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This month, a spectacular stone arch was unveiled in Trafalgar Square by Boris Johnson. For two days only Londoners were able to see a replica of the Triumphal Arch from Palmyra, one of the monuments Islamic State (IS) deliberately destroyed while it held the Syrian world heritage site.
The arch has been long in the planning but the unveiling date was announced on the same day that President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government and Russian forces drove IS out of the city last month.
As a symbolic statement of resistance to those who wish to pulverise the collective heritage of humanity it sends a strong message — we will rebuild.
Except rebuilding monuments after violent destruction is not as easy as that. It raises profound questions not just about authenticity and copies but of the use we make of architectural history.
The arch was built by Oxford’s Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA). It has deployed advanced photographic techniques to create a 3D digital model of the monument and then build it out of Egyptian sandstone that has been laser-cut in a Tuscan quarry. It will be re-erected in Dubai and New York before, says the IDA, “heading home” to Palmyra this September.
For Roger Michel, the IDA’s executive director: “By rebuilding these structures, we rebuild not only our own national histories but our connections to each other as well.” Some archaeologists are wary about the expensive publicity stunt, others, led by a former employee of the Syrian antiquities directorate who fled the country, have organised an online petition condemning the original destruction but also calling on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) not to rebuild Palmyra hastily, as its director general announced immediately in the wake of the shifting front line. […]