How virtual reality is being used to recreate Iraq’s destroyed heritage

The new Mosul Heritage Museum in Iraq invites people to experience its greatest historical sites – in virtual reality.

opened as a permanent exhibition earlier this year, The immersive show gives Iraqis a new way to explore their most prized monuments that have been destroyed.

Through meticulous documentation, computer technology, and virtual reality artistry, Qaf Lab, a Mosul innovation center that supports Iraqi entrepreneurs, has reconstructed five historical sites destroyed or damaged by ISIS during its three-year occupation of Mosul beginning in 2014.

Abdullah Bashar was 16 at the time and saw firsthand the devastation the group had wreaked. Five years later, while studying architecture at the University of Mosul, he had an idea.

“We explored the heritage of our city and how it used to be,” he says The National. “I was thinking about virtual reality at the time and how creative it could be to show people these ruined sites and our heritage.”

Bashar and two of his university colleagues began virtual reconstruction of the great Al-Nuri Mosque, known for its crooked minaret known as Al Hadba, or “the hunchback.”

Built in the late 12th century, the 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.

Although Unesco, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates and the Iraqi government, began rebuilding the building last year, Bashar began recreating the mosque in virtual reality in 2019.

When he presented his work to Qaf Lab, the company was so impressed that they hired Bashar and his team to continue their project full-time.

Two years later, after four more historical sites had been added and their work put online, Bashar was invited to design 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 is aligned with the three goals of the museum,” he says.

“The first to bring the intellectual legacy of this city to life. The second to revitalize the tourism industry. And third, to work on initiatives that we hope will preserve the legacy of this civilization.”

The virtually reconstructed heritage sites show and document their current condition, along with digital restorations of what they looked like before they were destroyed by ISIS.

The Umayyad Mosque – the first in Mosul and the fifth in the Islamic world, built in 642 – is also on display in the exhibition, alongside the Syriac Catholic Al-Tahera Church, built between 1859 and 1862 , and the Al-Nabi Yunus Mosque, which is home to a tomb believed to be that of the Prophet Jonah, and the Great Temple of Hatra, a Unesco World Heritage Site, containing an enormous structure of columns and smaller ones has temples.

On the left, the current state of the Al Nabi Yunus Mosque;  right, Abdullah Bashar's virtual reality rendering of the building and its location prior to its destruction.  Photo: Qaf Labs

Younes says that while visitors, mostly Mosul residents, are emotionally connected to the exhibition, modern technology is also an important tool to educate and raise awareness of the city’s heritage.

“The reactions of many visitors were positive,” says Younes. “Not only because this is something new, but also because visitors can also experience entering ancient cultural sites that have since been destroyed.”

Architect Raffaele Carlani, founder of Progetto Katatexilux, an Italian studio that also produces multimedia exhibitions in the field of cultural heritage, speaks after seeing the renderings of Mosul’s reconstructed cultural heritage sites The National Virtual reality is becoming increasingly important when it comes to how we experience such historical monuments.

“Virtual reality is a mature technology, but something completely new as a media tool,” he says.

On the left, the current state of the Al-Nuri Mosque;  That's right, its representation in virtual reality before its destruction.  Photo: Qaf Labs

However, he cautions that digital interactive renditions of damaged, destroyed, or insecure pages must be accurate.

“My company consists of archaeologists and art historians who are in constant communication with the scientific directors of the monuments to ensure that the information submitted is correct from a scientific point of view.”

Accuracy was one of the greatest challenges Bashar faced when reconstructing the monuments of Mosul.

Using a combination of blueprints, photography and drone footage – when safely possible – was necessary, but finding accurate sources depicting the original structures proved more difficult.

On the left, the current state of Hatra;  on the right its representation in virtual reality before its destruction.  Photo: Qaf Labs

Juan Aguilar, a digital archaeologist and PhD student at the University of Luxembourg who has regularly worked in Mosul, particularly at the Al Nabi Yunus Mosque, collaborated with Bashar and the Qaf Laboratory to capture images and videos of this building from members of the to obtain publicity.

Bashar and Aguilar received hundreds of personal documents that gave them enough evidence to create historically accurate virtual reconstructions.

“Not only did we get to see additional architectural details of the mausoleum, but it was also a beautiful example of how the public was involved in the creation of heritage content,” says Aguilar.

Professor Mohamed Gamal Abdelmonem, Chair of Architecture at Nottingham Trent University, whose research on digitizing heritage sites at risk won the Queen’s Anniversary Prize last November, is working on a similar project to preserve the heritage of Old Mosul.

Abdelmonem says Bashar’s project is an important tool to counteract violence by extremist groups by preserving Mosul’s legacy of ethnic and religious diversity and harmony.

However, he emphasizes that while virtual reality is an important learning resource, digitally reconstructed places should not be viewed as a substitute for their physical twin.

“What you get from a virtual and digital display is a simulative and curated experience for the public to engage with. It does not replace the original. However, it contradicts its conscious deletion.”

The virtual reality exhibit at the Mosul Heritage Museum acts both as a digital archive of these historic sites and as a vehicle for public engagement and learning.

However, it is also marred by sadness.

“I knew so little about these historic sites when they existed,” says Bahsar. “And after learning more about them, I thought, how could I not know that our city has this history and civilization? I regret not having visited them while they were here.”

Bashar’s hope that one day these monuments could 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.

For now, however, the virtual versions Bashar and his team have created can serve as a source of inspiration and knowledge for the people of Mosul and a link to a revered past that is difficult to forget.

“It’s great when you see people using the headsets,” says Bashar. “We’re seeing their memories come back to them, and that’s a good feeling.”

Updated November 24, 2022 7:59 am