Architects Abeer Audeh and Mohammed Al-Asad peer at their glowing computer screen, and find themselves among the noble columns of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, one of the sites most revered by Muslims. The two never tire of watching the monitor blossom into detailed architectural plans of the historic city as it existed under Muslim rule.
Using computer-assisted design at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Jerusalem-born Audeh and Al-Asad, a Jordanian, have produced the first-ever computerized architectural drawings of an entire city. From them, Princeton University's Interactive Computer Graphics Lab produced a video "walking tour" of some of Jerusalem's historic sites as they were between the seventh and 10th centuries.
The drawings are destined for a book about Muslim Jerusalem by Oleg Grabar, a distinguished scholar of Islamic art and architecture. Grabar, who taught Al-Asad art history as Harvard University's first Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art, urged him to help with the illustrations for the book, due in 1995.
Recognizing the possibilities of using CAD for the architectural reconstructions, Al-Asad and Audeh began to push the frontiers of computer technology in completing the project. "So far as we know, no one's done this before," says Al-Asad. "It's been challenging, especially when problems came up: We were on our own."
He and Audeh spent more than a year mastering the CAD program and feeding reams of architectural data about the historic city into computer memory-facts culled from manuscripts and scrolls, old books and historic maps.
"The computer makes it much easier to manage a large-scale project such as this," Audeh notes, "and it takes much less time to produce the drawings." The drawings are particularly exciting because they permit a three-dimensional view of building and sites that not longer exist. "This new technology makes visible what was once left to the imagination," Grabar says.
Al-Asad, who now lives in Amman, decided in high school to become an architect. After earning degrees at the University of Illinois, he went on to Harvard, completing his Ph.D. in Islamic architecture in 1990. He enjoys teaching architecture and was recently tapped to start a graduate institute in Islamic art and architecture at Jordan's new Al al-Bayt University. Yet Al-Asad also wants to practice his profession and dreams of making contributions to society like the day-care center he designed for a refugee camp in Amman.
With the completion of the Jerusalem project, Audeh has returned to Cambridge and her master's studies, but she is eager to design her own buildings someday. Perhaps it is in her genes, she says with a smile. "My whole family is in civil engineering; we're practical people. I like theory so long as it guides actual architectural design." She is glad to have worked with Grabar and Al-Asad, she says:" I feel the project is very important, especially today. This will remind the world how far back the Muslim presence in Jerusalem goes."
Susan T. Rivers publishes Maghreb Report, a newsletter about North Africa, and is also a free-lance photojournalist with a special focus on the Arab world.