Virtual Cairo

You Can Tour the City in the 10th, 15th Centuries With Professor AlSayyad's Multimedia Project

by Kathleen Scalise

Like a time machine exploring the past, a Berkeley multimedia project 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 under way, 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 traveler's 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. Viewers can approach the structures from all sides and aerial views are provided.

AlSayyad, who is also chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 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. It remains the capital of Egypt and the largest city in Africa. Visitors over the centuries have recorded their impressions of the city.

"You wouldn't 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.

With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, AlSayyad hopes to people his cities with characters from historic drawings and paintings.

AlSayyad's research is provocative among urban historians. He argues Cairo was once a planned city built on a grid with wide boulevards. 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 could distort history.

"As a historian, if you don't 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.

It's 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.


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