A Look at the Future of the Bamiyan World Heritage Site

As one of Afghanistan’s two official World Heritage Sites, the Bamiyan Valley contains cultural and archaeological remains which make it a treasure to be safeguarded. Unfortunately, the site’s most famous cultural asset—the two colossal Buddha sculptures carved into the cliffs of the valley—was destroyed in 2001.

However, many efforts have been made since that time to preserve other aspects of the site. Today, an extensive rehabilitation plan, which includes the creation of a brand new cultural center, is currently in development.

The Site Remains Vulnerable

Despite these positive steps forward, the Bamiyan Valley remains vulnerable to threats such as environmental damage and security risks. This has resulted in its inclusion on a number of “at risk” lists, notably the list of World Heritage in Danger and the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List. Before the site can be removed from these lists, there is still a great deal of work to be done.

This question of what to do to ensure a safe and protected future for the Bamiyan Valley was the central focus of a recent three-day technical meeting. The event was organized jointly by UNESCO, the government of Afghanistan, and several other international partners. It was financially supported by the government of Japan.

Image by Johannes Zielcke | Flickr

International Efforts to Reinvigorate the Site

Held in December 2018, the meeting brought national and international experts together in Salah, Oman. The result was three productive days of dialogue and strategizing about the future of the Bamiyan World Heritage site.

Meeting participants also went on field visits to several Omani heritage properties, including the Land of Frankincense World Heritage site and the Al Baleed and Khor Rohri museums and interpretation centers. The purpose of these visits was to draw inspiration from these models and explore the elements of their management and operation plans that could be applicable to Bamiyan.

At the meeting, specific topics of discussion included:

The Current Status of the Bamiyan World Heritage Property

To improve communication and access to information, the meeting proposed that all of the technical information about the Bamiyan site (produced by UNESCO and other agencies and experts) be centralized into a single system. This could then be shared by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture in order to facilitate better coordination among different stakeholders.

Such a system would make coordination around particular issues, such as illegal construction and land acquisition within the World Heritage property zone, much easier to implement. The meeting also recommended the establishment of a management plan and a relevant governance system for Bamiyan. Finally, conducting an inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage that could then be integrated into national and local government databases was recommended.

Sustainable Development of the Bamiyan Valley

Much of the discussion on this topic focused on a few particular elements of a previously-created Bamiyan Strategic Master Plan, notably the traffic plan component and a bypass road. These developments are an important part of improving access to the site and increasing the quality of life for the local community.

In order to ensure that development will not interfere with future preservation and rehabilitation efforts, the meeting recommended that further technical, geological, and economic feasibility studies be undertaken. The meeting also stressed that future development plans in Bamiyan should be based on accurate GIS-based cultural mapping information, rather than on previous maps which are now outdated, but still occasionally in use.

Potential Rehabilitation of the Eastern Buddha Statue

At an earlier UNESCO meeting (held in Tokyo in September 2017), four technical proposals for the rehabilitation of one of the destroyed Buddha statues were presented. At the Oman meeting, participants supported the authorities’ decision to further investigate the suitability of these proposals. In the meantime, emphasis was placed on the importance of properly preserving the existing fragments of the Buddha.

Image by Regional Command East | Flickr

Opportunities and Challenges of Bamiyan Site Management

The meeting first recognized the recent efforts made by the government of Afghanistan to revise its 2004 National Law for the Protection of Cultural and Historical Properties to incorporate best practices based on international cultural conventions. The recommendation was made to accelerate the adoption of this revised law as well as to implement further regulations and guidelines as necessary to support the protection and promotion of Bamiyan.

There was also further discussion about how best to secure the proper financial and human resources to manage the site, and to implement proposed initiatives such as a museum and an archaeological park. Meeting participants encouraged the Afghan government to promote further outreach activities for an enhanced interpretation of the World Heritage site.

Donor Initiatives in Bamiyan

The Bamiyan World Heritage site, and its related preservation efforts and development activities, has received strong financial support from a wide variety of international donors. The meeting recognized and acknowledged the generosity of these donors.

The Italian Agency for Development Cooperation was a supporter of the project “Preservation and Promotion of the Bamiyan Valley through Culture-Oriented Sustainable Development.” The government of Japan was also recognized.

Featured Image by Johannes Zielcke | Flickr

This Afghan Village Is Famous for Its Amazing Pottery

The small Afghan village of Istalif lies about an hour’s drive north of Kabul. It is perched in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, whose tree-covered slopes rise sharply from the river below.

Istalif is not only a site of incredible natural beauty, it’s also home to a distinctive tradition of pottery-making that stretches back hundreds of years. Read on for a rare glimpse of the unique village of Istalif and its traditional ceramics.

Istalif was once an emperor’s favorite picnic spot.

With its blossoming trees, ancient gardens, and winding river, the village of Istalif has never been short of admirers. Perhaps the most famous of these was the great Mughal emperor Babur, a descendent of Genghis Khan, who captured Kabul in 1504 and ruled the region for decades afterward.

A man who spent much of his life on long and difficult campaigns, Babur was captivated by the peace and tranquility of Istalif. He bought a garden, the Bagh-i-Kalan, on the slopes above the river. This garden became his favorite place to come to recover from fighting and campaigning with picnicking and drinking parties. Later in life, Babur wrote of Istalif, “when the trees blossom, no place in the world equals it.”

According to legend, the potter’s community in Istalif was founded over 300 years ago.

While the history of pottery in Istalif has never been formally documented, local oral tradition has it that the village’s pottery tradition began more than 300 years ago. The founder of Istalifi pottery is said to be Sayed Mir Kolal. This potter from Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan) traveled to Afghanistan with his four sons in order to escape political upheaval.

When they reached Istalif and saw its rich clay deposits, abundance of water, beautiful surroundings, and easy proximity to the markets of Kabul, they knew they had found their new home. Today, Istalifi potters still believe that they are each descended from one of Mir Kolal’s four sons.

pottery
Image by egerstner | Flickr

Pottery in Istalif is a family affair.

Given the story of its founding, it’s hardly surprising that the pottery tradition in Istalif is very much a family affair. The secrets of this art form have been passed down from father to son through many generations. From a young age, a family’s sons become potter’s apprentices, training daily with their fathers and uncles.

Every son is automatically considered part of the pottery clan. Even those that never master the art of throwing pots are still involved in the business (acting as salesmen for the family, for example), and are still considered to be “potters.”

The women of the family also take part, applying the glaze and engraving the intricate patterns on the shaped pieces. Today, there are around 50 or 60 families of potters in Istalif. For each of them, pottery is much more than just a profession: it is their very identity.

Istalifi ceramics are known for their distinctive glaze.

The most unique feature of Istalifi ceramics is the special turquoise glaze that is applied to the finished pieces. Made from ishkar, a type of mountain plant only found in certain provinces in northern Afghanistan, this glaze was central to the development of Istalif’s distinctive ceramic tradition.

To produce the glaze, the root of the ishkar plant is burned and the ash is ground into powder. This is then mixed with water and combined with quartz and copper oxide (both of which are easily sourced from the area around Istalif). The resulting mixture, a striking, sea-green glaze, is then used to cover the ceramics after firing.

Istalif was almost destroyed in the late 1990s.

Istalif’s status as a renowned center for ceramics is all the more incredible given the village’s tumultuous past. Istalif was destroyed (for the third time in its history) as a result of the conflict in the late 1990s.

The village itself was burned to the ground, and the residents were forced to flee. Before they left, however, many families secretly buried their pottery tools in the hopes that they would one day return to their homes and businesses.

The village is rebuilding itself and its arts and crafts traditions.

Happily, the renaissance that these exiled Istalifis hoped and planned for has indeed come to pass. Over the past 15 years, potters and their families have been slowly returning to Istalif and taking up their tools once more.

These resilient people have been helped in their efforts to rebuild their artisanal community by organizations like Turquoise Mountain. One of the most important NGOs focused on traditional arts and crafts in Afghanistan, Turquoise Mountain has worked closely with Istalifi potters to revive the village’s ceramic traditions, and to find new markets for its work.

Today, ceramics instruction is one of the main subjects at the Turquoise Mountain Institute. Faculty include Istalifi potters like Abdul Matin Malekzadah and Ustad Abdul Matin.

Spotlight on 3 Amazing Organizations That Are Led By Young People

Did you know that Afghanistan is home to one of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing populations? According to the United Nations Population Fund, nearly two-thirds of all Afghans—about 64%, or around 22 million people—are under 25 years of age. And although this young cohort has a difficult legacy of conflict and instability to contend with, they are already showing an incredible determination to build a better life for themselves, their families, and their country. Read on for a look at three inspiring youth-led organizations in Afghanistan that are taking the future into their own hands.

Afghans for Progressive Thinking

As Afghanistan’s largest youth-led professional organization, Afghans for Progressive Thinking (APT) works to promote and foster a culture of openness, tolerance, and respect among Afghan young people, particularly college and university students.

APT was founded in 2010 by a political science university graduate who was certain that many other Afghan youth shared his vision of a peaceful and progressive Afghan society. He believed that they simply needed a structure within which they could work toward that vision. APT is the result. It’s an organization based on two social theories of change, critical thinking theory and contact theory, which it uses as touchstones in its work of disrupting existing systems, opening channels of communication, and building understanding of and respect for diversity. Since it was founded, APT has worked with more than 20,000 university students from more than 35 Afghan universities.

Today, APT’s work encompasses a diverse array of activities, programs, and initiatives. These include:

UN youth representative—APT was an instrumental force in helping to select Afghanistan’s first ever youth representative to the United Nations in 2018. With support from the Netherlands Embassy in Kabul, APT worked with a number of Afghan government ministries and other organizations to develop a candidate selection program for youth delegates and to attract applicants. After a multi-stage process, 28-year-old Ramiz Bakhtiar was chosen as Afghanistan’s youth representative to the UN following a live debate at the Bayat Media Center in Kabul.

Leadership development—APT organizes a number of annual leadership development courses designed to help young students prepare to exercise leadership in their own communities and become effective influencers in Afghan society. Held in both English and Dari, these courses are taught by professional experts from Afghanistan and abroad.

Young Peace Builders Award—This award is given annually to three or four Afghan youth who have made significant contributions to promoting tolerance and peacebuilding in Afghanistan. The inspiration for this award comes from the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace, and Security, which recognizes the positive role that youth can play in helping bring peace and security to their home countries.

Youth 4 Change and Development

Youth 4 Change and Development (YCDO) is a non-profit NGO, led entirely by Afghan youth, that aims to create a culture of mutual cooperation and understanding among all the different actors working in the field of youth welfare in Afghanistan, including youth voluntary agencies, youth groups and clubs, and individuals. Founded in response to the disenfranchisement and neglect experienced by many Afghan youth, YCDO strongly believes that youth empowerment and capacity building is an essential part of ensuring Afghanistan’s ongoing development, as well as its long-term stability and prosperity.

As part of its mission to inspire Afghan youth to create positive change within their communities, YCDO organizes a variety of programs and events, including:

The Social Good Summit—In late 2017, YCDO partnered with the United Nations Development Program to organize a summit on the theme of Afghanistan’s future and creative strategies for attaining the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The summit brought together hundreds of participants from civil society organizations, government, the private sector, and youth groups and university organizations.

The Afghanistan National Youth Assembly—Initiated by YCDO in 2017 and led by a team of committed young Afghans, the Afghanistan National Youth Assembly is the country’s first ever platform for youths to make their voices heard, share their ideas, and contribute to a strong foundation for positive change and development in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization

From a movement of young activists in a single province, Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization (ANGO) has grown to become a network of passionate youth change agents all across the country. Based in Kabul, this independent NGO works at the grassroots level to inspire and support Afghan youth as they take an active role in leading Afghanistan towards a peaceful and progressive future.

To accomplish its mission of mobilizing and empowering youth, ANGO creates programs that are specially tailored to the unique needs of young people. In order to achieve a long-term, lasting impact, ANGO allows these programs to develop as a process, with a particular focus on sustainability beyond individual project cycles. At present, the organization’s activities and offerings are geared towards four core program areas: civic engagement and advocacy, citizen journalism, social inclusion, and capacity building.