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?

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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?

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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.

Spotlight on 9 of the Most Popular Afghan Dishes

While Afghan cuisine was relatively unknown outside of the country’s borders until fairly recently, anyone who has sampled some of Afghanistan’s exquisite traditional dishes would agree that Afghan food deserves a worldwide following. Drawing from the cultural influences of neighboring countries—including India, Persia (Iran), and Mongolia—Afghan cuisine is a rich and complex fusion of flavors that will make any food enthusiast’s mouth water. Read on to learn about nine of Afghanistan’s most popular—and delicious—traditional dishes.

 

  1. Kabuli Pulao

food

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At an Afghan table, nothing is more important than rice, and Kabuli Pulao is the classic way to prepare and serve it. Dubbed the “national dish of Afghanistan,” Kabuli Pulao is what Western foodies would recognize as pilaf: a delicious mixture of rice, spices, vegetables, nuts, and meat, usually lamb. While the dish varies greatly from one region to another, with different areas making use of their own local ingredients and cooking methods, they all prepare Kabuli Pulao with a slow, multi-step cooking process during which the rice develops a deep rich brown color and a beautifully caramelized flavor. In Afghanistan, young girls are taught to make Kabuli Pulao before marriage. Indeed, it’s said that a woman’s marriage prospects may depend on how well she prepares this dish.

 

  1. Mantu

Also known as manto or manti, these stuffed dumplings are a nod to Mongolia’s influence on Afghan cuisine (dumplings and noodles being major staples of Mongolian cooking). A popular street food in many Afghan cities, mantu are prepared from a filling of spiced ground meat and onions wrapped in a thin dough. The dumplings are then steamed, rather than fried, which gives them a lighter taste. They are often served with tomato and yogurt sauces on the side, or you can try them with qoroot, a special type of sour cheese.

 

  1. Ashak

Another traditional dumpling dish, this one hailing from Kabul, ashak uses meat as a topping rather than as a filling. Smaller than mantu dumplings, ashak dumplings are stuffed with gandana, a vegetable that resembles chives or scallions, and is served on a large platter topped with spiced minced meat, garlic yogurt sauce, and dried mint. Unlike many Afghan dishes, which usually have a fairly mild flavor, ashak can be quite spicy. Since dumplings can be time-consuming to make, ashak is not usually prepared as an everyday meal, but instead is reserved for important holidays such as Eid and Ramadan.

 

  1. Bolani

This delicious stuffed vegetarian flatbread is a classic example of the central role that bread plays in Afghan cuisine. Also known as peraki (or poraki), bolani’s stuffing is made of hearty vegetables such as pumpkin, potatoes, and lentils, with chives and leeks adding flavor. The stuffing is encased in a light, thin dough, almost like a sandwich, and the dish is baked or fried until crisp. Bolani is often eaten as a quick snack or served alongside other main courses.

 

  1. Kebab

Lamb or mutton is the most common type of meat served in Afghanistan, and Afghan cooks are experts at preparing it, often marinating it for hours to ensure maximum tenderness and flavor. The best way to consume Afghan lamb is as a kebab. Chunks of marinated lamb meat, often still on the bone, are threaded onto long metal skewers and grilled over a charcoal fire. The slow cooking process enables the meat to melt in your mouth. Rice, naan, and a special Afghan green sauce comprised of garlic, lime juice, and chilies are common accompaniments.

 

  1. Kofta

Kofta is another delicious way to consume lamb in Afghanistan. In this dish, ground lamb is used rather than whole chunks: the minced meat is flavored with spices, onions, and garlic, and shaped into small patties or meatballs. They are then fried and served over rice with tomato-yogurt sauce.

 

  1. Qormas

quormas

Image by Nadir Hashmi | Flickr

Also known as kormas, the Indian version of these creamy stews will be familiar to most Westerners. Afghan qormas are prepared from a base of fried onion and garlic to which cooks add tomatoes, chickpeas, vegetables, meat, dried fruit, and yogurt, as desired. Qormas are often thickened with a nut puree, which gives them their distinctive smooth and creamy texture, and they usually have a sweeter flavor.

 

  1. Roat

While Afghan cuisine tends to focus more on the savory rather than the sweet, there are still many delicious examples of Afghan baking and desserts, and roat is one of the most common. A dense, crumbly cake, flavored with cardamom and only lightly sweetened, roat is a cross between a savory quick bread and a sweet cake that is often served for breakfast or with afternoon tea. Roat is traditionally made in the shape of a large oval, sprinkled with nigella seeds and served sliced into diamonds.

 

  1. Sheer Payra

Another example of an excellent Afghan sweet dish is sheer payra, Afghanistan’s answer to fudge. This mouthwatering confection is prepared with the traditional Afghan flavorings of rosewater and pistachios, along with cardamom and other nuts. Since milk and sugar, the main ingredients in sheer payra, are at a premium in Afghanistan, the dish is usually only prepared for special occasions including Eid, weddings, and birth celebrations, as well as for honored guests.

How Is the Wildlife Conservation Society Helping Afghanistan?

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is a US-based organization that works to protect wild places, and the species that inhabit them, all around the world. The WCS has been spearheading environmental preservation and sustainable resource management efforts in Afghanistan since 2004.

Afghanistan’s environment has suffered greatly from decades of conflict. Additionally, many of its fragile ecosystems are under threat due to factors like over-hunting, deforestation, over-grazing, water diversion, and land encroachment. Through its work in Afghanistan, WCS aims both to preserve the country’s unique biological diversity, and to improve, through sustainable management practices, the natural resource base that 80 percent of Afghans currently depend on for their economic survival.

To date, WCS has launched and implemented conservation initiatives across a broad range of environmental categories, including:

 

Ecological Research

When WCS began working in Afghanistan, understanding the condition of the country’s natural resources was a top priority. To help the Government of Afghanistan develop a critically-needed baseline on which to build sustainable resource management decisions, WCS conducted a number of important ecological research surveys that helped prioritize areas for further protection.

Some of the key results and insights achieved by this work included the identification of the range, population, and threats to Afghanistan’s ungulates, such as the majestic Marco Polo sheep; the identification of several new species of birds and their habitat; the implementation of Afghanistan’s first-ever satellite tagging program for snow leopards; and extensive surveys of wildlife and rangeland in Bamyan province.

 

ibex

 

Community Natural Resource Governance

When local and national-level government agencies work together with local communities to develop governance and management systems for natural resources, everyone benefits. Communities feel empowered to take ownership of the conservation process, and protection and preservation efforts are more robust and effective because of increased buy-in from the very people most affected.

To date, the community natural resource governance initiatives that WCS has helped implement in Afghanistan are closely connected to the country’s two national parks. These initiatives include the democratically-elected Band-e-Amir Protected Area Committee, the Band-e-Amir Community Council, and the Wakhan Pamir Association.

 

Wildlife-Livestock Health

WCS works in some of the most remote areas in Afghanistan, where both people and animals have limited access to health care. Thus, an important part of WCS’ efforts to conserve wildlife populations involves addressing the health of livestock and local herders in order to diminish the risk of disease introduction and communication between domestic and wild animals, and between animals and humans.

Some of the steps that WCS veterinary teams have taken in this direction include performing the first surveys for avian influenza (in both wild birds and poultry) in a number of northern Afghan provinces, identifying new livestock pathogens, developing educational material in local languages to educate farmers and herders on wildlife diseases, and conducting comprehensive livestock vaccination campaigns.

 

Wildlife Trafficking

WCS has played an instrumental role in identifying, and working to combat, the extent to which the international community is driving wildlife trafficking through demand for wildlife furs and for exotic species as pets. Surveys conducted by WCS have helped identify threats to protected wildlife. Additionally, outreach to key stakeholders and the development of more effective legislation is intended to reduce the trade in wildlife and improve the enforcement of infractions.

 

Asiatic black bear

 

Climate Change

In Afghanistan’s already harsh mountain landscapes, climate change is expected to pose unique challenges to humans and wildlife alike. To help the country assess the potential impacts of climate change and prepare to mitigate its effects, WCS has been working on studies of long-term changes in air temperature. This is an important proxy to understand how animal survival is affected by climate. It is also collecting data monitoring the retreat of glaciers in the Wakhan area in order to provide information on the expected impact of climate change on the important ice water stores of the Amu Darya River.

 

Community Livelihoods

In remote regions of Afghanistan, human communities and endangered wildlife often share the same habitat and depend on the same resources for survival. To help ensure a sustainable future for people and animals alike, and to reduce pressure on already overused local resources, WCS has been working with local communities to find new ways of increasing incomes and diversifying livelihoods that do not come at the expense of wildlife and critical natural habitat.

Of these efforts, ecotourism is one of the biggest. Now that Afghanistan has two national parks, WCS and its partners are working to make the most of sustainable tourism in these areas and expand the benefits that the increased numbers of tourists can bring.

 

Legislation and Policy

One of WCS’ most important goals in Afghanistan is to help the government develop, implement, and enforce environmental protection legislation. To date, the organization has worked with government agencies and many national and international partners to establish new laws that protect wildlife and habitat, to develop a comprehensive plan for protected areas, to build knowledge of environmental laws and best practices among Afghan policy-makers, and to promote collaborative, cross-border conservation efforts.