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Virtual Reality Revives War-Ravaged Legacy in Iraq - Tech

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The Iraqi museum uses computer technology and virtual reality headsets to rewind time, allowing visitors to explore ruins destroyed by jihadist fighters and defeat them.

Islamic State group fighters occupied a third of Iraq in 2014 with lightning strikes, seizing the northern city of Mosul as a stronghold, and destroying or destroying cultural sites across the country.

Now, using thousands of photos, a group of local engineers have brought virtual reproductions to five historic sites in Mosul and the wider province of Nineveh, including the mosque and its leaning minaret.

After exploring 3D images of the damaged building at the Mosul Heritage House Museum, Mahiya Yousef said, “It takes me to another world,” as he removes his VR goggles from his rose-covered hijab.

“I wish it was real Mosul and not just a virtual version,” added Youssef, 50, who works in a food factory in the northern city. ‘It’s hard to come back to reality’

The IS group’s then chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his only known public appearance at Mosul’s Al-Nuri Mosque, where he proclaimed the establishment of a “caliphate.”

Mosul’s old city was reduced to rubble during the battle to retake the city, including a mosque nicknamed Al-Hadba or “The Hunchback” and its flanking leaning minaret.

Iraqi authorities have accused IS of planting explosives at the site before withdrawing. Only the base of the minaret survived.

“Restore memory”

VR technology has previously been used to recreate heritage sites destroyed by IS groups, including a UNESCO-backed US exhibit.

But this museum brings the site to life for those living in Mosul.

“Many children have never seen the Al-Nuri Mosque and its Al-Hadba minaret,” says 29-year-old Ayoub Younes, the museum’s founder.

“We are trying to make the person visit those sites and experience those memories through virtual reality.”

Five years after Iraqi forces and the United Nations routed the jihadists in mid-2017, Mosul’s historic sites, mosques and churches are still being restored.

But much of the Old Town remains a sea of ​​rubble.

Some residents have moved back to other districts, but much of the city remains a jumble of ruins or buildings under construction.

The private museum, with its marble façade on the banks of the Tigris River, opened in mid-June and had more than 4,000 visitors in its first month, Younes said.

In a dreary room, curious visitors wait to use the museum’s only VR headset, a pair of large black Googles.

Other sites for virtual visits are the historic Al Tahera Church, once nestled in the winding alleys of the Old City, and the more than 2,000-year-old Hatra ruins in the desert south of Mosul.

Jihadists brought guns and pickaxes to the ruins of what was once a sprawling ancient city, releasing video footage of the destructive melee in 2015.

“Save memory”

On a computer screen, Abdullah Bashir showed a 3D replica of the mosque that houses the temple of Nabi Yunus, which militants blew up in 2014.

“We used personal photos and shots taken by residents,” he said.

But he said that before 2014 there were “very few” images, citing “lack of pictures” as the main problem.

QAF Lab’s Bashir and other specialists have brought previous scenes to life and are “a way to preserve the memory of Mosul,” he says.

After the virtual tour, visitor Mohammed Abdullah pushed his wheelchair around the physical exhibits in the museum’s vaulted rooms.

Many of the exhibits are everyday items donated by local families, from terracotta amphorae to oil lamps, traditional wall hangings, metal containers and even old radios.

Abdullah, 28, a telecommunications engineering student, also found the contrast between VR and the reality of Mosul painful.

“Recovery is very slow and not the same as devastation,” said Abdullah.

He called for faster restoration of the heritage site to attract tourists and “breathe life into” the nearby area.

Despite the bitter taste the virtual visit left behind, he said he hasn’t lost hope.

“There will come a day when we do this visit in real life,” he said. “It will be even better than the virtual one.”