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‘Heritage activists’ preserve global landmarks ruined in war, threatened by time

Microsoft/Transform: “Eight years ago, French architect Yves Ubelmann was working in Afghanistan when he took a seemingly minor picture of a village brimming with mud homes. It was a quick snapshot, separate from his archeological work. When he returned to the site two years later, the village was gone – destroyed – and one of its few remaining traces was an elderly man who remembered Ubelmann taking the photo. He wanted it. “’The picture is the only link I have to my personal history,’” the man said, prompting Ubelmann to share it. The small gesture crystallized for him the power of preserving history and helped inspire him to start Iconem, a Paris company that creates 3D digital models of historic landmarks threatened by war, conflict, time and nature. With drones that can capture thousands of images, Iconem has surveyed sites in 20 countries, including the 109-acre ruins of Pompeii, ancient Assyrian cities in northern Iraq and the mountainous remains of third-century Buddhist monasteries in Afghanistan. The team has documented Angkor Wat in Cambodia and sites in Hyderabad, India, and Delos, Greece. The digital preservations are helping teachers, students and researchers understand civilizations through historic landmarks that are often difficult to access. “It’s a way to keep history alive,” says Ubelmann. “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you go.”

Preserving history has been especially urgent in Syria, where seven years of war have destroyed or damaged all six of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, including centuries-old temples, mosques, citadels, tombs and bazaars. Ubelmann’s grandfather was an architect who restored bombed churches in France after World War II and Ubelmann sees Iconem’s work in Syria in a similar vein: preserving the country’s heritage and rebuilding landmarks crumbled by bombs, mortars and looters.

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