Baalbek, also known as Heliopolis in antiquity, is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, home to some of the world’s largest and most impressive Roman temple ruins.
Baalbek Reborn: Temples, a newly released virtual tour, allows visitors from all over the world to see these incredible feats of ancient architecture and engineering not only as they are now, but also as they would have been more than 2,000 years ago.
“There’s just something very special about the place,” Henning Burwitz, a building historian and architect with the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), told Al Jazeera.
“It’s scientifically an extremely interesting place, being one of the more eastern Roman cities and sanctuaries. It’s quite a statement to build something like this in such a remote part of the Roman Empire.”
Lebanon’s economy, which was already heavily reliant on new US dollars brought in by remittances, international visitors, and foreign investors, has suffered greatly as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic and various internal crises.
Baalbek Reborn: Temples is intended to raise global awareness of this unique world heritage site and promote more tourism to Lebanon in general, rather than replacing real-world tourism.
This free virtual tour blends cutting-edge technology with the findings of decades of archaeological study that is still ongoing, thanks to a partnership between the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), the General Directorate of Antiquities of Lebanon (DGA), the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, and the US-based company Flyover Zone.
The project combined blueprint drawings produced by the DAI with 8K resolution panoramic imagery from the ground and drone footage from above, using computer-aided design software such as AutoCAD and 3D Studio Max for 3D modeling. The team at Flyover Zone then uses Unity to incorporate all of these components into their virtual simulation.
This project has been a dream come true for Bernard Frischer, the creator and president of Flyover Zone. The virtual tour had already exceeded 10,000 downloads within hours of its launch.
“My day job still is that I’m a professor of informatics, and my branch of informatics is computing applied to cultural heritage,” he explained. “We started this company a few years ago to create virtual reconstructions of the most important cultural heritage sites around the world [using] 3D digital technology to visualize the latest scientific results, making it possible for the general public to take virtual trips through space and time.”
Users will be able to experience a series of 38 fully immersive, 360-degree panoramas inside the app, enabling them to examine whatever catches their attention.
A virtual tablet provided as part of the tour will include text explanations of locations, additional photographs, and an audio slider that controls the playback of a complete audio-commentary soundtrack, created in collaboration with DAI experts and available in Arabic, English, French, and German, at the touch of a button.
“The representation you can see will be tailored to the content of the commentary,” explained Burwitz. “If we explain the site today, you will see it as it looks today but if we talk about what it looked like in 215, the image will switch automatically to take you on a time travel to the year 215 and to show you what it looked like in antiquity.”
Frischer said there is “no point in doing this sort of reconstruction if it’s fanciful or artistic”.
“Yes, it should look beautiful and artistic in that sense, but if it’s only fanciful then it has no value, at least for academic purposes. The only way to make the model have value is to collaborate with the world’s experts who’ve been working on these monuments and really know all the details of what they looked like. So for Baalbek that would be the DAI, and thank God they agreed to help us.”
For more than 20 years, the DAI, a research institute in the field of archaeology under the German federal foreign office, has been actively involved in the historical investigation of Baalbek’s temples and the surrounding region, carrying on a centuries-old tradition of German-Lebanese archaeological cooperation.
The Temple of Bacchus, for example, has been amazingly well preserved and is still standing today. Others have vanished almost entirely, leaving only a few but remarkable remnants, such as the six surviving rose granite columns that once framed the now-defunct Temple of Jupiter, each standing more than 20 meters (66 feet) tall and measuring around 2 meters (6.5 feet) in diameter.
“Our part was to make sure the correct scientific bases were chosen,” said Burwitz. “We can see in the reconstruction the full extent of this marvellous building. We want you to feel like being on-site.”
Frischer claims that nothing beats a virtual reality headset on the road for a true sense of presence.
“On the other hand, let’s say you move around a lot and even maybe you’re going to travel to Baalbek; putting it on your smartphone is a good way to go. Of course, it’s free so you don’t have to choose,” he said.
Bassam Alghanim, a retired Kuwaiti banker and archaeology enthusiast who funded the project in memory of his parents, Yusuf and Ilham Alghanim, has made the tour available online and for free.
Baalbek Reborn: Temples will also be used to facilitate another joint project between the DGA and the Lebanese NGO arcenciel, which will include vocational training courses in heritage carving skills with the aim of developing a professional workforce of young artisans to support future restoration projects in Beirut.
“We wanted to use this launch and all the publicity that comes with it to aid Lebanon – especially Beirut – in its recovery from the terrible explosion on August 4,” Frischer said. “We had a wonderful relationship with the ministry of culture, and we decided to give back by linking our project to this charitable initiative,” she says.