from Issue 7

Steppe 7 Cover

A Tale of Two Cities: Kabul And Herat

by Jolyon Leslie

In a time of relative peace and prosperity, there is a battle afoot to prevent the demolition of the historic centres of Kabul and Herat in the name of ‘development’. Jolyon Leslie and Habib Noori report from the front lines of this much quieter struggle between heritage and modernisation. Photographs by Nick Danziger

As Afghanistan again becomes an intensely contested site, and as the international community reconsiders the nature of its ‘engagement’ in the country, threats to its cultural heritage have mounted. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the inroads – made in the name of ‘development’ – into the historic cores around which the cities of Kabul and Herat continue to grow. The dense neighbourhoods at the heart of both cities, intersected by networks of narrow alleyways, are where many of the narratives of Afghan history and society come together. Shrines, mosques, daramsals and synagogues embody the diverse strands of faith; crumbling houses retain traces of past prosperity; tumble-down serais are stacked high with gaudy plastic imports; brash new buildings tower above ruins that are largely the preserve of drug addicts; mounds of earth bear witness to fierce conflict, traces of the former homes of families now scattered across Afghanistan and the globe.

Having partly survived the modernising visions of previous generations of planners as well as more recent factional fighting, these historic neighbourhoods now face an altogether graver threat – even at a time of relative peace and prosperity. With the population of Kabul doubling since 2002, and with continuing growth in Herat, the value of urban property has soared; long-neglected historic quarters are eyed by Afghan planners and developers. Despite efforts to get such areas formally designated as heritage zones, the absence of effective urban management systems or building controls means that historic property is being demolished and ‘redeveloped’ at will. It is deeply ironic that Afghan politicians and civil servants, who routinely denounce the cultural vandalism of the Taliban era, seem unable or unwilling to prevent the destruction of their architectural heritage while presenting themselves as champions of ‘Afghan culture’. Ill-conceived external assistance also plays a part: a senseless road-widening scheme that recently cut a swathe through the heart of the old city in Kabul was conceived by Japanese advisors and funded by the UAE. In Herat, an Italian proposal to demolish an exquisite, historic old-city synagogue and build a modern concrete school on the site was only averted after criticism of the project appeared in the local press.

This is the context in which an urban conservation programme operates in the old cities of Kabul and Herat, implemented by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). Initiated in early 2002 with the pilot conservation of a war-damaged mosque in Kabul, the programme has since grown in scale and scope to cover documentation, conservation, training and upgrading activities that benefit nearly 50,000 inhabitants of historic neighbourhoods in these cities, generating employment for hundreds of Afghans on a year-round basis. Working in communities that have not always been aware of how to maintain historic buildings, or of their intrinsic value, and that remain among the poorest urban populations, it was vital for the programme to quickly improve living conditions while demonstrating the potential of traditional homes and public buildings to meet contemporary needs.

To date, a dozen public buildings in the old city of Kabul – including mosques, mausoleums, shrines, traditional hammams, a madrasa and other educational facilities – have been restored. Thirteen important historic houses have also been restored, and support provided for small-scale repairs by another seventy families living in traditional homes. Community representatives are involved in the selection of projects, based on assessments of the social or architectural significance of a building, the likelihood of the owner/s maintaining it and, in the case of public buildings, the eventual use. Decisions about public buildings and facilities have had to balance technical conservation priorities with the immediate needs of residents – for example, the laying of a drain and resurfacing of a street may take greater priority than the restoration of a historic shrine.

Since early 2005, a similar approach has been adopted by the AKTC in Herat, where eighteen mosques, shrines and public facilities have been restored in and around the old city. Among these is the fifteenth-century shrine complex of Khwaja Abdul Ansari in Guzargah, which retains fine Timurid tile and brick decoration, and the massive citadel of Qala Ikhtyaruddin, dating from the time of Alexander, where work continues on the creation of a museum, archives and other cultural facilities. Beneath the towering walls of the citadel, twenty fine historic homes that lie within the dense traditional fabric of the old city have been restored; one now houses a school of traditional music and craft workshops. Six of the distinctive, domed cisterns, redundant with the arrival of piped water, have been restored; the largest, that of Chahar Suq, is now used for cultural events. Elsewhere, a restored cistern serves as a classroom and library within the Naqashi mosque complex in the heart of the old city.

In a context where very little documentation exists of surviving architectural heritage, it has been important to record in detail the structural and decorative characteristics of the range of building types, to map the wider historic area and to collect oral testimony from residents. In preparing a map of old Herat, it was necessary to visit 26,000 residential and commercial premises to determine building type, use and occupancy. In Kabul, interviews have been conducted with more than fifty residents as part of efforts to record the social history of the historic quarters. Continuing socio-economic surveys have enabled the AKTC team to track the transformations underway in both cities and to target investments effectively. For example, information from surveys about inadequate domestic bathing facilities led to the reconstruction of hammams – now visited by several hundred women, children and men – with proceeds re-invested in the maintenance of local infrastructure. The next round of surveys will help to assess the impact of these facilities on family health.

The health of residents is also addressed through investments in upgrading basic infrastructure, including the provision of drainage, the paving of alleyways and streets and the improvement of community water supplies. These investments directly benefit some 20,000 people across the southern neighbourhoods in Kabul, and at least 30,000 people in three of the historic quarters in Herat, where support has also been provided for regular evacuation of open cesspools. This upgrading work continues to generate year-round employment in some of the poorest communities in these cities.

The fine architectural heritage of both Kabul and Herat was largely built with resources generated by commerce, which, at least until the nineteenth century, revolved around the bazaars that lay at the centre of each city. While much of the commerce is now located elsewhere, the viability of the surviving historic neighbourhoods hinges on their ability to generate economic activity. To this end, investments have been made in the restoration of two traditional covered bazaars in Herat; one is presently used by sellers of silk thread as well as by weavers, while the other is being gradually colonised by sellers of hand-woven carpets.
Incomes derived from these bazaars will supplement the contribution made to household livelihoods in the form of wages earned through AKTC-funded conservation and upgrading works. A further contribution to livelihoods lies in the on-the-job training provided to Afghan craftsmen, which enables masons, carpenters and plasterers to develop their skills through an ongoing system of apprenticeships. In Kabul, support is also provided for home-based training in tailoring, embroidery and kelim-weaving for female residents, who also have access to literacy classes. The AKTC’s investments in vocational training have benefited more than 300 men and women in Kabul and Herat to date.

Over the past seven years, support has also been provided by the AKTC for the development of professional skills among Afghans, including internships for young Afghan architects on conservation and upgrading projects; ongoing involvement in architectural tuition at Kabul University; and sustained support to various counterpart institutions within the government.
Despite the very real gains that have been made on the ground in Kabul and Herat in recent years, conservation and upgrading remain something of an act of collective defiance in the face of official indifference and aggressive market forces. Community representatives working to improve and protect their living environment with support from AKTC are probably oblivious to the fact that ‘safeguarding historic cities’ is a line-item in the 2008 Afghan National Development Strategy: there is little evidence of this pledge having been translated into policy, let alone enforcement of controls. After seven years of intensive engagement in the old cities of Kabul and Herat, it is clear that enlightened community action offers the best hope for safeguarding the surviving historic fabric of these cities.

As one community elder explained, politely but firmly, to a member of the cabinet during a meeting in 2007 at a mosque in Kabul: ‘Our grandfathers planned, built and defended this place – not any government. What makes you think that you can come from the suburbs and tell us how to manage our neighbourhood now?’

Co-funding support for AKTC’s work in Kabul and Herat has since 2002 been made available by the governments of Germany, Norway, the US and the UK, as well as the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands and the Open Society Institute.

Born in South Africa, Jolyon Leslie trained as an architect before managing a series of post-disaster-and-conflict programmes in the Middle East and Central Asia for the UN and for international NGOs. He developed an understanding of traditional building techniques and conservation issues during the course of this work. His involvement in UN humanitarian activities in Kabul from 1996–2000, under the Taliban regime, led to the publication in 2004 of Afghanistan: the Mirage of Peace (Zed Books), co-authored with Chris Johnson. He has lived in Afghanistan since 1989, where he presently manages a range of cultural activities on behalf of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.