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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 December 2005, 08:24 GMT
Virtual tour of Africa's heritage
By Mohammed Allie
BBC News, Cape Town

Africans will soon be able to take an online tour of the continent's major world heritage sites like Great Zimbabwe, the rock-hewn St Giyorgis church at Lalibella in Ethiopia and the great mosque of Djenne in Mali.

The great mosque of Djenne. Click to see in 3D

Heinz Ruther, professor of Geomatics at the University of Cape Town, has embarked on a project aimed both at preserving the sites, and also at making them accessible - in virtual form - to people across the continent who may not have the means to get there themselves.

"I want to create an awareness of African heritage on the continent," Prof Ruther says.

"I want to create something for the future so that should these buildings and structures be destroyed there will be something at least in digital form which can be seen by people in, say, 200 years time.

"The models could also be used to possibly even reconstruct buildings," he adds.


Using the latest techniques in laser scan and computer technology, Prof Ruther and his colleagues are creating three-dimensional models and virtual landscapes of several Unesco World Heritage sites.

Heinz Ruther in the Djenne mosque
Prof Ruther started mapping heritage sites 10 years ago

"We use close-range laser scanners and photogrammetry to create full three-dimensional models," he says.

Photogrammetry is a method which normally uses aeroplanes to map the earth's surface.

"We take a number of photos of the earth's surface and use those to create 3-D models of the earth's surface and then make maps of those," Prof Ruther continues.

"We scan for four and five days and produce millions of points, after setting up the instruments at about 40-50 different positions.

For example, the great mosque in Djenne in Mali has about 60 million points.


Prof Ruther started mapping African heritage sites 10 years ago in Lalibella.

3D of St Giyorgis Church in Ethiopia

He has since worked on the Kilwa Fortress in Tanzania, and the Djenne mosque as well as other sites in the historic Kenyan trading port of Lamu.

Next month Prof Ruther and his group plan to visit slave fortresses in Ghana and two walled cities in Nigeria.

"The authorities are quite pleased with the attention we're giving to their sites although sometimes one has to go through so many channels to get permission to work at the site," Prof Ruther says.

"Many of the sites are badly neglected because of a lack of funds."

Kilwa mosque
Some of the sites are badly neglected

In addition to creating a site which will be freely available to African universities, museums and authorities, Prof Ruther also intends to develop CD-Roms with walk-through capabilities.

"I would like to do this especially for schoolchildren so that they can learn something about their heritage."

Besides physically mapping the sites, Prof Ruther also hopes to provide a socio-historical analysis of them.

"We have a group of African experts who will provide additional material such as early maps, travellers' documents and any scientific analysis of the structure.

"It's going to be a scholarly database - it won't just be pretty pictures," he said.

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