Rebuilding Afghanistan

Since 2002, war-damaged quarters of Kabul and Herat have been the focus of a programme to conserve historic buildings, while upgrading works have also improved living conditions for thousands of residents. Marc Grainger reports
Having suffered three decades of conflict and under-investment, the cities of Kabul and Herat seem to be making up for lost time. From places inhabited by those with nowhere else to go – backwaters in a country that saw a huge exodus of refugees – the urban centres of Afghanistan are now the place to be, and seem to be growing out of control.

In the face of an influx of returnees and migrants, which has resulted in a doubling of Kabul’s population over the past six years, what’s left of the infrastructure is overstretched, and property prices have soared. Eight out of ten families inhabit homes that they’ve taken the initiative to build ‘informally’ for themselves, without permission, usually on government land. As the value of this land rises, they find themselves in competition with the warlords, who have realised the potential for profit in capturing and selling on tracts of land that don’t belong to them.

Meanwhile, municipal officials who stayed the course during the conflict continue to cling to utopian master-plans that were prepared 30 years ago. Dazzled by the gleaming mirror glass on new high-rise developments that have risen on Kabul’s skyline, visiting donors talk excitedly of how this embodies their vision of cities as ‘engines of growth’, despite the harsh reality that is staring them in the face.

Slumming it
It’s in a corner of this reality, along the labyrinthine alleys of Kabul’s old city, that the Historic Cities Programme of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) began, in 2002, to try to safeguard the surviving historical fabric. Long in decline by the time inter-factional fighting forced residents to flee their homes, the historic quarters were regarded by officials as little more than a slum.

Displaced families began to resettle there after 1995, re-establishing themselves amid the rubble, landmines and unexploded ordnance. Their determination has proved to be more than a match for government planners who wanted to comprehensively redevelop an area that, for the most part, has reverted to the traditional pattern of settlement – albeit with far fewer historic buildings.

The AKTC, an agency of the Aga Khan Develop­ment Network, supports the physical, social, cultural and economic development of urban communities in the Islamic world by engaging in the built environment. Its intervention in the old city of Kabul began with the restoration of the war-damaged Uzbekha mosque in the neighbourhood of Asheqan wa Arefan, which is home to ten per cent of the inhabitants of the historic quarter and, with more than 250 residents per hectare, is the most densely populated place in the city. With few craftsmen available  with the ability or experience to restore the fine decoration in the mosque, the AKTC provided intensive on-the-job training for plasterers and carpenters. By 2005, the mosque was back in public use and has since provided an important focus for the war-affected community.

This initial project led to the restoration of several other mosques and shrines, the Shuturkhana hammam, a traditional community bath-house – vital in an area where many homes lack adequate bathing facilities – the brick-domed Pakhtafurushi madrasa, and a dozen or more of the most important surviving homes. Many of these buildings retained elaborate internal plaster decoration and carved timber posts and screens. Together with the provision of onsite building advice and access to small-scale grants for repairs of traditional homes, the conservation work has generated significant local employment, while providing opportunities for residents to train and learn new skills.

The work is overseen by a team of a dozen Afghan professionals, working under the management of Jolyon Leslie, a South African architect who has lived in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years. He explains that ‘conserving mosques and shrines has contributed to a sense of community in neighbourhoods whose inhabitants were displaced. They not only provide space for prayer and religious education, but also for social interaction – many of the shrines are popular with women – and community consultations.’

Start the slideshow (6 pictures)

Sudden impact
Equally important has been the support for improvements in living conditions for the 20,000 residents of these neighbourhoods, where almost half of the families occupy a single room in what is probably the only place they can afford to rent in the city. The highest priority for most residents was drainage, which has been extensively upgraded, and many of the narrow alleyways were paved to improve access.

In the case of public buildings, water supplies have been protected or upgraded, along with places for ablution and sanitation facilities – all of which are accessible to the sur­rounding inhabitants.

In an area with high levels of unemployment, a programme of labour-intensive public works, involving clearance of accumulated waste, repairs to drains and paving, was launched so as to generate work within the neighbourhoods, and thereby demonstrate to the more sceptical residents that the historical fabric could, in fact, be preserved. These investments also helped to build trust in the con-servation work, which might otherwise have been regarded as something of a luxury.

‘We have involved members of the community in documentation, planning, supervising and maintaining works from the start,’ Leslie explains. ‘We made an early decision to identify and strengthen existing community structures, rather than imposing new systems. These structures have proved invaluable for consultation and dispute resolution.’

Having cleared waste and debris from three neighbourhoods, some 13,000 square metres of stone paving has been laid, incorporating a system of surface channels that links homes to nearly three kilometres of underground drains that have been built or repaired. With piped water only supplied to standpipes for an hour or two a day, it was also vital to clean existing shallow wells and repair hand pumps. As well as making a significant improvement to living conditions to these areas, these activities have generated some 50,000 workdays of employment among some of the city’s poorest households.

Despite the physical gains made inside the historical fabric, external threats remain. The most significant of these is the unrestricted ‘development’ that is taking place on all sides of the old city, despite a ban on new construction that was passed in 2003. With only a handful of historic buildings listed, it has proved difficult to enforce the provisions of the Law on Cultural Heritage, which is intended to protect specific monuments from damage or demolition.

‘Because of its location and disputes about war-damaged property, the old city wasn’t initially under pressure from speculators,’ says Leslie. ‘As property prices have risen, however, the ban is now largely ignored – or officials quietly paid off – so we see many more inappropriate or illegal buildings each month. The authorities seem unable or unwilling to take the necessary action. ’

Fragile fabric
The old city of Herat presents similar challenges. Far from being marginal in the process of urban growth, as was the case in Kabul, the old city here has witnessed ‘redevelopment’ at an unprecedented pace, with historic properties being demolished to make way for inappropriate new construction. It’s ironic that the same quarters that were the cradle of revolutionary unrest in the late 1970s, and which survived the worst ravages of the ensuing conflict, are now being ripped apart by the very Heratis who claim to be proud of their rich cultural heritage.

Since 2005, the AKTC team has tracked and documented the physical transformations under way in the fragile historical fabric, where traditional vaulted bazaars have given way to nondescript, multi-storey concrete markets. Elsewhere, fine old houses are being illegally demolished to make way for suburban-style villas that tower over the neighbouring traditional homes. Despite the formation in 2006 of an Old City Commission to oversee safeguarding and ensure appropriate development, the enforcement of controls on new construction has been patchy, and city officials remain unable – or unwilling – to intervene.

‘At least 50 traditional homes have been lost to commercial “development” since 2005,’ Leslie explains, adding that ‘in many cases, demolition takes place at night to avoid detection. If the pace of destruction continues, the unique character of the historical fabric will soon be lost.’ As long as government officials are unwilling to change behaviour or introduce reforms – or are actually complicit in the destruction – it’s clear that formal processes of control are unlikely to be effective in safeguarding Herat’s fine architectural heritage.

In addition to enforcement, however, the AKTC team tries to raise public awareness about the intrinsic value of the city’s architectural heritage, as part of efforts to change attitudes about an area that many still feel to embody a ‘primitive’ way of life.

‘The residents of the historic neighbourhoods of Kabul and Herat are now perhaps the most articulate advocates for safeguarding, and participate actively in the process of planning and rehabilitation,’ Leslie says. ‘They have contributed immeasurably to our work in both cities and, in some cases, contribute to upgrading by providing labour. This stands in stark contrast to the attitude of city authorities, who continue to pay lip service to the cause of conservation but fail to act.’

However, there is some good news. Almost 30,000 residents of the old city of Herat have benefited from a raft of environmental measures similar to those undertaken in Kabul. In addition to the clearance of waste and the evacuation of dangerous cesspools that dot the historical fabric, alleyways have been paved and a network of existing underground drains – part of which dates back to medieval times – repaired or reconstructed.  

Developing skills

The conservation and upgrading work supported by the AKTC takes place in urban landscapes that still bear the physical scars of past conflicts – and in which security is at times fragile. By adopting a low profile and ensuring that the communities are involved in all aspects of the work, Afghan professionals in the AKTC team have managed to keep the programme on track and on schedule.

As important as safeguarding historic buildings is their eventual use. For this reason, the AKTC team has tried, through their work in Kabul and Herat, to ensure that certain restored buildings are put to appropriate use that responds to contemporary needs – for example, a mausoleum in Kabul is used for regular seminars and exhibitions, while one of the restored houses in Herat serves as a music school and crafts workshop.

In the context of widespread loss of cultural heritage across the country, the AKTC’s work in the historic quarters of Kabul and Herat make a significant contribution to safeguarding the historic and social identity of Afghans. As the work demonstrates, this has required a balance between conservation that is rooted in a sound understanding of the past, and development that draws on the aspirations and potential of Afghans themselves.

February 2009

Members Logon

user name


join nowforgot password