INSPIRE — 19 September 2012

INSPIRE BOXES are supported by the Fetzer Institute as a means of highlighting exemplary initiatives or people promoting peace and reconciliation

Afghanistan’s needs are so immediate and overpowering that it might be tempting to rank cultural issues relatively low on the list of national development priorities. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is proof, however, that cultural regeneration not only improves the quality of life, but can also play a critical role in any national development strategy. Cultural awareness and pride are essential components of the Afghan spirit, particularly among young people, who are repelled by political infighting, greed and war. Afghan youth seek a clearer notion of their own identity.  They require a more coherent understanding of their past and what their nation represents. Recognizing this, other aid groups have now begun to incorporate culture into their initiatives.

In 2002, AKDN began to rehabilitate the Bagh-e-Babur (Babur’s Gardens), an early 16th century terraced domain that includes the tomb of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, the founder of the Moghal Empire. AKDN’s restoration, which has been underway for six years, began with the reconstruction of large sections of the 1.5 kilometre long Pakhsa (baked mud) perimeter walls. This phase of the reconstruction culminated with the rehabilitation of the Queen’s Palace, a late 19th century structure built by Amir Abdurrahman Khan. In the process, rehabilitation teams excavated and reconstructed the historic water channels and tanks, which provided irrigation for the garden until the early 20th century. They also restored Babur’s tomb along with the 17th century Shahjahan Mosque, which now conform to their original designs. At the foot of the garden near the Kabul River, a reconstructed caravanserai, similar to those found in Baku and elsewhere in Central Asia, now provides space for a visitor’s centre, shops and offices.

Wherever possible the garden’s rich horticulture, including fruit trees and plants, which were described in meticulous detail by Babur himself in the Baburnama (Babur’s memoirs), has been restored. A crucial part of the rehabilitation work involved improving access, drainage and flood protection facilities for the 10,000 inhabitants of the surrounding residential area. Rare bird and other wildlife have now begun to return.

Since early 2008, Babur’s Gardens have been maintained and operated by an independent trust, which managed to become self-sustaining in 2010, enabling hundreds of thousands of visitors to use the site for cultural and recreational purposes each year.

In a similar project, Jolyon Leslie, a South African architect and one of the country’s most experienced cultural experts, has been working on the renovation of the war-damaged quarters of the Old City of Kabul, once a crossroads of civilizations. An elaborate blend of Indian, Persian and Central Asian influences is noticeable, not only in the Old City’s unique architecture, but also in its arts and crafts. War shattered much of the Old City’s craft industry, leaving most of its inhabitants impoverished.

The AKDN has sought to conserve key historic buildings, including houses, mosques, shrines and public facilities, and the transformation since the programme’s launch has been stunning. Upgrading works have dramatically improved living conditions for some 35,000 Old City residents. Socio-economic training for hundreds of households in the neighbourhoods of Asheqan wa Arefan, Chindawol and Kuche Kharabat have fostered newly found skills in tailoring, embroidery, and weaving. The recent reclamation of Baghe Qazi (Judge’s Garden), a 3.5-hectare public garden, located in the heart of the Old City, will also enable local residents to benefit from using the green space for recreational and sporting activities.

The Turquoise Foundation, which started its Old City rehabilitation work in 2006, has also contributed to the restoration. Like the AKDN, the Turquoise Foundation has rebuilt homes, improved basic infrastructure and preserved historic buildings. It has also focused on rebuilding the country’s neglected craftwork by establishing the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, which offers schools in woodworking, calligraphy & painting, ceramics and jewellery & gem-cutting. It has also opened a school in Murad Khane, the artistic quarter of Kabul’s Old City. It ahs helped sell nearly one million US dollars worth of traditional Afghan arts and crafts both at home and abroad.

Although the work so far has been impressive, more remains to be accomplished. Many other historic buildings in the capital and in other Afghan cities have been neglected for too long and are now in danger of collapsing.  Some of these buildings have also suffered from deliberate destruction by ruthless real estate entrepreneurs and corrupt government officials. Some buildings are knocked down overnight in a bid to avoid protection orders, which, in any case, are frequently not enforced if the police have been paid off.

In 2009 the AKDN completed the restoration of the imposing 19th-century brick mausoleum of Timur Shah in central Kabul. Responsible for consolidating the political gains made by his father Ahmad Shah Durrani, considered by many as the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan, Timur Shah was responsible for transferring the seat of the power from Kandahar to Kabul. The remaining open space surrounding the mausoleum has been reclaimed to serve as a public garden in a densely crowded part of the city.

Renovation in other cities

But Kabul is not the only place where urgently needed renovation is being carried out. In the ancient western Afghan city of Herat, well known for its historic architecture, the AKDN has worked at upgrading and documenting surviving historic quarters and monuments of the Old City. This includes the restoration of the Ikhtyaruddin Citadel and the Char Suq cistern. It has undertaken additional rehabilitation work in the Timurid era shrine complex built for Abdullah Ansari in Gazurgah, northeast of the city.

As part of a further initiative aimed at preserving and developing Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, AKDN has established schools of classical Afghan music in Kabul and Herat. Years of war had threatened the survival of the country’s classical music tradition. Under the Ustad-Shagird training scheme begun in 2003, master musicians teach small groups of students, selected on merit, ensuring the transfer their musical skills to a younger generation of performers. Instruments taught include the rubab, delruba, sarinda, dutar and sitar.

The restoration of urban monuments, houses and public spaces, as well as related cultural programmes, have been important sources of training for craftsmen, creating employment and facilitating economic regeneration.  But perhaps most importantly, the work undertaken by AKDN, Turquoise Foundation and other organizations is also creating a sense of normality and hope in a country deeply affected not only by decades of conflict, but also religious and ethnic division. Albeit costly, the investment in cultural heritage needs to become of part basic development if Afghanistan is ever to emerge from its current quagmire.

Contacts: Aga Khan Foundation Afghanistan.


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