Photo: MIT

MIT unveils project to preserve Afghanistan’s heritage sites through technology and art

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has unveiled a project, “Ways of Seeing,” which aims to digitally preserve Afghanistan’s endangered historical sites using cutting-edge 3D imaging, drone photography, virtual reality, and meticulous hand drawings.

The collaborative effort between MIT Libraries, the Aga Khan Documentation Center, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture seeks to create immersive “extended reality” (XR) experiences of significant architectural sites throughout Afghanistan.

According to MIT, “Ways of Seeing” currently focuses on four separate historical sites across Afghanistan: the Green Mosque in Balkh, a Buddhist dome south of Kabul known as the Parwan Stupa, the 15th century tomb of Queen Gawhar Saad, and the 200-foot-tall Minaret of Jam, built during the 12th century in a remote location in western Afghanistan. Scholars chose the sites for their architectural and religious diversity, as well as the relative inaccessibility of some of the locales.

“To amass the visual data, MIT researchers worked alongside an Afghan digital production crew that traveled to the chosen sites after being remotely trained to pilot a ‘3D scanning aerial operation,'” explained Nikolaos Vlavianos, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Department of Architecture Design and Computation group. “We collected between 15,000 and 30,000 images at each location using cutting-edge technology and drone photography.”

Jelena Pejkovic, an architect, has shared her approach to creating detailed hand-drawn renderings of the locations. “I wanted to rediscover the most traditional possible kind of documentation—measuring directly by hand, and drawing by hand,” said Pejkovic.

Fontini Christia, a political science professor at MIT and the lead of the project, expressed her vision for the project’s impact.

“The ultimate intent of this project has been to make all these outputs, which are co-owned with the Afghans who carried out the data collection on the ground, available to Afghan refugees displaced around the world but also accessible to anyone keen to witness them,” said Christia.

“This model can be replicated and scaled for other heritage sites at risk from wars, environmental disaster, or cultural appropriation.”

The public release of “Ways of Seeing” is scheduled for the end of June 2023, offering an immersive experience for viewers to explore and appreciate Afghanistan’s rich architectural history.