These 6 Afghan Sites Have Appeared on the WMF Watch List

WMFlogoA private, non-profit organization headquartered in New York City, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) has been working to preserve, protect, and raise awareness about the world’s significant cultural and artistic treasures for more than five decades. One of the most important programs the WMF operates is the World Monuments Watch: launched in 1995, this global initiative identifies cultural heritage sites that are at risk and works to help raise the financial and technical support needed to preserve them.

To date, six cultural sites in Afghanistan have made appearances on the World Monuments Watch list. Read on to learn more about these treasured, but imperiled, historic locations.


Murad Khane, Kabul (2008 World Monuments Watch).

The story of the rehabilitation of the historic district of Murad Khane in the heart of Kabul is truly inspiring. When Murad Khane was included on the World Monuments Watch list in 2008, the neighborhood was in devastating shape after decades of conflict and neglect: beautiful historic buildings had fallen into complete disrepair, and the entire area was covered by garbage. Fortunately, the non-profit cultural organization Turquoise Mountain was at that time in the process of launching a comprehensive restoration project aimed at bringing Murad Khane back to its former glory. With the help and skills of thousands of local community members, Turquoise Mountain completely cleaned up the neighborhood, hauling away tons upon tons of garbage and carefully restoring the beautiful historic buildings that lay underneath. Today, Murad Khane is a vibrant artistic neighborhood, and the restoration project earned Turquoise Mountain the 2013 UNESCO Award of Distinction.

Murad Khane

Image courtesy Canada in Afghanistan | Flickr


Tepe Narenj, Kabul area (2008 World Monuments Watch).

In the Zanburak Mountains just south of Kabul sits Tepe Narenj, a Buddhist monastery established in the fifth or sixth century. An important testament to historic Buddhist influence in the region, Tepe Narenj is comprised of a number of stupas (in Sanskrit, a “stupa” is a mound-like structure containing relics, which are often the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns), individual meditation cells, several chapels, and numerous statues of the Buddha and Boddhisatva figures. Tepe Narenj was believed to have been destroyed by armies in the ninth century, but it was later rediscovered and was the first site in Afghanistan to be excavated after the Soviet conflict. The site was placed on the watch list as it is at serious risk of damage due to exposure to the elements.


Ghazni Minarets, Ghazni (2004 World Monuments Watch).

Soaring 20 meters above the arid landscape at the foot of the Hindu Kush Mountains, the minarets of Ghazni are a striking reminder of the great Ghaznavid Empire, which ruled a huge portion of Central Asia during the 11th and 12th centuries. The minarets are constructed of fired mud brick and covered with highly detailed terracotta decorations, including geometric designs and verses from the Quran. Today, the minarets themselves are structurally sound, though subject to periodic flooding, but the terracotta decorations are rapidly deteriorating as a result of exposure to rain and snow. Since the Ghazni minarets were placed on the watch list, a laser scan survey of the towers was conducted by architects from the US National Park Service’s Historic American Building Survey: this has provided a valuable record of existing conditions, and can serve as an important resource for future preservation efforts.


Buddhist Remains of Bamiyan, Bamiyan (2008 World Monuments Watch).

The 2001 destruction of the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan—colossal, extraordinary sculptures carved into the sandstone cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley—was a huge blow for cultural preservationists in Afghanistan. Today, efforts are being made to preserve other aspects of the site, and discussions are ongoing about the possibility of rebuilding the Buddhas. Learn more about what’s happening in the Bamiyan area here.


Haji Piyada Mosque, Balkh (2006 World Monuments Watch).

Also known as “Noh Gumbad” for the nine cupolas that once covered it, the Haji Piyada Mosque is not only Afghanistan’s oldest known Islamic building, it’s one of the earliest structures in the eastern Islamic world. Built in the late ninth century, the mosque is modest in size but architecturally rich, even though the cupolas have collapsed and only one supporting arch still stands. Its age makes the Haji Piyada Mosque a structure of unparalleled cultural and architectural significance, but at the time of its placement on the watch list, the structure was highly vulnerable to erosion, looting, and lack of proper maintenance. To assist with preservation efforts, the World Monuments Fund worked with UNESCO and other agencies to develop and implement a long-term conservation plan, which was completed in 2010.


Image courtesy Richard Layman | Flickr


Old City of Herat, Herat (1998 and 2010 World Monuments Watch).

A key stop along the ancient Silk Road, Herat is home to a spectacular assortment of medieval Islamic buildings, including the Qala Ikhtyaruddin citadel and the famous Friday Mosque. However, the entire Old City has suffered as a result of military conflict, looting, earthquakes and, more recently, pressures brought on by rapid development and intensive construction. Alongside the World Monuments Fund, many other organizations are working to implement protection and preservation efforts in Herat, most notably the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Spotlight on Turquoise Mountain – 5 Important Achievements

Turqoise MountainIn 2006, the nonprofit organization Turquoise Mountain was founded in Afghanistan with the mission of preserving and regenerating important historical and cultural areas, as well as reviving and revitalizing the practice of traditional arts and crafts. Today, just over a decade later, the organization has made remarkable progress on its mission, transforming the lives of thousands of Afghans in the process. The following are some of Turquoise Mountain’s most important achievements to date.


  1. Restoration of Kabul’s Old City

The stunning transformation of Kabul’s Old City, also known as Murad Khani, is perhaps Turquoise Mountain’s most impressive achievement so far. The historic district in central Kabul was once the heart of a vibrant community. However, as a result of years of unrest, it had fallen into significant disrepair. By the time Turquoise Mountain began its rehabilitation project, much of the area lay buried under many feet of accumulated garbage, and the entire district was ranked as one of the world’s most endangered sites on the World Monuments Fund Watch List.

Turquoise Mountain has slowly and painstakingly set to work to rehabilitate Murad Khani. Workers cleared mountains of garbage, lowering the street level by up to 2 meters and uncovering beautiful, though derelict, homes and buildings. Artisans then carefully restored 150 of these structures to their original glory using traditional skills and techniques like mud-plastering and architectural woodwork. Today, Murad Khani is once again home to a thriving community of residents, as well as to the Turquoise Mountain Institute, an artisanal and vocational training facility for traditional Afghan arts and crafts. In 2013, the restoration of Murad Khani was awarded the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award of Distinction.


  1. Implementation of Community Development Projects

The Turquoise Mountain Institute is only one of a number of community facilities and development projects that call Murad Khani their home. In order to better serve and meet the needs of local residents, Turquoise Mountain also constructed a new medical clinic and primary school in the rehabilitated old city. Located on the banks of the Kabul river, the Feroz Koh Family Health Center was established in 2011 to provide high-quality family medicine to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations. Services offered at the center include pediatric and maternal services, radiology, psycho-social counseling, dentistry, and minor surgery. The staff estimates that the center serves more than 20,000 patients every year from cities as far away as Nuristan and Kandahar. The Murad Khani Primary School, which was established in 2012, serves more than 100 students. Subjects that are covered include English, Dari, mathematics, and peace education. Students also learn some traditional arts and crafts such as calligraphy and miniature painting. In order to accommodate even more young students, a new primary school with improved amenities is scheduled to open in 2019.



  1. International Exhibitions

Turquoise Mountain has sought to not only boost domestic interest in a revitalized Afghan arts and crafts sector, but to raise the profile of these traditional arts on the world stage. With this goal in mind, the organization has successfully arranged and executed a number of high-profile international exhibitions of Turquoise Mountain artisans. From March 2016 to October 2017, for example, the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the world-renowned Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, hosted an exhibition titled “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.” Featuring the work of some of Turquoise Mountain’s most dedicated craftsmen, the exhibition gave hundreds of thousands of visitors a new perspective on Afghanistan and its traditions. In addition, during the summer of 2018, the work of Turquoise Mountain artisans was displayed in the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace in London in honor of the 70th birthday of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (HRH is one of the founders of Turquoise Mountain).


  1. Prestigious Commissions and Partnerships

For Turquoise Mountain, reviving traditional arts and crafts means enabling artisans to earn a living from their work. To this end, Turquoise Mountain aims to help its craftsmen secure prestigious commissions and partnerships that can bring their work to a wider international market. For example, the first major international commission received by Turquoise Mountain was for the celebrated Connaught Hotel in London’s exclusive Mayfair neighborhood. For this project, Nasser Mansoori, one of the finest woodcarvers in Afghanistan and a master at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, worked with London designer Guy Oliver to create beautifully detailed wood panels and carvings for one of the hotel’s principal suites.


  1. Expansion into Other Countries

Turquoise Mountain’s work in Afghanistan has been so successful that the organization has recently expanded the scope of its activities into other countries. As of late 2014, for example, Turquoise Mountain has been working in Myanmar to preserve and restore key historic buildings in downtown Yangon in partnership with the Yangon Heritage Trust. During the first restoration project (of a building at 491-501 Merchant Street), the organization undertook a comprehensive program of vocational training in traditional construction techniques, such as decorative lime plasterwork, alongside the renovation work.

Spotlight on the Most Important Early Childhood Program in Afghanistan

Education experts have long stressed that the early childhood years are a critical period for learning development. Recently, governments and policymakers all around the world have taken this advice to heart—so much so, in fact, that the United Nations included early childhood development (ECD) as part of its Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. However, supporting early childhood education in developing nations can be difficult. In countries like Afghanistan, where schools and education are still in great need of improvement after decades of conflict, early childhood education programs are virtually non-existent. In fact, only 1 percent of Afghan children between the ages of 3 and 6 attend preschool.

To help bridge this gap, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has been working with the Afghan government over the last decade to establish and maintain preschools and ECD centers in some of Afghanistan’s most remote regions. Read on to learn more about this important ECD initiative and its outcomes to date.


Why is early childhood development important?

The first few years of a child’s life establish a critical foundation for their ongoing development. When a child’s early development—physical, social, emotional, and cognitive—is strongly supported, they have a far better chance of growing up to reach their full potential, which can, in turn, have transformative effects on their family, their community, and society as a whole. This is why organizations like the United Nations are calling for such a strong focus on early childhood education and development—to sow the seeds of lasting change.


afghanistan children


How has AKDN supported early childhood development in Afghanistan?

Beginning in 2009, two branches of AKDN, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and Aga Khan Education Services (AKES), have worked with a number of international partners, local communities, and the Afghan government to establish more than 200 preschools and ECD centers in the provinces of Badakhshan, Bamyan, and Baghlan. The goal of this program is to facilitate access to a supportive and stimulating learning environment for some of Afghanistan’s most marginalized preschool-aged children.

Quality and sustainability have been important values in the creation of each of the schools, as evidenced by the design of an age-appropriate and relevant curriculum, as well as an emphasis on community ownership and parent involvement, which will help schools to thrive over the long-term. In addition, the program operates two Teacher Resource Centers (TRCs), one in Badakhshan and one in Baghlan, where preschool teachers can receive regular professional development training and ongoing mentoring and support.

Beyond the operation of the preschools and TRCs, AKF is assisting the Afghan Ministry of Education’s ECD working group as it begins to design and implement its own early childhood education and development programs. AKF’s support here includes sharing training courses, materials, and “lessons learned” with government staff and teachers, as well as serving as the technical lead on the ministry’s development of the national preschool curriculum. In addition, as a result of AKF’s involvement in important policy dialogue, the government of Afghanistan has made provision for the inclusion of one year of pre-primary education as part of its National Education Strategic Plan III, which extends until the year 2020.


What has the AKDN program achieved so far?

To date, the AKDN program and its preschools and ECD centers have given more than 9,100 young children access to pre-primary education. To better understand some of the program’s specific impacts and outcomes, researchers from McGill University conducted an independent evaluative study in 2014.

Key findings from the study include the following:

Better school readiness—Using the measure of a standardized school readiness test, children who attended an AKF-supported preschool earned significantly higher scores than children who had not attended preschool. On the 35-item test, the average score for preschool attendees was 78 percent, while non-preschool attendees scored just 48 percent on average.

Stronger core competencies—When children completed Grade 1 curriculum-based assessment tests for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and mathematics, students who had attended an AKF-supported preschool once again earned significantly higher scores than their classmates who did not attend preschool. As these tests were conducted after the students had spent a year together in the same classrooms with the same Grade 1 teachers, it’s interesting to see that preschool attendance still continued to have such a strong effect.

Better social skills and awareness—When parents were interviewed as part of the study, those whose children were attending AKF-supported preschools were more likely to say that their children were capable, caring, and respectful communicators, and that their children had greater awareness about personal health and safety issues.

More engaged parents—Given that parent involvement is a high priority for the AKF preschools, it’s not surprising that the study found that parents of AKF preschool students were more engaged in their children’s early learning activities. For example, according to their own reports, parents of preschoolers looked at books with their children, provided more child-friendly play materials, and encouraged their children to count more often than parents of children who were not in preschool.