One tragic dimension of the conflict spanning Iraq and Syria has been the damage done to some of the world's most precious cultural heritage. However, geospatial mapping and geographic information technologies are  giving cause for hope.

On 20 January, the Associated Press published satellite images showing that ISIS extremists had destroyed Dair Mar Elia, the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq. Named after Saint Elijah, the monastery overlooked the city of Mosul for over 1400 years. The Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ's name, were carved near the entrance. The satellite images indicate that the site had been demolished in late 2014, yet another example of the systematic destruction of sites containing spiritual, cultural and religious significance.

Unfortunately, the destruction could not be definitively confirmed until a year later. In future this may not be the case, with significant advancements in the use of satellites and geographic information systems to monitor and measure damage to cultural heritage sites across the Middle East and North Africa.

In June last year, UNESCO and UNITAR (the UN Institute for Training and Research) signed an agreement to protect cultural and natural heritage sites by using geospatial mapping technologies. The technologies come under the purview of UNITAR's Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT), located at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. On 19 January, UNOSAT released a damage-assessment LIVE map of Iraq, using information from satellites located over the cities of Ramadi and Sinjar. The map showed damage levels on buildings and industrial facilities, as well as crater impacts.

The strength of these tools is that they can provide accessible and precise resources to countries where ground access is limited or restricted. By analysing these resources, changes to the landscape are immediately detectable and cultural heritage sites located near the conflict can be more thoroughly appraised.

Public and private sector collaboration

There is growing collaboration between public and private groups involved in geospatial mapping. For example, Oxford archaeologist Robert Bewley has been leading an endangered archaeology documentation project called EAMENA. The project, which has close links to the government of Jordan, already has a large database of archaeological sites spanning from Mauritania to Iran. Another project is Map Action, a UK-based humanitarian organisation that deploys mapping and information-management teams around the world to collect field data during humanitarian emergencies. Map Action recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the UNOSAT program.

Other organisations are supplementing satellite imagery with other new technologies. For example, the Million Image Database uses digital imaging and 3D printing techniques to crowd-source research data on cultural heritage. Coordinated by scientists at Oxford University, Harvard, and Dubai's Museum of the Future, the project also has support from the UAE government. A similar non-profit called CyArk scans heritage objects, from small artifacts to landmarks, with the aim of building an online 3D library of cultural heritage sites and documenting objects before they are lost through natural disaster or conflict, and potentially creating records to facilitate reconstruction.

Leadership?

The ISIS conflict is complex, with discord between Shia and Sunni groups, Arab and Persian groups, paramilitaries, and a variety of other politically motivated rebel groups. Yet there is a diverse collaborative international community focused on monitoring the cultural heritage in the region.  As the pre-eminent international organisation on world heritage, it remains to be seen how easily UNESCO will be able to coordinate a crisis response amid the conflict. UNESCO's collaboration with UNITAR and UNOSAT has the potential to propel it to a more authoritative position in protecting cultural heritage in conflict, but it will be an uphill battle to coordinate and centralise policies.

The use of satellite imagery analysis and geospatial technologies in monitoring cultural heritage within conflict is proving to be an area of progress. The technologies, and the organisations developing them, will hopefully be able to go some way towards preventing another tragedy like that of Dair Mar Elia. It is widely accepted that heritage and culture play a prominent role in national reconciliation. By investing in monitoring solutions now, future peace processes in the region will be made easier.