What Is the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership?

With a history stretching back thousands of years and a landscape full of ancient monuments and cultural sites, Afghanistan truly is a dream destination for archaeologists. However, factors like challenging environmental conditions, transportation and accessibility issues, and security concerns also mean that the country isn’t the easiest place to conduct fieldwork.

To overcome these obstacles and continue the quest to explore Afghanistan’s treasure trove of cultural heritage, a team of resourceful, US-based archaeologists is employing a surprising new tool: satellites. Drawing on satellite imagery and other geospatial technologies, the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership is uncovering never-before-seen archaeological sites across Afghanistan and forging a new path for archaeological research and cultural heritage preservation monitoring in difficult-to-access regions. Read on to learn more about this exciting project.

 

What is the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership?

The Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership (AHMP) is a three-year project that aims to use imagery from satellites and other geospatial technologies to build a comprehensive database, known as a geographic information systems (GIS) database, of archaeological sites in Afghanistan. The AHMP is based at the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes, a department at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and is supported by grants from the US State Department and the US Embassy in Kabul. Other partners working on the project include the Afghan Institute of Archaeology in Kabul and Kabul Polytechnic University.

 

How did the AHMP get started?

The AHMP was first conceived by Dr. Gil Stein, a University of Chicago archaeologist and the director of the Oriental Institute. Concerned about the impact that years of conflict, development pressures, and environmental challenges could have on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, Dr. Stein and other cultural heritage experts met with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in 2014. Ghani, who holds a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University and served as the top anthropologist for the World Bank, called for a unified and detailed effort to discover, identify, and catalog cultural relics from the country’s past; in doing so, he emphasized how critical cultural heritage is to economic development and the creation of a strong national identity. The following year, Dr. Stein’s team received a grant from the State Department, along with access to US government satellite imagery that is typically a full order of magnitude more precise than most images that are publicly available.

 

What are the goals of the AHMP?

Some of the top priorities for the AHMP team include:

Comprehensive inventory and mapping efforts—The backbone of the AHMP project is the creation of a comprehensive database of archaeological sites in Afghanistan, both those that have already been identified and cataloged (specifically, those that are listed in the Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan, a 1982 publication serving as a primary resource for the AHMP project), and those that are previously unmapped. High-resolution geospatial datasets allow AHMP researchers to positively identify sites with exceptional accuracy, as well as offering important insights into how Afghanistan’s rapidly expanding cities and development projects are affecting areas of archaeological importance.

Monitoring site threats and destruction—Unfortunately, many archaeological sites in Afghanistan have already suffered as a result of conflict, looting, mining development, and urbanization. The AHMP aims to document and analyze the types and severity of destruction that have affected key archaeological sites, as well as examine areas where site preservation and protection efforts have proved effective. To accomplish these objectives, AHMP researchers work with time-based images, available through an online repository at the US State Department, to look at how sites have changed over time and to examine what risks might still be facing them.

Training Afghan researchers in the use of GIS technology—An important priority for the AHMP is providing on-the-ground training in geographic information systems (GIS) technology to Afghan archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists. To achieve this, scholars from the Oriental Institute worked with the GIS faculty at Kabul Polytechnic University, which has two GIS laboratories at its disposal. The goal of these training programs is to give archaeologists new tools to use in their work and teaching and to help introduce students in the urban planning and mining sectors to the importance of heritage preservation.

 

What discoveries have been made by the AHMP so far?

By late 2017, the AHMP had already made significant progress, with team members announcing that their work with satellite imagery had more than tripled the number of Afghan archaeological features that had previously been published. Some of the most exciting discoveries include the identification of 119 caravanserais—inns with courtyards—in the deserts of southern Afghanistan. Dated from the late 16th and early 17 centuries, these mudbrick buildings were important roadside stops for travelers along historic trade routes. The caravanserais are spaced roughly 20 kilometers from each other, which would have been about the distance that a large caravan could travel in a day.

Will This Amazing New Facility Put Bamiyan Back on the Map?

For centuries, the historic Buddhas of Bamiyan stood guard over the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan. These two massive sculptures—one measuring 115 feet in height, the other 174 feet—were carved directly into the valley’s sandstone cliffs approximately 1,500 years ago.

Visitors came from around the world to view these unique examples of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage. However, years of fighting and conflict took their toll on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Unfortunately, the statues were destroyed in 2001, an incident that was devastating for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

Today, however, a bold new initiative is in development that aims to pay homage to the legacy of the Bamiyan Buddhas and to put the Bamiyan region back on Afghanistan’s cultural map. The Bamiyan Cultural Center, a project initiated by UNESCO in collaboration with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture, is intended to serve as a hub for culture and creativity in Afghanistan and to contribute to a vital national discussion on the past, present, and future of the country’s cultural heritage. Read on to learn more about this exciting project.

 

What is the vision for the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

Image by DVIDSHUB | Flickr

The Bamiyan Cultural Center is envisioned as a vital space for a wide range of activities and programs around the topics of cultural diversity, cultural heritage, and the future of cultural identity and cultural preservation in Afghanistan. The Afghan government, like many of the country’s citizens, believes that sparking conversations around these topics is an essential part of rebuilding and redevelopment efforts, and that the thread of culture and heritage is one of the most important in the fabric of civil society.

Practically speaking, the Bamiyan Cultural Center will be home to two gallery spaces (focused on Afghan archaeology and similar cultural subjects), an auditorium for live performances, a tea house, and an extensive outdoor garden. The Center will host a variety of events—from speakers and lectures, to regular exhibits, to special displays like the Kabul Photo Biennale. When it is complete and operational, the Center will benefit many stakeholders from a wide demographic, including schoolchildren, visiting scholars and researchers, and national and international organizations.

 

Who will design the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

In 2015, after being flooded with a remarkable 1,070 design entries from 117 different countries, UNESCO and the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture chose a proposal from an Argentina-based architectural team as the winning design. Carlos Nahuel Recabarren, Manuel Alberto Martínez Catalán, and Franco Morero won over a panel of distinguished jury members with their proposal, entitled “Descriptive Memory: The Eternal Presence of Absence.”

The vision of the Descriptive Memory proposal is of a generous public park that extends out to meet the rooftop of the Cultural Center, which is imagined as a sunken building complex which surrounds a public plaza and is bordered by a reflective pool. As the architectural team described in a statement, its vision was inspired by the image of a meeting place where ideas can be shared and communicated, and which highlights the impressive surroundings of the Buddha Cliffs.

Thus, rather than imposing a newly-built structure on the landscape, the team is working very much with the notion of the Center as something that is “found” or “discovered” by carving it out of the ground. This strategy ensures that the building is fully integrated into its environment. It also pays homage to the area’s ancient building traditions.

In choosing this proposal as the winner, the jury particularly praised the design’s well-conceived plan and sensitive site strategy that minimizes the structure’s visual impact; the choice of brick as the designated building material; the Center’s elegant curving passageways; and the project’s appropriate consideration of scale and feasibility of construction. The design has been endorsed by Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, who also took the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to protecting the country’s cultural heritage through the announcement of a national program to support cultural diversity.

 

Who is financing the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

Image by txmx 2 | Flickr

Financing for the main complex of the Bamiyan Cultural Center—which has a projected cost of US $2.5 million—is being provided by the government of South Korea. The Afghan Ministry of Urban Development and Housing is supplying an additional US $1.5 million for the creation of the outdoor areas, including the gardens and public park.

 

Why is the Bamiyan Cultural Center important?

Initiatives like the Bamiyan Cultural Center, with its focus on national unity, cross-cultural awareness, and the safeguarding of ancient heritage, are hugely important elements in the broader process of reconciliation, peace-building, and economic development in Afghanistan.

In addition, the Bamiyan Cultural Center is expected to make a valuable contribution to Afghanistan’s socio-economic development by revitalizing visitor interest in the Bamiyan valley, which remains a UNESCO World Heritage Site even without the famous Buddhas. Finally, the Center will encourage local residents to participate in tourism-oriented efforts that will help grow their communities and showcase their ancient heritage.

5 Things You Need to Know about the Miraculous Love Kids

Although the situation has improved in recent years, the sight of kids on the street is still all too common in Afghanistan’s major cities. Some of these street children are orphans, living on the street because they have no other home, while others have taken to the streets to beg or sell food or trinkets in order to help support their families. Unfortunately, living on the street makes these children particularly vulnerable: according to UN figures, 923 Afghan children were killed in attacks in 2016. In addition, when children are working on the street, they are not attending school, which means they will face even greater barriers to a better future.

This is where charities like the Miraculous Love Kids come in. Perhaps the most hopefully-named charity in Afghanistan, the Miraculous Love Kids is one of a growing number of organizations dedicated to helping the nation’s street children. The Miraculous Love Kids is a music school founded by guitarist Lanny Cordola that offers guitar classes to street kids in Kabul, and for many of the young students, the experience has been life-changing. Here are five things you need to know about this special organization:

  1. The school was inspired by a tragic event.

Lanny Cordola, the Miraculous Love Kids’ founder, got his first taste of music’s power to help and heal people in need in 2010, when he was invited by a friend to collaborate with Central Asian musicians as part of a relief campaign for catastrophic flooding that was affecting the area. In his travels to visit various flood camps, Cordola witnessed the joy that these displaced people undergoing tremendous hardship experienced when they had the opportunity to hear and play music.

Cordola returned to California determined to work on making music that would give a voice to people in need, like those he’d met in the camps. And it was in this frame of mind that, in 2012, he heard about two young sisters who had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan as they sold trinkets on the street. Cordola was deeply moved by the story and reached out to contacts from his previous trip to see if he could get in touch with the girls’ family. Upon discovering that their mother and younger sisters were living in poverty with few resources, he was determined to do what he could to help. After repeated visits to Afghanistan, during which he raised enough money to move the family into a better home, Cordola noticed how interested the girls were in his guitar. The realization that music could help heal these young lives provided the initial spark for what is now the Miraculous Love Kids.

  1. Around 60 children attend the school.

Today, Lanny Cordola and other musicians teach roughly 60 children at the Miraculous Love Kids school. As part of the program, the children receive an allowance of between 50 and 100 Afghanis every time they come; this means that the kids (and their families) don’t lose out financially because the youngsters are in class rather than selling or begging on the street. In addition to studying guitar, the school’s students learn English and receive support for additional schooling.

  1. The school is a US-registered nonprofit.

The Miraculous Love Kids is formally registered as a 501(c)(3) organization in the US. Its main sources of financial support are private donations—many of which are made via the organization’s GoFundMe page. However, it also raises money by performing benefit concerts.

  1. Students have collaborated with one of the biggest legends in music.

The young musicians at the Miraculous Love Kids have a dedicated supporter that most Western artists could only dream about: Brian Wilson. The legendary Beach Boys front man is an old friend of Lanny Cordola, and when he learned about Cordola’s work with some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable children, he reached out to see how he could help the group. The result is the Miraculous Love Kids’ first-ever professional collaboration: Brian Wilson sent voice and music tracks for his song “Love and Mercy” to the school to be mixed with the students’ own playing and singing. Proceeds from the sales of the song will go to support the school. In addition, Wilson has invited some of the students to visit and work with him in the US.

  1. The school’s founder, Lanny Cordola, is a former arena rock guitarist.

There are few people better equipped than Lanny Cordola to introduce Western rock music to Afghan street children. A guitarist from Southern California, Cordola has played with musicians in some of the most important rock groups in music history, including the Beach Boys and Guns N’ Roses. As a result of his work with the Miraculous Love Kids, Cordola has also been collaborating more and more with Afghan musicians like Wahid Qasimi. Cordola now lives full-time in Kabul.