7 of the Most Important AKTC Restoration Projects in Afghanistan

AKDNlogoAs 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.

 

Kabul

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Herat

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

Balkh

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

A Look at the Amazing Online Library Helping Afghan Teachers

The most important investment that can be made in Afghanistan’s future is in teaching and learning. That’s the philosophy behind Darakht-e Danesh: a free and accessible online library of resources for Afghan educators that was launched in 2013. Read on to learn more about this amazing educational initiative that is helping transform the work of teachers all across Afghanistan.

 

What is the Darakht-e Danesh library?

Darakht-e Danesh libraryIn Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages, “Darakht-e danesh” means “knowledge tree,” and that’s exactly what this project aims to be. The Darakht-e Danesh Online Library for Educators is a unique repository of open educational resources geared toward anyone involved in furthering and improving education in Afghanistan, from teachers and teacher trainers to administrative staff and literacy workers. All kinds of open-source resources and materials suitable for use in Afghan classrooms are available through the library, including lesson plans, pedagogical tools, workbooks and exercises, experiments, reading texts, and curricula. Furthermore, to make the library as accessible and useful as possible for the Afghans who need it most, resources are available in both Dari and Pashto, as well as English.

 

Why is the Darakht-e Danesh library needed?

There have been huge advances in education in Afghanistan since 2001. Millions of children are back in school, new teacher training colleges are opening, and a reformed curriculum has been implemented nationwide. All of this progress has occurred under the umbrella of the National Education Strategy for Afghanistan, which was created by the government of Afghanistan in collaboration with a number of development partners, and which outlines educational policy objectives and initiatives for strengthening Afghanistan’s schools.

But for all these improvements, significant challenges still remain, and one of the biggest is a discouraging lack of resources. Few schools have amenities like libraries or science labs, a majority of students don’t have access to (or can’t afford) textbooks, and there is little material provided to teachers to help them cover the curriculum. In addition, when quality educational resources are obtainable, they are rarely available in Dari, Pashto, or other local languages. As for the teachers themselves, many educators in Afghanistan have no formal teacher training, nor any post-secondary education, though many organizations are presently working to change this.

The idea behind the Darakht-e Danesh library, therefore, is to provide much-needed resources and support to teachers—after all, investing in teachers is one of the best ways to invest in students. The aim of Darakht-e Danesh is to increase access to quality resources in local languages for Afghan educators, through an easy to use, centralized system. Another important goal is to encourage teachers to explore and consult a wide variety of resources in their educational practice, adapt available tools to their own situations, and share their own resources with fellow teachers around the country.

 

How does the Darakht-e Danesh library work?

To use the Darakht-e Danesh library, you must first sign up via the library’s simple, online registration form. Once registered, all you need is an Internet connection to freely browse, download, and use any of the resources in the online collection. For example, teacher educators can download resources from the site to use in teacher training colleges, while teachers can browse and print out lesson plans for their classrooms or workbooks for their own professional development activities. All resources are fully open source, and can all be freely copied and distributed. In addition, as the Darakht-e Danesh library operates on the principle of sharing, users are strongly encouraged to add to the online repository by uploading their own tools and resources.

At present, the Darakht-e Danesh collection boasts resources across a broad range of categories. Teachers can find educational information on subjects such as applied sciences, life sciences, mathematics, and language arts.

 

How can I support the Darakht-e Danesh library?

There are a number of important ways for people within and beyond Afghanistan to support the Darakht-e Danesh online library. These include:

Sharing resources—As mentioned above, helping expand the collection of Darakht-e Danesh is one of the best ways to support the project. Afghan teachers are encouraged to share Dari or Pashto digitized resources that they use in their own classrooms: typed lesson plans, tests, activities, games, experiments, or any other teaching resources that have proved helpful are all good additions to the online repository. Original ideas or those learned from speaking to or watching other teachers are welcome! The idea behind such resource sharing is to multiply the impact by allowing the resources to be used in many different classrooms at the same time.

Translation—The more local languages that educational resources are available in, the more accessible and the more useful they will be to all Afghans. Bilingual educators or volunteers, particularly Pashto speakers, are eagerly sought by the Darakht-e Danesh team to grow the collection by translating existing materials.

Spotlight on the First National Park in Afghanistan

Although natural conservation hasn’t been a top priority for Afghanistan over the last few decades, now that the country is enjoying greater stability and prosperity, that has begun to change. The Afghan government is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of safeguarding the country’s natural heritage. With the support of a variety of international NGOs, it has taken some significant steps in recent years to protect and preserve key natural areas.

A major victory came in 2009, when Afghanistan celebrated the creation of its first ever national park. The Band-e-Amir lakes in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan have long been recognized as an area of natural beauty. Now that they have been designated as a national park, it will be easier for the country to manage sustainable tourism more effectively, preserve and protect at-risk species, and work to reverse environmental damage already done in the area.

Visitors agree that Band-e-Amir is so breathtaking that it has to be seen to be believed, but you can still get a feel for the park with these five facts:

 

  1. Band-e-Amir is one of the world’s most spectacular travertine systems.

Located in a desert area high up in the Hindu Kush mountain range, the six stunning, sapphire-blue lakes of Band-e-Amir were formed by mineral-rich water gradually seeping out of faults and cracks in the surrounding mountains. Over time, the water deposited layer upon layer of travertine, or hardened mineral, at different points on the lake bed. These layers eventually grew into the massive natural dams that now contain the lake water.

Interestingly, local lore gives an alternative explanation for how these mineral dams came into existence. Legend says that the dams that hold the lakes in place were thrown into their positions by the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Hazrat Ali. The high mineral content of the water is also responsible for the incredible colors of the lakes, which can range from light turquoise to a deep, icy blue.

Band-e-Amir Lakes | Image by Johannes Zielcke | Flickr

  1. The dams of Band-e-Amir’s lakes all have names.

All of the five dams that contain Band-e-Amir’s six lakes have names. There is the Groom’s Dam, the Mint Dam, the Dam of the Slaves, and the somewhat puzzlingly named Dam of Cheese. The most famous and most visited dam, however, is Band-i-Haibat, or the Dam of Awe. This dam is 1,500 feet wide and two miles long, and its waters are believed to have healing properties (that is, if you can withstand their icy temperatures!).

 

  1. Band-e-Amir has long been a popular tourist destination.

These beautiful lakes have been a popular destination for travelers ever since the 1950s. The area experienced a peak in visitor numbers during the 1970s. Naturally, tourism was virtually non-existent during the conflicts of the 1980s and 90s. However, more and more people, domestic and foreign tourists alike, have been visiting Band-e-Amir in recent years. People are drawn to the region not only by the lakes, but also by nearby tourist magnets like the valley of Bamiyan.

The national park designation proved to be a significant boost for tourism. At present, the park can receive as many as 5,000 visitors a day in the high season. While there are some facilities currently in place for tourists, including restrooms and recreational paddle boats that can be rented for use on the lakes, the Afghan government hopes to establish more extensive amenities in the future, including guesthouses and shops.

Band-e-Amir

Band-e-Amir | Image by Afghanistan Matters| Flickr

  1. Band-e-Amir is home to plenty of wildlife.

Although habitat destruction and poaching have certainly taken their toll on the flora and fauna of Band-e-Amir, the park is still home to an impressive array of wildlife. More than 150 species of birds have been recorded – including the Afghan snow finch, which is thought to be the only bird found exclusively in Afghanistan – leading to the designation of Band-e-Amir as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.

Additionally, wild goats known as Ibex and wild sheep known as urials as well as wolves, foxes, and fish are all common sights within the park. But perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Band-e-Amir is home to more species of wildcat than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, including some extremely rare examples. In 2015, a sensor-activated camera captured a photograph of a Persian leopard, which was long believed to be extinct in the region.

 

  1. The Wildlife Conservation Society is supporting Afghanistan in managing the park.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has played an important role in helping Afghanistan successfully implement and manage its first-ever national park. WCS staff members have provided support with tasks like delineating the boundaries of the park, conducting preliminary wildlife surveys, developing a park management plan, and hiring and training local rangers.

As for the rangers themselves, a big part of their responsibilities involves working with local communities and the provincial government to mitigate the impact of park residents on the fragile natural habitat. For example, 500 fuel-efficient stoves have been distributed to families living in and near the park area, which greatly reduces their need to chop down park trees for firewood.