As one of the most important philanthropic organizations currently operating in Afghanistan, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) supports, implements, and executes projects across a broad range of focus areas, including cultural development. Through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), one of its affiliate agencies, the AKDN works to conserve and restore Afghanistan’s cultural heritage in order to preserve the country’s rich historic legacy, stimulate local economies, and improve the quality of life for local residents.
Over the last 16 years, AKTC has implemented restoration projects in three of Afghanistan’s major cities. Read on to learn more details about seven of the most important projects.
AKTC has been working to restore and rehabilitate significant historic buildings and public spaces in Kabul since 2002. Specific initiatives have ranged from urban regeneration efforts to community development programs, all of which have had a significant impact on Kabul neighborhoods that have been damaged by the ongoing conflict. AKTC rehabilitation projects in Kabul include the following:
- Bagh-e Babur restoration—Home to the tomb of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, this 16th-century Islamic garden was once one of the most important spaces in Kabul before it fell into decline. Today, thanks to significant restoration work spearheaded by AKTC, the 11-hectare site has a fully re-established historic character—complete with the water channels, planted terraces, and pavilions that are the hallmarks of a traditional Islamic garden—and serves once again as a public gathering space for Kabul residents.
- Conservation of Timur Shah Mausoleum—This 18th-century historic landmark is located in one of central Kabul’s busiest commercial areas. The restoration of the monument has not only helped preserve a unique piece of the city’s cultural heritage, it has also provided an important training ground for Afghan craftsmen and artisans. In addition, a sizable garden around the monument, which had been taken over by informal traders in recent years, has been reclaimed as a public park stretching down to the Kabul River.
- Stor Palace restoration—A fabled example of 19th-century architecture, the Stor Palace (also known as the Qasre Storay) underwent a comprehensive restoration process that was completed in July 2016. As part of the project, workers not only fully restored the building’s traditional decorative elements, but they also upgraded the plumbing, heating, and electrical services. A fruitful collaboration between AKTC, the government of Afghanistan, and the government of India, the conservation project employed over 300 Afghan craftsmen and provided 282,000 days of employment.
For millennia, Herat has been a center of strategic, commercial, and cultural significance. Throughout its history, it has been repeatedly ravaged by war, but incredibly, many significant Islamic monuments and buildings have survived. Since 2005, AKTC has been working hard to safeguard this heritage. Specific projects include the following:
- Herat Old City rehabilitation initiative—The surviving residential and commercial quarters of the Old City of Herat follow a distinctive rectilinear plan, which makes the area unique in the region. Since 2002, however, uncontrolled construction has dramatically transformed the neighborhood’s character. To combat this, AKTC supported the activities of an Old City Commission, which worked to map all property in the Old City of Herat, formulate appropriate planning directives for key neighborhoods, and conserve important historic houses and public buildings.
- Gozargah Shrine Complex conservation—Abdullah Ansari, a 12th-century Sufi poet and scholar, is buried in the courtyard of an important shrine complex in Gozargah, which is one of the region’s most important religious sites and a beloved place for prayer and contemplation. AKTC helped spearhead work to protect the complex’s distinctive decoration and to upgrade the complex for modern visitors. In addition, workers documented and interpreted the decorations and dedications on the historic graves in the shrine.
Often referred to as “the mother of cities,” the northern Afghan city of Balkh is considered to be one of the world’s oldest cities. Because of its location at the crossroads of the Middle East and eastern Asia, the city and its surrounding region are home to a diverse range of monuments and buildings, from Islamic structures to Buddhist architecture. AKTC has carried out restoration work on the following:
- Khwaja Parsha Shrine Complex—AKTC identified this 16th-century shrine complex, located in a park in the city’s center, as being in urgent need of conservation and landscaping efforts. The project, supported by AKTC and the German Federal Foreign office, included the restoration of the shrine and the reconstruction of an adjacent historic mosque, rehabilitation of the public park housing the complex, and the consolidation of two other important historic structures inside the park.
- Noh Gumbad Mosque—Dating from the 9th century, the Noh Gumbad Mosque is believed to be Afghanistan’s oldest and most important building from the early Islamic era. It is currently on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but it is at high risk for core structural failure. AKTC has worked to stabilize the damaged columns supporting the site and to protect some of the unique interior plaster decoration.