Digital Heritage Mapping’s Diarna Project

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Digital Project Demonstration by Jason Guberman-Pfeffer

From Diarna’s website: Diarna is an initiative of Digital Heritage Mapping, a 501c3 non-profit organization using technology to map and preserve cultural heritage sites around the world. “Diarna” means “our homes” in Judeo-Arabic, a version of Arabic mixed with Hebrew spoken by Jews across the Middle East in numerous local dialects. Read an overview article about Diarna , the magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies.

Notes on the Diarna Project demonstration at the Center for Jewish History’s “From Access to Integration” conference:

“The New Jewish Geography: A Gateway, not a Destination”

The Diarna Project relies on researchers in the archives and researchers on the ground to map physical sites and connect them with archival resources. It did not set out to be an oral history project; however, increasingly, it has come to use place-based oral histories.

So far, they have mapped 650 sites. That is the conservative estimate; soon, they will plug them all into the new database system and be able to say for sure.

The use of Wikimapia (an online editable map – “you can describe any place on Earth. Or just surf the map discovering tons of already marked places.”) shows the advantage of having an open source in this type of undertaking. 

The possibilities are vast. An example: The Diarna Project can find old pictures of a synagogue in a now-defunct newspaper and connect that synagogue to a physical site. They can virtually guide someone down the streets of cities whose Jewish communities are largely gone and find the sites that tell their stories.

To show another level of integration, a project Diarna has done: They have identified the site of the Slat Saba, or Saba Synagogue, in Fez; built a data-layer on top of it that continues summary of information; included a bibliography and outside sources; found archival footage in a documentary on Morocco [see YouTube: DiarnaInfo, specifically this video]; and, though it is now a private home, virtually connect this physical site to its rich history.

As part of the demo, we are flying to Iran—“no airfare or passport required!”

In Hamadan, Iran: This synagogue’s Star of David may be the only Jewish star visible from space. (There was another, also in Iran, but it has since been destroyed.) The Diarna Project reached out to the architect who had helped restore site during the 1970s, including building its subterranean chapel. Then a digital architect build a model. Now Diarna is able to present the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai on another level—not only mapping the site in this 3D model, but also providing an experience that is unrivaled. You can even take a tour of the rooms.

The work is difficult, time-consuming, not completely formalized. Originally, Diarna Project reps had to present on two laptops (one with Google Earth, one with photos). Now, the materials are increasingly published by Google, which makes them accessible to the billions of users on Google Earth.

The Diarna Project has many goals for the future. One is to develop increasingly compelling formats to present this information. Also, a comparatively small amount of what Diarna has done is actually published online. But the Diarna Project has defined its role: to provide a graphic data layer and then leave the destination, interpretation and contextualization of data to scholars in the field. Unless this material is made accessible, the conversation will forever be limited. 

Now, for a short window in time, technological feasibility has caught up with the exigency of human memory. Perhaps this will last for another five years—this is the time we have to document the memories of people who have left these communities.

The Diarna Project seeks to make as much of this information accessible as possible.

Thanks to YouTube, you can watch “Diarna Re-Opens Tripoli’s Dar Bishi Synagogue”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVUZbEoHBuc.

From Diarna: Media reporters abound about the efforts of Dr. David Gerbi to restore the dilapidated Dar Bishi Synagogue, a former fixture of Tripoli’s Hara Kebira (old Jewish Quarter). Gerbi, a Libyan Jew who has lived in exile since 1967, returned to his ancestral home this past spring as a volunteer in support of the anti-Gaddafi regime revolutionaries. Remaining after the fall of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, Gerbi single-handedly re-opened Dar Bishi for prayer — his own, as the last member of the disbanded indigenous Jewish community died in 2003 — and began restoring the synagogue by clearing decades of accumulated debris.

The work was abruptly put on indefinite hold on October 8th, Yom Kippur (the Jewish holiday of atonement), when hundreds of protesters gathered in Tripoli and Bengazi to assert “There is no place for the Jews in Libya.” Gerbi was prevailed upon to leave the country after protesters attempted to storm his hotel and disagreements arose with the provisional government about whether he had received the proper authorizations.

While there is no telling when he might be able to return or if the synagogue will ever be restored, Diarna has created an exclusive digital reconstruction of Dar Bishi. The video above features a tour of our 3-D model intermixed with archival and contemporary photographs.

Learn more here.

Check out Diarna’s YouTube channel here

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