Virtual Reality from Mamluk-Period Cairo

Several months ago, some of my colleagues in Japan launched an online portal through which it is possible to explore from one’s own office the complex of the Mamluk sultan Qalawun (d. 1290), in Cairo (see: Qalawun VR Tour or the project’s site). In this post, I will present a brief overview of the portal so that readers may familiarize themselves with the concept behind the site and may seek further examples and opportunities to produce similar sites. 

Islamicate digital humanities has, in my view, tended to focus too much on working with textual evidence, to the detriment of material culture. This is, to a large extent, understandable. Most Islamic studies scholars focus almost exclusively on texts as the basis of their work and so it is perhaps natural that, after the digital turn, they continued to do so. Additionally, for scholars outside the Islamic world there is a significant difference in the quantity of material available; Islamic manuscripts are held in libraries in many capitals across the world, but there is a comparative dearth of material culture in many places, and particularly, of course, Islamic architecture. As such, this portal reverses that trend somewhat, reflecting developments elsewhere in the digital humanities.

The site itself is a fairly simple one, featuring a main section containing images from the complex itself, together with a small map of the complex in the top left corner showing the position within it of the image being viewed, as well as the approximately 70 other locations from where further images of the site can be viewed (see website image, below).

The navigation is clear and simple; just click on one of the yellow dots on the mausoleum map and an image taken from that position will appear. From there, it is possible to turn through 360 degrees from that spot, as well as looking up to the ceiling. As the image is rotated the map relates the direction in which you are looking via a yellow zone. The detail of the images is extremely good, as should perhaps be expected, and it is possible to clearly decipher the various inscriptions visible on the walls. Where there are objects of interest, there are explanatory notes given (currently only in Japanese, but these can be run through Google Translate for a fairly accurate translation; an English version is forthcoming in 2021).

For teaching purposes this should prove an excellent tool, appealing to the imaginations of the students, as anyone who uses it can immerse themselves much more fully in the environment, no longer having to look at difficult-to-interpret pictures from often dusty volumes. It would be very welcome if more Cairene mausolea are mapped in the same way, so researchers could investigate architectural trends over time without necessarily having to go to Cairo. One even wonders whether, with 3D printing in the future, it will be possible to use such portals to create models of building complexes such as this.

If I were to make some suggestions for furthering a portal such as this, it would be very useful to have some further contextualization of the mausoleum. Currently, for the uninitiated, some background to the life of the sultan would be very useful, and it may be worthwhile to have answered related questions (such as why this mausoleum rather than that of any other Mamluk sultan?). Some indication of the place of the mausoleum itself within the wider context of the city of Cairo would also be very welcome. However, these will be coming soon, as the website is developed further. 

In terms of functionality, a useful additional tool might be the ability to actually ‘walk through’ the complex, much as one does on Streetview, rather than having to click on the various spots on the map in order to do so, which prevents a sense of flow across the portal. If such an approach were to be married to a VR headset, it would be a fully immersive experience.

This is, in general, a rather simple portal, but I mean that in a very positive way. As an exploration of how digital techniques may be applied not only to texts but to material culture, it demonstrates to us the possibilities for future research projects and, particularly I think, teaching of such portals and how they may be used in future to answer new questions and allow for more efficiency in aspects of research.

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