Ways of Seeing: Documenting Endangered Built Heritage in Afghanistan

2022–23 Mellon Faculty Grant

Topdara Stupa, Parwan, Afghanistan. Photogrammetry 3D model by Nikolaos Vlavianos, On-site data collection Moby Group.
Minaret of Jam, Ghor Province, Afghanistan. Drawing by: Jelena Pejković. 2022.
Four Pillars, Herat, Afghanistan. Aerial 3D scanning operation directed by Nikolaos Vlavianos (MIT), On-site data collection by Mohammad Jan Kamal and Moby Group.
Topdara Stupa, Parwan, Afghanistan (Drum detail 1). Drawing by: Jelena Pejković. 2022.
Topdara Stupa, Parwan, Afghanistan. Point-cloud by Nikolaos Vlavianos, On-site data collection Moby Group.

Generating digital twins to document endangered heritage sites in Afghanistan


Ways of Seeing: Documenting Endangered Built Heritage in Afghanistan brings together an international team of archaeologists, architects, conservationists, digital artists, journalists, and political scientists to document endangered heritage sites in Afghanistan. 

Afghan archaeologists identified a selected number of heritage sites endangered by years of conflict in Afghanistan, and a team of journalists with expertise in digital production has been trained to use drones for data collection. With the collected data, the team creates visual learning resources for both conservation specialists and the general public.

State of the art technology will be used to generate digital twins of the sites, creating a digital 3D architectural archive. Extended reality (XR) applications, enhanced by detailed hand drawings of selected architectural elements, will allow immersive experiences of these at-risk sites. 

The team will also author an essay on how to understand and contextualize this data collection, as well as how to interpret and present the end products.

Ways of Seeing preserves the evidence of the heritage sites and provides learning resources for a range of global audiences, including Afghan refugee children currently displaced around the world.


Past Events

Ways of Seeing: Documenting Endangered Built Heritage in Afghanistan
Panel Discussion and Demonstration

Thursday, April 27, 2023 / 12:00-2:00pm
MIT Media Lab
75 Amherst Street, Cambridge, MA

Symposium with SAH-Afghanistan: Architectural Heritage and Global Politics
October 20, 2022


Fotini Christia is the Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences in the MIT Department of Political Science. Her research interests include issues of conflict and cooperation in the Muslim world, and she has conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iran, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, and Yemen. She is also working to bridge the social sciences, data science, and computation by bringing researchers from these disciplines together to address systemic racism across housing, healthcare, policing, education, and employment.

Biography: MIT Political Science
Website: fotini.mit.edu

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.  His interests include Islamic architecture, urban history, heritage studies, Arab history, contemporary Islamic art, and post-colonial criticism. Rabbat has published numerous articles and several books on topics ranging from Mamluk architecture to Antique Syria, 19th-century Cairo, Orientalism, and urbicide.

Biography: MIT Department of Architecture
Social: Twitter

A team of journalists from the leading media organization in Afghanistan applies their expertise using drones to lead the data collection effort across the sites in Afghanistan. These journalists include Mohammad Jan Kamal, Nazifullah Benaam, Warekzai Ghayoor, Rahm Ali Mohebzada, Mohammad Harif Ghobar, and Abdul Musawer Anwar. 

Shafic Gawhari is the managing director for Afghanistan at the Moby Group, one of the leading integrated media and communications groups across South and Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The company has been widely recognized for its role in bringing news and entertainment to underserved populations. It serves over 300 million people through its activities in broadcasting, digital and online, production, strategic communications, publishing, music, sports, and research.

Social: Facebook | Twitter

Jelena Pejković, MIT MArch 2006 alumna and conservation architect, will produce inked technical hand drawings of the documented structures based on the VERNADOC method, and digital sketches to be used in XR applications. The detailed, precise, and highly accurate ink drawings represent a high-impact communication tool with the general public and, most importantly, with the local communities that are owners and custodians of the documented heritage. These images are meant to inspire pride, respect, curiosity, and admiration for the monuments they depict and the cultures they reflect.

Biography: MIT Architecture Department
Social: LinkedIn

Nikolaos Vlavianos is an MIT PhD candidate in Design and Computation. His research focuses on the intersection of architecture, media theory, and cognitive science. In his PhD dissertation, Vlavianos employs state-of-the-art technology to 3D scan, visualize, and simulate the monastery of Simonos Petra in Athos, Greece, in XR. His research proposes/hypothesizes that human behavioral changes in space are measurable, and that the nature of these changes can be codified through self-reporting techniques and continuous measurement of psychological and physiological data in XR. 

Through his research, Vlavianos has digitized large-scale sites around the world, led aerial 3D scanning operations in Machu Picchu, Peru; Mii-dera, Kyoto, Japan; Monticello, Virginia, US; and Cappadocia, Turkey. Vlavianos holds an MS in Architecture Studies (SMArchS Computation) from MIT, an MS in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University, and a bachelor’s degree in Architecture and Engineering from National Technical University of Athens.

In this project, Vlavianos leads the digital transformation strategy, inventing a remote Cultural Heritage Virtual Experience (rCHVE) toolkit. By rigorously training Afghan locals on how to fly drones and perform detailed 3D scans, remote data collection becomes feasible simultaneously in different sites across the region. At MIT, he enables 3D reconstruction and image processing so that detailed 3D models with texture mapping will be produced for XR, VR, and AR applications. 

Biography: MIT Department of Architecture


Project lead, research, and writing: Fotini Christia

Lead, Digital Transformation: Nikolaos Vlavianos

Ink Drawings and Digital Sketches: Jelena Pejković

On-site Data Collection: Shafic Gawhari, Managing Director of Moby Group, Afghanistan led a team including Mohammad Jan Kamal, Nazifullah Benaam, Warekzai Ghayoor, Rahm Ali Mohebzada, Mohammad Harif Ghobar, and Abdul Musawer Anwar

Research Team: Nasser Rabbat and Fotini Christia

Undergraduate Student Researchers: Marilyn Muzi Fang, Wellesley College, and Jennifer Meng Lu, Wellesley College

Ways of Seeing: Documenting Endangered Built Heritage in Afghanistan is supported by a Mellon Faculty Grant from the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology and by faculty funding from the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). It is co-presented with the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) at the Schwarzman College of Computing, MIT Department of Political Science,  the MIT Department of Political Science, and SHASS, and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.