. It is quite a statement to build something like this in such a remote part of the Roman Empire.
Between the global COVID-19 pandemic and numerous internal crises, the Lebanese economy – already largely dependent on the new US dollars brought in by remittances, international tourists and foreign investors – has suffered greatly.
Rather than replacing real-world tourism, Baalbek Reborn: Temples aims to raise awareness around the world about this unique World Heritage site and encourage more tourism to Lebanon in general.
Created through a collaboration between the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), the General Directorate of Antiquities of Lebanon (DGA), the Lebanese Ministry of Culture and the American company Flyover Zone, this free virtual tour combines cutting-edge technology with results of decades of archaeological research still in progress.
The project used computer-aided design software such as AutoCAD and 3D Studio Max for 3D modeling, combining them with blueprint drawings provided by DAI, as well as 8K resolution panoramic photographs from the ground and drone footage from above. The Flyover Zone team then uses a program called Unity to integrate all of these elements into their virtual simulation.
For the founder and president of Flyover Zone, Bernard Frischer, this project is a dream come true. A few hours after its launch, the virtual tour had already exceeded 10,000 downloads.
“My daily job is always to be a computer teacher, and my branch of computer science is computer science applied to cultural heritage,” he explained. “We started this business a few years ago to create virtual reconstructions of the world’s most important cultural heritage sites. [using] 3D digital technology to visualize the latest scientific results, allowing the general public to make virtual journeys through space and time. “
Within the app, users will be able to explore a series of 38 fully interactive 360-degree panoramas, allowing them to investigate anything that might happen to them to get their attention.
At the push of a button, a virtual tablet provided as part of the tour will provide textual descriptions of the locations, additional images and an audio slider that controls the playback of a full audio commentary soundtrack, produced in tandem with experts from DAI. and available in Arabic, English, French and German.
“The representation you can see will fit the content of the commentary,” Burwitz explained. “If we explain the site today, you’ll see it as it is today, but if we talk about what it looked like in 215, the image will automatically switch to take you on a journey through time. ‘in 215 and show you what it was like in antiquity.
Frischer said there is “no point in doing this kind of reconstruction if it’s fancy or artistic”.
“Yes, it should be beautiful and artistic in that sense, but if it’s just whimsical it doesn’t have any value, at least for academic purposes. The only way to give the model value is to collaborate with the experts of the world who have worked on these monuments and who really know all the details of their appearance. So for Baalbek it would be the DAI, and thank God, they agreed to help us.
The DAI, a research institute in the field of archeology under the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, has been actively involved in the historical investigation of the temples of Baalbek and the surrounding area for more than 20 years, perpetuating a tradition of German-Lebanese archaeological cooperation that dates back centuries.
Some sites, like the Temple of Bacchus, have been remarkably well preserved and still stand today. Others have almost completely disappeared, leaving only rare but nonetheless impressive remains, such as the six remaining pink granite columns – each over 20 meters (66 feet) high and around 2 meters (6.5 feet) in diameter – which once framed the now. absent Temple of Jupiter.
“Our role was to make sure the right science was chosen,” said Burwitz. “We can see in the reconstruction the full extent of this wonderful building. We want you to feel right there. “
Frischer said that for a real sense of presence, nothing beats a virtual reality headset on the tour.
“On the other hand, let’s say you move around a lot and maybe even go to Baalbek; putting it on your smartphone is a good solution. Of course, it’s free, so you don’t have to choose, ”he said.
The tour is available online and free with funding provided by Bassam Alghanim, a retired Kuwaiti banker and archeology enthusiast who funded the project in memory of his parents, Yusuf and Ilham Alghanim.
Baalbek Reborn: The temples will also be used to promote another joint project between DGA and Lebanese NGO arcenciel, which will offer vocational training courses teaching heritage craft skills, with the aim of building a workforce. qualified work of young artisans who will support other restoration projects in Beirut.
“We wanted to take advantage of this launch and all the publicity that came with it to help Lebanon – especially Beirut – recover from the terrible explosion August 4, ”said Frischer. “We had an excellent collaboration with the Ministry of Culture [and we] wanted to give something by linking our initiative to this charity initiative.