Ancient Villages of Northern Syria: documentation and virtual museum

July 13, 2022

Forty Ancient Villages in Northern Syria, dating from the Roman to the Byzantine periods are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. They are significant as they are integrated rural communities and offer a unique record of early peasant life and culture. The Villages illustrate religious and cultural changes through building style and function, from Roman to Christian, and, in places, to Islam1. In places, the size of the villages, their spatial relationship and linking trackways indicates the governance and economic structure of the region’s life. The villages show how the original Aramaic-speaking farmers, improved and managed their land and water supplies to grow and press olives and grapes for oil and wines. Until the conflict broke out in 2011, Idlib Governate was still known for olives and olive oil, supplying much of Syria with these products and linking its people with its original inhabitants. The Ancient Villages were abandoned between the 8th and 10th Century, and until the last two decades there was little re-use of the stones, few inhabitants and no reconstruction. Consequently, they remained highly authentic and this lack of intervention, together with the scale and size allowed the villages to retain their integrity2.
The Syrian government has dominated cultural and heritage life in Syria, treating all monuments and artefacts as owned by the state and not the people. This has resulted in a lack of connection between the built heritage and local communities, and a consequent lack of awareness of, and respect for, the heritage3.

Threats to the Ancient Villages include:

  • Parties to the current conflict deliberately or inadvertently damaging the Ancient Villages using medium or heavy artillery and aerial bombardment. This causes severe damage or total destruction and is more likely to occur when the sites are occupied or people are living very close to the sites.
  • Extremist groups in the region deliberately damage the sites for ideological reasons.
  • Local civilian population and internally displaced people (IDP) illegally loot the sites for artefacts to sell for essential needs or for stone for building materials. This results in inappropriate excavations which may damage or destroy built structures. Illegal looting results in permanent loss of artefacts; and missing documentation/information for future research. Looting of stones can damage them to the point where they are impossible to restore.
  • Civilians, local and IDPs, turn archaeological sites into temporary homes, installing tin sheets as rooms or rooves, building concrete partitions to create rooms, and opening new doors and windows in historical walls.

In personal communication in preparation for this proposal, UNESCO confirms the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria have limited documentation and few 3D models have been made. This is perhaps due to their disbursed, rural and remote nature, and the current security situation.

This project aims to document the built cultural heritage of the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria to help ensure their protection, to ensure that those villages which are destroyed or damaged by the current conflict are at a minimum documented for the future.

Why is the intervention urgent?

In late 2019 and early 2020, significant levels of armed conflict continued in Idlib Governate using medium and heavy artillery. The present cease-fire offers a critical window – a period of respite and opportunity to access the Ancient Village sites. Tensions are still high however, and several state and non-state actors are involved. With no formal peace deal in sight, fighting may be renewed at any time.

If the cease fire lasts but without a comprehensive peace agreement between all parties, it is likely IDPs will be forced to remain in Idlib for a considerable time. In this situation, they are likely to expand settlement in the Ancient Village sites for shelter and loot them for income.

What are the precise needs?

There is limited awareness of the Ancient Villages as evidenced by the lack of documentation confirmed by UNESCO1. Existing records of the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria include photographs, archaeological excavation reports and drawings, and the detailed records required for the World Heritage Site application. However, due to the relative isolation and the presumed permanence of the sites, to date very little 3D modelling of the sites has been done.  Any building without a 3D model that is now damaged or destroyed will have limited archival material for future research and public access. Consequently, detailed 3D models are an essential additional tool to create detailed visual records of the site in a way that would not otherwise be possible.

This project will create this archival material for the selected sites, which will allow for awareness raising of these important sites, enhance the possibility of restoration, as well as a record for future generations. Greater international awareness of the Ancient Villages would raise pressure on the warring parties to comply with international law regarding heritage sites in conflict. The interactive 3D virtual reality models will help raise awareness internationally.

OPC cultural heritage documentation initiative

The overall objective of the project is to record and archive a selection of Ancient Villages in Idlib Governate through digital documentation.  It is acknowledged that during the conflict and humanitarian crisis, there is little external actors can do to physically protect these sites. However, highly detailed interactive 3D models will record the structures as they are, and demonstrate damage inflicted after the recording was made. This will help any future restoration and may potentially support prosecution of warring parties for acts of deliberate destruction of heritage sites. Furthermore, the 3D models, when made publicly available, will allow interested archaeologists all over the world to research the targeted sites, especially, since these sites are not accessible to archaeologists due to the current situation.  Also, virtual visits using VR headsets will be made available online for all documented sites.

Local advocacy and education will increase awareness among the local and IDP populations of the value of the sites. This will help mitigate potential damage from looting or bombing and using the sites as temporary accommodation.  International advocacy and awareness raising may help to pressurize warring parties to comply with international law regarding the sites.

The activities will be implemented in two-phases, in conjunction with local partners; the first phase will consist of fieldwork to collect data (images and reference points).  This will include awareness raising and advocacy for the sites among the local and IDP populations. The second phase will be technical to process the data collected and create a digital database that documents archaeological sites in the region and make available for public access.   This will include international advocacy to raise awareness of the value of the sites and the damage the conflict is causing.

The church at Qalb Loze (460s AD)

Proposed project organization:

Phase One

  1. Several archaeological sites will be selected within the 40 villages which are part the World Heritage Sites in northern Syria. The selected sites will be prioritized according to their level of access; likelihood of risk to the sites based on the number of people living close to the site and their economic circumstances; historical and heritage importance; security of the operational staff and acceptability to the civil councils and population. The selection process will be advised by a Senior Consultant Archaeologist who has extensive experience of the Ancient Villages and supported on site by a Junior Consultant Archaeologist. We aim to cover at least five sites, depending on the security situation in the area.  Sites that have already been recorded through 3D VR imaging or are in the process of being recorded will be omitted to ensure increased documentation of the structures and good coordination between implementing agencies.
  2. Once permission is secured from the relevant civil councils for each location, extensive image surveys will be carried out for each site. The images are subject to specific technical standards that will allow for the subsequent digital documentation using photogrammetry techniques.
  3. Advocacy will focus on local populations and IDPs. Where possible, according to the security situation, the technical field team and the Junior Consultant Archaeologist will take local council members, community leaders, teachers and relevant activists to the sites. The history and relevance of the sites will be explained and, where possible, teachers will be encouraged to include the sites in their history lessons.

During Phase One, the possibility of performing a site survey using a low-altitude drone will be assessed by the operational staff. This will be done in discussion with local people and civil councils after explanation of how the drone is used and the added value of the acquired images.

Phase Two

  1. Accurate, metric, and highly detailed three-dimensional models will be created for the selected sites using latest advances in photogrammetry and structure from motion techniques, with absolute reference points. For each target site, thousands of photos will be processed to cover structures details from inside and outside, surrounding areas can be included if they have archaeological significance. The produced 3D models are of very high resolution, measurable, portable, and will be available in standard formats. The work will be directed by a photogrammetry expert and implemented by an experienced team who are based in Syria. The Senior Consultant Archaeologist will be available for consultation as required based on his experience of the Ancient Villages and the photogrammetry technology.  (A pilot example has been made for a 5th century church at Qalb Loze is presented in the next section)
  2. The team will build virtual reality 3D models for the chosen sites, allowing virtual visits for the 3D reconstructed sites.
  3. Advocacy in Phase Two will address the wider international community. This will include exhibitions and lectures explaining the process and demonstrating the 3D models to be held in Syria,Turkey, and elsewhere such as UNESCO premises in Paris. The target audience will be Syrian people, archaeologists, heritage experts, journalists, policymakers, and international development agencies, as well as other interested people. The aim is to raise international pressure on the warring parties to comply with international law regarding heritage sites during conflict.

Several resolutions of the 3D models will be generated and made available so that they can be used on computers, mobile phones, and tablets. Visualization tools can be standalone software or online with a web browser. Due to this ease of access, 3D models can be used for advocacy to protect the sites from future damage; to raise awareness of the value of the sites for the Syrian people; to educate Syrian children about their cultural heritage; and for future research into the history and culture of rural Syria. 

Pilot example of Qalb Loze Church

The church at Qalb Lozeh dates back to the 460s AD and is one of the best-preserved churches of this period in the region. The site was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2011 as a part of the “Ancient Villages of Northern Syria” listing. The church is the first known in Syria with the wide basilica, where the columns that in traditional Byzantine church architecture separate the aisles from the nave have been replaced with low piers and soaring arches that create the feeling of expanded space. It is strikingly similar in architectural style and craftsmanship to the large pre-Islamic Syrian churches in Turmanin, Androna, Ruweha, and Karatin, which may have been built by the same workshops or guilds.

Its name Qalb Lozeh translates as “Heart of the Almond.”, lies at an elevation of 670 meters in the Idlib Governorate on the A’la Mountain (Jabal Summaq) plateau, a remote hilly region of western central part of the northern Syrian limestone massif.

Gertrude Bell, the intrepid Middle Eastern diplomat, explorer and archaeologist, described this church as “…the beginning of a new chapter in the architecture of the world. The fine and simple beauty of Romanesque was born in North Syria.” Since Gertrude Bell’s visit in the early 1900s, the town has grown, and the church is now surrounded by modern houses.

OPC Initiative

Having access to most of Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, which is due to the ongoing project in the area, OPC had always the ambition to help in preserving the cultural heritage sites in the region. Hence, Qalb Lozeh site has been selected to be the first survey. A working team is formed, which is composed of photographs, an archaeologist, a photogrammetry expert, and locals. The idea was to make a digital documentation of the site using the latest advances in computer vision and AI. An image survey that fully cover the site had been carried out. The images are then used to generate high resolution 3D model. The 3D model is processed to obtain multiple resolution model in several formats and a VR applicaiton. One lightweight 3D model example is shown in this page. This work has been done with collaboration with LIS Laboratory, Aix-Marseille University in France.

Virtual reaility application:

The VR application allows to experience a virtual visit to the site from any place. The current version is compatible with all Meta’s (formerly Facebook) VR headsets. For the best experience we recommend using Meta Quest 2. Please contact us to get the download link.

Web based 3D model

An example of 3D model is shown below, it can be manipulated using the mouse. For a better experience use the full screen button. High resolution models can be provided upon request.

  1. “History of Syria in one Hundred Sites” ed. Dr Youssef Kanjou & Akira Tsuneki, Archaeopress Publishing Ltd. Oxford, 2016 [] []
  2. []
  3. “The Role of Local Community in the Reconstruction of Syrian Cultural Heritage”, Dr. Youssef Kanjou; paper presented at the 5th Annual Lemkin Re-Union Conference, 2019, Central European University, Budapest []