Ancient cities brought to life with controversial new technology as UC Berkeley professor probes past

by Kathleen Scalise

Berkeley -- Like a time machine exploring the past, a multimedia project at UC Berkeley is making it possible to stroll the streets of historic cities as they appeared hundreds of years ago.

Reconstructions of medieval Cairo and Damascus are underway built with the same technology used to make dinosaurs in the movie "Jurassic Park."

When completed, viewers will be able to tour buildings via computer screen and experience them as they were in the 10th century and the 15th century, said Nezar AlSayyad, associate professor of architecture and planning.

The new work uses multimedia technology to build a picture of these cities never before seen. Data is combined from existing buildings, historical portraits and drawings, archaeological evidence and travelerıs accounts. The simulations are being used to study how these cities functioned.

In the Cairo project, imposing city gates striped in limestone and red burnt brick give way to 26 fully reconstructed buildings along the road known as Palace Walk. Viewers can approach the structures from all sides. Even aerial views are provided.

AlSayyad, who is also chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, and collaborator Yehuda Kalay, a professor of architecture, are finding no lack of historical information on which to base their simulations.

Cairo, for instance, has stood for more than 1,000 years on the same site, gateway to the Nile delta, with the great pyramids rising at the southwestern edge of the metropolis. It remains the capital of Egypt and the largest city in Africa. The region has attracted hordes of visitors over the centuries, who recorded their impressions of the city.

"You wouldnıt believe how exciting it can be as we begin to combine data and see the city really take shape," said graduate student researcher Ame Elliott.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, AlSayyad hopes to people his cities with characters from historic drawings and paintings. The still figures could be brought to life through animation, he said, though it would require major computing power.

AlSayyadıs research is provocative among urban historians. He argues Cairo was once a planned city built on a grid with wide boulevards and gracious buildings. This view is so at odds with the cramped irregular streets of the medieval Islamic quarter, "nobody can imagine it," said AlSayyad.

Though he says he is on sure ground, AlSayyad warns computers are capable of generating images so powerful they can distort history.

"As a historian, if you donıt have tremendous restraint, you have the ability to misrepresent reality when you exceed the limit of what you can verify historically and enter simulation," he said.

Itıs ultimately a question of artistic license. "How much of it do we have over history?" he asks.

"I have stayed completely within the lines, but at some level I have experienced this dilemma." he said.


Note: Nezar AlSayyad is available at (510) 642-4852.

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