Beirut’s Shattered Heritage: An Emergency Documentation

By Joe Kallas, Minna Silver and Ona Vileikis.

Shattered stained glass windows and endangered heritage left after the explosion in the harbour of Beirut in Lebanon, reflect the shattered hopes that the capital of Lebanon had during the decades of restoration in its historic sites. On 4 August 2020, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of the city exploded causing irreversible damage to large areas of the historic city, among them the Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael neighbourhoods. A team of experts and volunteers, using digital technologies and high standards on documentation, are recording and assessing the cultural heritage that remained.

Lebanon – Wikipedia Creative Commons License.

Biruta or Berytus, the ancient city of modern Beirut, has a long history that stretches over the Bronze Age starting some 5000 years ago. A small tell, a ruined settlement in the eastern bay region, witnesses the origins of a Bronze Age town with its Iron Age layers. Possibly from the Ebla archives in Syria, but obviously from the Amarna archives in Egypt, there are earliest textual references to Beirut. At various times Lebanon was ruled by princes under the vassalage of Syria, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. The local people were Amorites and Canaanites, the latter identified with the Phoenicians.

The Iron Age saw the time of the flourishing Phoenician culture and the building of their own cultural identity. Phoenicians were the rulers of glass making, ivory carving and purple industry with textiles acting as famous traders in the Mediterranean region. Even, the name of Europe comes from a mythical Phoenician princess Europa who was abducted from Phoenicia to Crete. Later, the Greeks and Romans continued the production of these luxury articles. Archaeological layers and remains of the past, found under the modern urban milieu, tell us the long history of Beirut, but at the same time restrict any development in the city.

FIGURE 1. St. George’s Bay, Beirut, 1920-1933. Unknown photographer © Matson collection, Library of Congress.

The heritage value of the Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael neighbourhoods dates back to the 19th century, with their architecture of the Ottoman and French mandate eras. They were among the first built after the expansion of the city of Beirut and of the few that still constitute a coherent historic urban fabric, only slightly affected by contemporary development. The Ottoman era architecture from the second half of the 19th century highlights residential buildings and villas with red tiled pitched roofs and large central halls featuring the famous triple-arched bay, emblematic of Beirut. Also, the 20th century three to four stories buildings of the French mandate era are architecturally significant, featuring balconies with decorative wrought-iron balustrades. Both types of structures comprise outstanding heritage values, and at the same time are precious for the owners and residents.

The buildings of the Ottoman era are the most vulnerable. Structurally, they are formed usually by a vaulted ground floor, the most stable part of the buildings, and on the upper floors, the central hall and the triple-arched bay divide the elevations in two. The loads of the high elevations and the pitched roofs are transmitted towards the lower parts via thin marble columns of the arches and thin sandstone masonry walls. A fine and beautiful architecture yet so fragile to withstand the pressure of such an explosion.

Many of the historic buildings that characterize the architectural heritage of Beirut have already been lost since the 90s. Due to the reconstruction works after the civil war, urbanization and globalization some developers have found an opportunity to demolish and build modern and futuristic unintegrated skyscrapers. Even the structures that were saved back then were always threatened by ‘unintentional’demolition. Now, after the explosion, professionals, and NGOs in the field of cultural heritage are concerned that structural damage may be used as an excuse to replace by high-rise the few buildings that remained.

FIGURE 2. Sursock-Cochrane Palace after the explosion, Rmeil area, Beirut. ©J. Kallas (2020)
FIGURE 3. Aerial photo showing inside a heavily affected building in Achrafieh area, Beirut. DGA Lebanon, ©N. Gergian (2020).

As a response to the damage caused by the blast, heritage experts and alumni of the Center of Restoration and Conservation (CRC), created a volunteering initiative. This initiative is under the guidance of the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) with the support of the UNESCO Beirut Office, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Lebanon, the Association for the Protection of Historic Sites and Buildings APSAD and Blue Shield Lebanon. Right after the blast, the volunteering team carried out a quick survey and assessed the damaged historic buildings. The team started with the emergency propping interventions for the buildings at high risk of collapse. Under the initiative, a team of local members of CIPA Heritage Documentation volunteered for the 3D documentation and photogrammetric survey. 

The main mission of the documentation team is to digitalize all the historic buildings post-explosion, prioritizing the buildings at high risk of collapse. The overall aims of the 3D documentation are: 1) to report the current state of the buildings after the explosion; 2) to provide structural engineers with 3D models of the most critical buildings for analysis; 3) to provide the architect restorers with graphical models and drawings where they can quantify the needed work and materials for future restoration projects; and 4) most importantly, to have a graphic and scientific documentation of the buildings as a record for posterity in case of any sudden collapse.

How are we working on the documentation?

Data Capture: The area was divided into several zones, and each zone was assigned to a team member to cover it. Ground-level images are being acquired using a NIKON D800 Digital Camera or similar. Aerial imagery is taken using DJI Phantom 4 Pro Drone provided by the DGA and operated by its qualified staff, S. Germanos and N. Gergian, to cover the pitched roofs and non-accessible areas of the buildings as shown in Figure 4. Images are taken with large overlaps (≥ 80%). There are limitations due to accessibility and not all buildings are captured completely. For example, it is difficult to control the drone around the buildings separated by very narrow alleyways covered by electrical wires heavily covered by garden trees.

FIGURE 4. During the drone mission at the Sursock-Cochrane Palace in Rmeil area, Beirut ©N. Gegian (2020)

Data Processing: The photogrammetric 3D models are processed with Agisoft Metashape Professional 1.6.2. During data processing, images are being masked to exclude unwanted areas of each scene. Out-of-focus areas on some of the images are being masked also to increase the quality of the imagery and reduce noise levels. The 3D models are being semi-automatically generated following four steps: 1) generation of a sparse cloud with an approximate calculation of camera locations and orientations during images acquisition. For this step, the accuracy and density parameters are being set on high. The sparse clouds are being cleaned afterwards according to reprojection errors; 2) Generation of a 3D dense point cloud. For this step, the quality parameter is being set on high and the depth filtering parameter is being set on mild (see Figure 5); 3) Mesh from the generated point cloud. In this step, the mesh is being generated from the depth maps created during the generation of the 3D point cloud. The quality and face count parameters are being set on high. The Meshes are then being cleaned from unconnected components; and 4) Finally, the texture is created to obtain good resolution textures from the original acquired photographs (see Figure 6).

FIGURE 5. Screenshot of point-cloud of an affected building in Rmeil area, Beirut. DGA Lebanon, BBHR2020 ©J. Kallas (2020)
FIGURE 6. Screenshot of textured 3D model of two adjoining buildings in Achrafieh area, Beirut, DGA Lebanon, BBHR2020 ©J. Kallas (2020)

While it is our duty to preserve as much as possible our cultural heritage, we should eventually admit that we cannot save everything. A great opportunity is to systematically document it in case it vanishes permanently. Beirut’s efforts to document its shattered heritage, will keep the collective memory of the community alive, and will transmit the values and significance of these historic places to the wider public and our coming generations.

Bibliography

Abulafia, D. (2012) The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean. London: Penguin Books.

Bury, J.B. & Meiggs, R. (1985) A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great. London: MacMillan.

El Amarna (EA) letters. Rainey, A. F. (2014) The El-Amarna Correspondence (2 volumes). Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 1, The Near and Middle East, Vol. 11, ed. Schniedewind, W. M. & Cochavi-Rainey, Z., Leiden: Brill.

Lawler, A. (2011). Rebuilding Beirut. Archaeology, Vol. 64, No. 4, July/August 2011.

Perring, D. (2006). Beirut, Excavating the Souks, World Archaeology, Issue 16, March 7.

About the 2019 Statutes

Text by Prof. dr. F. Rinaudo

For a scientific committee like CIPA-HD, the Statutes are of fundamental importance because they regulate the way research and dissemination activities are developed. The Statutes cannot be untouchable tool. They must adapt to new situations that the advancement of knowledge proposes to new research habits of its members and to improve the ways in which the tasks entrusted can be performed. After the reform of the Statutes, which took place at the beginning of the 21st century, CIPA-HD approved in 2019
new Statutes which, adapting to the recent ICOMOS directives, revolutionized its organization, trying to propose new forms of participation and an opening towards new forms of collaboration among the members.

The most important novelty introduced by the new Statutes is the modality of participation within the committee. Two categories of members have been defined: regular members and expert members (in addition to honorary members and supporting members). The expert members elect the Executive Committee within which the President, the Secretary General, two vice presidents, the coordinators of the three permanent commissions, set up to replace the working groups that had demonstrated a certain difficulty of action, and the webmaster. All members can propose and support initiatives related to the aims of CIPA-HD both locally and internationally: workshops,
summer schools, webinars, etc.

The three permanent commissions have the role to manage the active life of the CIPA-HD committee: Application of Recording, Documentation, and Information Management for Cultural Heritage – Technologies for Cultural Heritage Geometric Documentation – Education and Dissemination. It will be the responsibility of all CIPA-HD members to judge whether the new statute will bring the expected
results and to propose amendments and adjustments to the rapid evolution of technologies and requests from the world of Cultural Heritage documentation. Now is the time to read the new Statutes of CIPA-HD:
https://www.cipaheritagedocumentation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/CIPA_STATUTES_2019.pdf

Virtual Reality and the Lockdown

Longread by Prof. Dr. Minna Silver (4 to 5 minutes)

The world has changed from the beginning of the new decade 2020, when the pandemic COVID-19 known as the corona virus has spread to different continents with unexpected consequences.

The world has vividly appeared to be a more vulnerable place for humankind than earlier in modern times has been expected as even the superpowers do not find remedies and answers to the problems. People in many countries are locked in their homes, in restricted areas, and boarders have been closed. Who could have imagined this scenario a half a year ago? But in the lockdown people have found ways to contact each other and keep their routines, although there has been considerable down shifting. Many have become new “Robinson Crusoes” in their environment. Cultural heritage has value as itself, and now its value has been especially recognized to bring special delight, sharing it and keeping one in a good mental health in the lockdown.

The developments in digital documentation and enhanced ways to approach spaces and places with virtual reality can now be seen as a special blessing, when there is not easy access to sites. Previously wars, environmental disasters or political barriers have prevented the access to some places. Now we are imprisoned in our own environments. When one cannot move and visit different sites, the value of recording and documentation of history, sites and monuments for research and tourism will be appreciated in a different way. For research the accuracy of data capture and the increase of open ways to share the data have become more imminent needs. Virtual tourism actualizes and brings delight finding new visitors to experience the sites that are not accessible. CyArk has been in the forefront in recording world heritage sites in 3D and bringing them to be viewed.

Rome Reborn, Courtesy Bernard Fischer.

For school children and students virtual reality provides an extra dimension for learning about spaces and sites for their studies from home if the schools and universities are closed. Serious games can offer another window to the cultural heritage and virtual worlds. As far as the visits to the museums are concerned, several exhibitions have been opened virtually – even the launches of recorded concerts, operas and ballets have been extended to the world wide web. NASA has provided a way to dive virtually in the coral reef and map it. Wrecks can be also visited in virtual diving http://victory1744.org/

One year ago I participated in an expert meeting in Copenhagen to bring cultural heritage to smart cities, and it opened my eyes to new ways to integrate cultural heritage into the streets. We can now in the lockdown see the need and appreciation of the development of smart cities that are taking cultural heritage into account. Shared cultural heritage provides unity locally and globally in these challenging times. A recently published book Digital Cities: Between History and Archaeology by Maurizio Forte and Helena Murteira (ed.), by Oxford University Press (2020), addresses some of these issues.

Historical cities can make various layers of sites in the past visible and approachable in virtual ways and in this way provide timescapes. There are already various examples to bring sites visually to mobile devices like smart phones or to have little kiosks with screens or virtual glasses/headsets (possibly taking into account the augmented reality) here and there to study and experience a particular spot from different time dimensions and various angles. 3D provides a possibility to immersive experience with goggles or virtual glasses.

For a timescape let’s look at the Rome Reborn project https://www.romereborn.org/  led by Professor Bernard Fischer. I used to study the Cultural Change of Late Antiquity and the time of Emperor Constantine the Great in Rome in the 1980s. Then we as young researchers in a cultural institute did not have personal computers yet and could not much imagine that one day one could provide the changes in the topography of Rome in a digital form. Television could have provided some ideas in an analogue form, but Professor Fischer tells that he already had this idea of virtual Rome in mind in the 1970s.

Now one can visit Rome of AD 320 virtually and see how the city topographically looked like and observe changes. In some extent these kinds of reconstructions entail interpretation and can never fully reach reality; this also concerns archaeological reconstructions in general. But they offer us a valuable dimension to the past, although not replacing it. They just provide another dimension and possibility to experience space and time. One may have extra wishes in texturing and visualizing the building materials, but it all requires more studies of individual buildings, work, time and money. In any event, the Rome Reborn project deserves appreciation in grasping the space and the topography. Now we have a possibility to get some idea of a layer of Roman history in a time capsule and fly over the “eternal city” in the heyday of Late Antiquity.