Monday, January 19, 2015

Antiochia: A Sim and a Scholarship Trust

By Bixyl Shuftan

Earlier this month, the Antiochia sim officially opened. The sim is named after the ancient city of the same name, founded as a Greek colony, and thrived during Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine times despite being hit with earthquakes. There are a number of builds representing structures of the historic city around, which one can walk about and explore.

The sim is backed by the Antiochia Scholarships Trust, of which the staff of it's group there arranges events for students coming to Second Life through them.The landmark I was given led to the Porta Aurea, or "Golden Gate," of which a couple prim guards stood by. There were people nearby, so I headed over to the info center to the east. It was there I ran into the one who had invited me over, Alex Olteanu (alexolteanu.unplugged). His display name is the same as his real-life name. He welcomed me to the sim and offered to show me around. Alex explained that Antiochia was founded by Seleucus, one of Alexander's generals. It would become the capital of his empire, which was the easternmost and largest of the post-Alexander Hellenic kingdoms.

We headed back to the Porta Aurea. Looking around, I found a level that when pressed opened a door to a secret stairway leading down. In the room underneath, there were three maps on the wall, representing the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East during the Alexander the Great's campaigns, the Hellenic kingdoms that followed, and the Roman Empire around the fourth century, split into Western and Eastern halves, of which Antiochia would be part of the Eastern, which would later become the Byzantine Empire (the name would be given to them by scholars as they continued to call themselves Romans). On another wall was a painting of the city, "That's how it looked at it's height." On a third wall was a door to a tomb.

Opening it led to a build of Alexander's Tomb, "reproduced exactly in accordance with the old historians accounts." The place was a mixture of Greek and Ancient Egyptian influences, with both hieroglyphics and Greek murals. Alexander's body was still in his Greek armor, "He declared himself to be the son of Ra, and was buried in Alexandria Egypt, but he remained Greek (laughter)."

Olteanu explained, "What we tried to do here, contrary to most other historical sims, is not to have a monoculture like Roma. I love Roma, but its not reality. Each place has layers of history, multiple waves, one after theo ther. So here, we have Phoenician ruins, a Greek port, a Roman center, and a Byzantine fortress wiith Arab influences. The time of this build is 600 AD, Justinian's time, just before the Arab conquests. So we have some Arabic mosaics, but no Islamic theme. Because there was no Islam yet (laughter)."

We then headed to the Byzantine fortress, the main part of the sim, "the bridge is an exact replica of the Alcantara bridge in Spain." Around the place are occasional white circles with the letter "i" surrounded by blue. Clicking them will get you a notecard with some information about an object it's on or near. Getting inside the citadel walls, Olteanu told me, "this is the heart of the sim, the Acropolis." He pointed to the cathedral. Unlike those made later in Western Europe, this was a structure topped with golden domes, "the Cathedral is a take on Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. ... The coupola is really special." Inside, the "Redemption Cathedral," as it was called in the notecard, was decorated with a number of early Christian murals. The notecard explained the cathedral "attempts to re-create the feel and atmosphere of the Haga Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople," only one of them having been done there. The rest were from various buildings in Ravenna, Rome, Sinai, Grad, and another church in Constantinople. It is listed as "the most surviving work of Byzantine architecture" there. It was finished in 537 AD.

Olteanu told me, "below we have a cistern than still exists today." He pressed a door-shaped mural, and a secret passage was revealed. It led to stairs that went down to where the fresh water was stored, "the water from the aqueduct comes here." Going back up, he made a turn in a different direction, "and here is a secret passage back to the entrance." Going through a false wall led to a secret door that led back outside. "The other major building is the Magnaura," Olteanu pointed to a domed brick-colored building next to a park area, "the political center. It is also from Constaniople. It no longer exists today, but this is what it would have looked like. This is where we meet and govern the sim. *chuckle* "

Nearby was the Antiochia School and Trust Square, which had a mosaic pattern floor, a display screen on the higher wall, and seats on the side opposite it. In the middle of the floor was a water fountain.  There, Olteanu asked, "Lets go sit and chat a bit so i can tell you why this (the sim) is here." So we sat down, and he explained, "So I am a lawyer and a Business Management teacher by profession. Two years ago, I spent a year in Erbil Iraq teaching, and met a huge diversity of students, ethnically and religious, especially a lot of Christians. They all were eager to learn English and study abroad, especially in Canada where I am from. When I returned to Vancouver, I set up the Antiochia Scholarships trust. I named it after Antochia because it was such a multicultural diverse and cultured city. AST helps students from the Greater Middle East to realize their dream to study at universities in Canada. We pair students with universities and donors so they can come to study.

"I had experienced Second Life before. I created Al Andalus in 2008 with Rose Springvale, and I knew the potential of the platform. So we are using Second Life and this sim to create a virtual community of students before they arrive, help them improve their English and leadership skills and get ready for Canada. So this is fully integrated into our real life project and provides a unique platform that other media cannot do in a historical environment, which makes it both fun and educational. We have other partner institutions with their own projects, like Kelmen College across the river. So we are not in the business of renting land, but finding the right partners to develop synergies to promote Education - Creativity Citizenship and Diversity. That's the short version of it." He then chuckled a bit.

I asked, "How much experience with computers do your students usually have?" Alex answered,

"Quite a bit," Olteanu answered, "We have IT majors for example. But it is a steep learning curve to join Second Life. So we are training a few students to be a welcoming committee,  to provide support for those who will join later, and make is as easy as possible."

"The place looks very interesting and detailed," I told him and asked, "How long did it take to design and build it?

"Two months," he answered, "The Main architect is Alexia Carnell. She owns the Time Machine Studio in Second Life and is specialist in antiquity. The landscaper is Butterfly Summers, and the Terraformer is Bagheera Kristan. We starred on Oct 22 and finished on Jan 4. (There are) still some details and content to do, but its essentially done."

"The two main ideas I'd like you to remember if possible.  1. We use Second Life as an integral part of a real-life project to help real-life students pursue their education from the Middle East in Canada.  2. We have here a multi-layered cultural landscape trying to represent the reality of cultural diversity and hybridization that exists in the Middle East from Phoenician ruins to Greek ports to Roman aqueducts to Byzantine cathedrals and Arabic baths and squares. And water is the theme that brings it all together from the sources in the mountains and rivers and cistern to the aqueduct and ports and sea. It gives it a unity and coherence across time and space."

I then asked, "Are recent events complicating getting the students over?"

"Yes and no," Olteanu responded, "Yes because there are careful checks. But Canada is welcoming students from abroad, including the Middle East. So its much easier than in other countries, and they are already admitted by universities. So they are clearly students qualified to study here. A lot are Christian, not just Muslim."

My next question was, "So they already have the attention of universities and colleges?"

"Yes, "he answered, "We are partnering up with a number of Canadian universities. You can find out more information on the website of the real-life Antiochia School and Trust." He then displayed it as . The website includes a page about it's location in Second Life. The main webpage has a youtube of Alex Olteanu speaking about his vision for his organization. In the recent past, Alex has also been a news announcer for Rompost, a Romanian language television show in Vancouver.

Antiochia officially opened on Sunday January 12. For over twelve hours from 10AM to after 10PM, there were various events, from singers such as Maximillion Kleene, speakers such as the noted Gwyneth Llewelyn, who talked about developing governmental participation in Second Life, and Alex Olteanu himself talked about his vision of helping Middle Eastern students. The SL Enquirer wrote about the event in an article (here).

There was more on the sim to explore. Later on I found a rideable horse that one could mount and go about on. I still have yet to visit the lighthouse, Posiden's Temple, the port and harbor, and a number of other places here.

Website: .

Location: Antiochia (136, 249, 31)

Bixyl Shuftan

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