Spotlight on the Chihilsitoon Garden Restoration Project

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), one of the affiliate agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network, has a long history of supporting and working on cultural restoration and rehabilitation projects in some of Afghanistan’s most important cities. In fall 2018, AKTC celebrated the completion of its most ambitious project yet: the restoration of Chihilsitoon Garden, the largest historic public garden in Kabul. Read on for a closer look at this exceptional rehabilitation project.

What is Chihilsitoon Garden?

The historic Chihilsitoon Garden and Palace occupy a 12.5-hectare site in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Originally created as a royal garden in the 19th century, the park became state property in the early 20th century. During this part of its history, Chihilsitoon Garden welcomed visiting international dignitaries such as US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Chihilsitoon Garden was severely damaged and looted during periods of unrest in Afghanistan, and the neglected site was left in disrepair for more than two decades.

The goal of the Chihilsitoon Garden rehabilitation project was to restore this once-beautiful site to its former glory and, in so doing, provide Kabul’s approximately 4.5 million residents with more space for recreational and communal activities, add much-needed green space to the city to help improve its air quality and climate, and provide the local population with jobs and the opportunity to acquire new skills. Now that the restoration is complete, the garden will be managed by the recently formed, independent Kabul Historic Gardens Trust (a new iteration of the Bagh-e Babur Trust, which has been sustainably operating the historic site of Babur’s Gardens for over 10 years).

What work was carried out during the Chihilsitoon Garden restoration?

The Chihilsitoon Garden restoration involved extensive rehabilitation work on virtually all aspects of the site. Particular projects included:

Extensive landscaping of outdoor space—The heart of the restored Chihilsitoon Garden site is a historic formal axial garden (a type of symmetrical design commonly used in traditional Islamic gardens), which is surrounded by areas of dense landscape and open lawns. Radiating outwards from this garden is a network of paths and trails that link and encompass a variety of spatial experiences, including group picnic areas; an outdoor amphitheater; and the historic formal promenade, which features the garden’s now-restored, fully functional original marble fountains. As part of this extensive landscaping work, more than 5,000 new trees were planted throughout the site.

The creation of new buildings and amenities for public use—One of the main functions of the restored Chihilsitoon Garden is to serve as a multi-purpose gathering place for communal events of all kinds. To this end, a number of new public buildings were constructed throughout the park, including an exhibition hall; a 300-seat auditorium; buildings for administration, maintenance, and visitor management; and a multi-purpose facility created inside the reconstructed historic Chihilsitoon Palace. To complement the garden’s historical legacy, these contemporary buildings were designed in keeping with traditional vernacular style and constructed using local building methods and materials. (Interestingly, the main building material used was rammed earth: highly suitable for the region’s climatic and ecological environment, rammed earth has been used for construction in Afghanistan for two millennia. In Chihilsitoon Garden, the newly constructed rammed earth buildings were reinforced with bamboo trees and steel rebar to improve earthquake resistance.)

The creation of sites and facilities for sports activities—Chihilsitoon Garden is also envisioned as the home of a variety of sports and outdoor recreation activities. A distinct zone in the restored park contains cricket batting areas, outdoor volleyball courts, and two mini football fields. A building with indoor changing facilities and showers was also constructed to improve the park’s capacity to host competitive sports matches.

Revenue-generating amenities—Part of the Chihilsitoon Garden restoration project was to build in sources of income generation that could eventually help the park to become financially self-sustaining. For example, the garden now includes retail units, food kiosks, and restaurants that can be operated or rented out to generate ongoing revenue. The garden is also home to a commercial horticulture nursery, which can generate revenue in addition to maintaining the stock of trees and plants within the garden.

Utility upgrades—Careful consideration was given to the question of utilities in the garden during the restoration. While provisions have been made for on-site utilities, the garden has been designed to necessitate limited use of water and electricity due to features like septic systems that filter wastewater through subsurface leach fields.

What other partners supported the Chihilsitoon Garden restoration?

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture worked closely with many partners and supporters to complete the restoration of Chihilsitoon Garden and Palace. These include Kabul Municipality, the Afghan Ministries of Culture and Urban Development, and many local communities in Kabul. Funding for the project was provided by the German Federal Foreign Office through the KfW Development Bank.

Spotlight on the Art of Traditional Afghan Construction

Buildings in Afghanistan have been constructed using traditional methods for many centuries. Developed in response to Afghanistan’s unique building challenges—including extreme climate and weather conditions, frequent earthquakes, and varying availability of natural resources—these traditional techniques have withstood the test of time. Except for the incorporation of a few modern adaptations like plumbing and electricity, many Afghan buildings today are constructed in the same way that they have been for hundreds of years.

One excellent recent example of the use of traditional building methods on a large scale is the restoration of Kabul’s historic Murad Khani neighborhood by the nonprofit organization Turquoise Mountain. To bring the neglected buildings of this area back to their former glory, hundreds of artisans and community members used traditional construction techniques to restore and refurbish—and in some cases reconstruct— homes and other structures more than two centuries old.

The new Preserving Afghan Heritage platform, now available on Google Arts & Culture, offers visitors an absorbing look at the Murad Khani restoration, including a fascinating online exhibit on the traditional methods used during the project. As described in the exhibit, the steps involved in traditional Afghan building include the following:

The foundation

Creating a strong foundation is the first step in the traditional building process. Foundations, which are often dug out by hand, must be able to support the planned building. This means that taller buildings will require deeper foundations. Once the excavation is complete, the pit is filled in with stone and rubble, and then topped with another layer of stone. Roughly 40-60 centimeters high, this final layer ensures that the earth walls are elevated above ground level, which helps to protect them against the weakening effects of rain and snow.

The exterior walls

The main skeleton of the building is constructed using a technique known as senj, in which bricks are placed inside a timber frame. The timber skeleton is constructed first: vertical wooden poles are placed around the perimeter of the building about 60-70 centimeters apart and are then secured to the horizontal wooden beams of the floor and ceiling. Next, the spaces between the poles are filled with bricks. With the senj technique, the bricks are laid diagonally between the poles; after seven to 10 layers have been completed, the bricks are then laid in the opposite diagonal direction. These alternating directional layers help strengthen the walls of the building and improve its resistance to earthquakes.

Image by Jim Kelly | Flickr

The roof

To increase the stability of the roof, builders place layers of woven bamboo and willow branches onto the roof beams and secure them in place. Ghora gel, a mud mixture, is then applied to the branches to stabilize them and seal the roof. Note that the roofs and ceilings of traditional Afghan buildings are low to help keep interior rooms warmer during the cold winter months.

The interior walls

In a traditional Afghan building, the interior walls are built with the same senj technique used for the exterior walls. Vertical poles are placed to define the perimeter of the rooms and are then filled with diagonal layers of bricks.

Interior finishes

Once the electrical wiring has been installed, the interior walls are covered with a plaster made from mud, straw, and water. This plaster is left for a day to dry, after which the seemgel is added. Seemgel is a type of interior finish composed of screened mud, water, and lokh (a traditional Afghan construction material made of a mixture of clay and the downy fluff of reeds). Seemgel is applied to the interior walls in layers, with a drying time of two days required between layers. It is mainly used for buildings where the intention is to decorate the interior walls.

Windows and doors

Because it was challenging in the past to construct fixed windows with hinges, many traditional Afghan buildings use patayi screens instead. These are horizontal windows stacked on top of each other, which can be raised separately in order to control and direct air circulation in the room. In the summer, for example, the patayi screens are typically raised to maximize airflow and keep the interior cool. As for the door frames, these are deliberately kept very low so that visitors must bow when they enter, thereby showing respect for the house’s owners.

Decorative touches

Depending on the means of the owners, there are many different decorative touches that can adorn the finished interiors of traditional Afghan buildings. For example, the ceiling may be covered with carved wooden panels fixed directly to the roof beams; not just visually appealing, this has the practical benefit of preventing dust or dirt from the roof from falling into the rooms. It’s also common to set hand-framed, plaster niches into the interior walls so that ornaments and pictures may be displayed. Sensibly, there are usually two different heights of niches—the higher ones, out of the reach of children, are where more fragile items are kept.

Spotlight on the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan

The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) has been in existence for more than 35 years. Its goal is to bring support and stability to Afghans who are struggling with the impact of war and violence on their country and their communities.

The organization is committed to maintaining operations in the country as long as necessary. The SCA currently serves as the second-largest channel for the development aid that is provided to Afghanistan by the Swedish government. Read on to learn more about the SCA and its activities in Afghanistan.

 

What is the SCA all about?

SCAlogoThe SCA was originally founded in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In the early 1980s, the SCA was largely focused on raising funds for humanitarian support. It engaged in relief activities like providing essential health care and education to refugees and residents of occupied Afghanistan.

Over time, the SCA gradually expanded its work beyond the delivery of basic humanitarian services. It became a development organization with a much broader focus.

Today, the SCA’s vision is of an Afghanistan that is free from poverty, violence, and discrimination, where all citizens can live in dignity and enjoy equal opportunity and social justice. Supporting this vision are the SCA’s 12,000 members and individual donors in Sweden as well as the more than 6,000 Afghan employees who implement the SCA’s programs in 14 Afghan provinces.

 

What kinds of activities and programs does the SCA operate?

The organization aims to support some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable groups, including children, people with disabilities, and rural and remote communities. The SCA operates programs and activities across four major focus areas:

 

  1. Healthcare

Access to healthcare and health outcomes in Afghanistan have improved in recent years. Despite this, the country’s health situation still remains a major challenge.

At present, the SCA is responsible for providing healthcare services and building healthcare capacity in Laghman province and Wardak province. In Afghanistan, it is typical for basic healthcare to be provided primarily by non-governmental organizations on a province-by-province basis.

Particular initiatives include conducting community-based health and hygiene education campaigns; training more health care providers, particularly midwives; and increasing health care access for people with disabilities.

Highlights from 2017 include: performing 2.6 million patient consultations; giving immunizations against diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis b, and polio to 50,000 children under the age of 5; providing maternal care to more than 44,000 women; and establishing 31 more health clinics in the two provinces.

 

  1. Community Governance

In the Afghan countryside, many local communities have severely restricted opportunities for residents to effect change, make their voices heard, and assert their rights. This is the result of conflicts, corruption, and mismanagement at the municipal level.

To help empower these communities and their residents, the SCA works all around Afghanistan. It builds the capacity of local decision-making bodies and provides education and training to local authorities.

Highlights from 2017 include: providing support to nearly 370 community development councils, which in turn implemented 65 local projects; offering training in service delivery and community rights to members of local government; and conducting social audits of community projects in three provinces.

 

  1. Rural Livelihood

Rapid urbanization has taken place in Afghanistan over the last decade. Despite this, an estimated 75 percent of the country’s population still lives and works in rural areas. Unfortunately, many of these rural citizens, especially those in remote or isolated communities, are among Afghanistan’s most vulnerable people.

As a result of conflict, difficult environmental conditions, and natural disasters, poverty is endemic in most rural areas. As a result, the potential for long-term self-sufficiency is very limited.

To help rural citizens build secure livelihoods for themselves and their families and access new sources of income, the SCA facilitates the formation of self-help groups. These groups can save money together, develop business partnerships, and exchange knowledge and skills.

The SCA also provides practical, hands-on training in potentially income-generating activities such as poultry farming, vegetable farming, soap making, tailoring, and carpet weaving.

Highlights from 2017 include: forming over 200 new self-help groups; establishing 32 village-based saving and loan associations; granting micro-loans to more than 2,500 rural households; conducting an impact study revealing that previous loan recipients increased their household income by almost 29 percent.

 

  1. Education

Education is one of Afghanistan’s most important priorities. The SCA is just one of many organizations working to improve access to and quality of education for children all across the country. As a result of concerted efforts by these organizations and the government of Afghanistan, more Afghan children are attending school than ever. At present, nearly 70,000 children go to SCA-run schools.

Highlights from 2017 include: a 5 percent increase in the number of children enrolled in SCA primary schools; construction of seven new school buildings, 20 washrooms, and one resource center; the provision of special education to more than 1,600 children and adults with disabilities; and mainstream school inclusion for 600 children with physical disabilities and 2,000 children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.