Revolution in 3D. Digitizing the fortress of Kala-Koreysh

Revolution in 3D.  Digitizing the fortress of Kala-Koreysh

A revolution, especially in culture, always begins unnoticed. Apart from those directly involved, only a handful of advanced thinkers are aware of its advent. Only after the fact will everyone else learn that everything has changed. It seems that we are now seeing the achievements of a technological revolution in culture. I was part of an expedition that was making a digital version the Kala-Koreysh fortress—it was Dagestan, and it was at a very high altitude>

The technology is called photogrammetry,>’Polina Filippova, director of the PERI Foundation, told me. ‘We can create a virtual software model as well as a real-life model of the fortress complete with every detail.’ As I find out more about this expedition with its Russian and Spanish photographers, I get the impression that the 21st century has finally arrived. Specialists are provided by the Factum Foundation, the Spanish partner in the project. They were the ones that the Egyptian authorities commissioned two years ago to make a 3D facsimile of Tutankhamen’s tomb, and that facsimile is now installed in Luxor and open to the public. This provides a way to reduce the damaging impact of tourist traffic at the real tomb and allows anyone leery of the curses attached to Egyptian tombs to see what they are actually like—assuming that the curses cannot somehow extend to 3D. While the Spanish team was working at the tomb, they found two sections of the walls that differed from the rest. They called in archaeologists, and that led to the discovery of two previously unknown chambers. That find astonished the world, and great museums from various countries now want to work with the company. Nevertheless, they had agreed to train several Russian photographers and take on a joint project with the privately operated PERI Foundation. They are beginning with Dagestan as a sort of pilot region.>

Kala-Koreysh can be reached from Derbent on a winding road into the mountains where the village of Kubachi is located. The village is famous in its own right as the place in the Soviet Union where knicknacks of gold, enamel and silver were made. Just how the Soviet bosses managed to transport such a large amount of precious metals there is hard to figure, but it is a fact that Kubachi jewellery can be found in nearly every home. From the village you go on foot to the fortress, and that is when you realize why it is being digitally recorded.>

The fortress lies a thousand metres above sea level. In fact, that is the only thing you can say about it with certainty. If you check Wikipedia and guidebooks on Dagestan, they say about Kala-Koreysh that right there at the confluence of five rivers (that are extremely hard to get to!) was the first Islamic settlement on Russian territory. This ‘fortress of the Quraysh’ was the capital of the Kaytag utsmystvo. The Quraysh were the Arab tribe from which, according to tradition, the prophet Mohammed descended. It was from this mountain peak that the Quraysh spread Islam.>

‘Of course,’ cautions Patimat Gamzatova, daughter of famous Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov, prior to the expedition, ‘these texts are all well-known, but we still have to bear in mind that as yet we have no scientific basis for saying they are from this or that particular place. Kala-Koreysh has been called Dagestan’s Machu Picchu, which is a nice comparison—I’d even say it is a perfect fit. However, this is not from the 7th century, but more likely from the 11th. At least the mosque dates from then.’>

>The doors of the mosque are carved with lions and intricate ornamentation on the north side and with birds on the south, which shows an Iranian influence. The doors were relocated to the museum in Makhachkala to preserve them, but you can’t relocate the fortress. ‘Take a look at the gravestones in the shape of a sarcophagus. They can’t actually be sarcophagi because Islam requires burial in the earth. They have hardly been studied at all,’ Patimat Gamzatova says in parting>

For the faithful of Islam the fortress, and in particular its mosque, is a pilgrimage site. While we are trying to look as if we have no problem walking into the mountains, women and children easily overtake us. And they are gathering up large bundles of plants from beside the path. More things are preserved here, such as mausoleums of sheiks, a caravanserai, a mill, old living quarters, and a madrassa. In the 1940s the Soviets resettled the local residents to the plains from which the Chechen had been deported.>

We are met by 78-year-old Bagoma, the watchman for the fortress and Kala-Koreysh’s last inhabitant. He lives in a restored dwelling which, so they say, has belonged to his family since the 9th century. The members of the expedition are housed in this same dwelling because there is no other. Every day they rise with the sun and begin taking pictures. To make sure that a computer model can be properly generated later on, each object must be photographed in shots that overlap by 90% exactly, down to the centimetre. ‘What if the weather changes?’ I ask one of the photographers. ‘Oh, don’t ask! That means we have to start all over,’ he answers. Otherwise, the model would not come together. It will take a month for them to completely scan the mosque along with the gravesites and ancient headstones. While the work goes on, Bagoma talks about how people at one time had a good life here. It is hard to imagine. ‘The only thing hard,’ he says, ‘was bringing water, so they resettled us. And who would want to leave the plains to come back to the mountains? You get used to an easier life.’ He tells me about his failing vision and weak heart and how he will miss those ‘workhorses’. I ask whether he understands what the expedition is doing. ‘Naturally! This place, which is my home, won’t die. I will die, but it will live on and remind people of us.’>

The photographers are now wrapping up work on the model of the fortress, and it will become accessible to specialists who would not otherwise have a chance to study Kala-Koreysh. We will finally understand what is depicted on the gravestones, whether this was the first place from which Islam spread, and what life was like for whoever lived in the mountains on a little patch of land high over a precipice.>

No rest for the weary. The team is heading off on a new expedition to the Ferapontov monastery where 300 frescoes by the painter Dionysius are kept in the museum. Of course, they have all been examined and thoroughly studied, but they cannot be exhibited anywhere else. However, a 3D model of an icon by Dionysius could make the trip. Up to the north in Vologda oblast the PERI Foundation hopes to find more photographers to train in the use of this digital technology. Then other cultural monuments besides the Ferapontov monastery will be accessible to everyone and permanently preserved.>