A Look at the 4 Afghan Sites on the World Heritage “Tentative List”

In addition to its two properties that are officially inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List—the archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley and the Minaret of Jam—Afghanistan boasts a further four sites that are currently candidates for World Heritage status. At present, these sites are included on Afghanistan’s “Tentative List,” which is an inventory of properties that are under consideration for inclusion on the World Heritage List. Read on to learn more about what the Tentative List is and which Afghan sites are on it.

 

What is the Tentative List?

UNESCOlogoThe selection and official designation of World Heritage Sites, which represent the most outstanding examples of natural and cultural heritage from all around the globe, follows a detailed set of formal procedures. Of these, the submission of the Tentative List is a very important step: it is essentially an opportunity for countries to introduce UNESCO to sites and properties they believe are deserving of World Heritage status.

To prepare a Tentative List, each country—working in collaboration with key stakeholders, including site managers, local communities, local and regional governments, and non-governmental organizations—identifies and compiles details about the sites or properties it is nominating, including their name, their location, and their qualities, and offers justification as to their exceptional universal value. The nations then submit their Tentative List to UNESCO’s World Heritage Center to be evaluated by the World Heritage Committee. If a nominated site meets the specific criteria for inclusion on the World Heritage List, the Committee inscribes the site on the list.

Note that the only entity allowed to place a site on a Tentative List is the country in which it is located. Further, only countries that are signatories to the World Heritage Convention can submit Tentative Lists (as of 2016, 193 countries had ratified the Convention). Tentative Lists are not considered to be fixed or exhaustive: indeed, the World Heritage Committee encourages countries to reevaluate and resubmit their Tentative Lists every few years. This is important as the Committee cannot consider sites for World Heritage status unless they have first been included on a Tentative List.

 

What sites has Afghanistan included on its Tentative List?

Afghanistan currently has the following four sites (three natural ones and one cultural one) on its Tentative List:

 

The city of Herat (nominated in 2004)—The regional capital of Western Afghanistan, Herat was once one of the most impressive cities in ancient Afghanistan and a center of great strategic, commercial, and cultural significance. Originally established around 500 BCE, Herat has survived several waves of destruction over the centuries. Today, the city is home to an exceptional collection of architecture and monuments that stand as a testament to its rich history. Most famous for the medieval Islamic buildings, including the extraordinary Great Mosque complex, that fill its historic center, Herat is also the site of some of Afghanistan’s oldest structural remains, including the ruins of a fort built in 330 BCE, after Alexander the Great captured the city.

 

The city of Balkh (nominated in 2004)—It’s hardly surprising to find Balkh on Afghanistan’s Tentative List, as many consider it to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Once a rival to the spectacular city of Babylon, Balkh, like Herat, suffered several periods of destruction and rebuilding under different dynasties. Contemporary visitors to Balkh can spot the layers of its history in the monuments that have fully or partially survived, like the traces of the earthen walls that surrounded the city in the 10th century CE or the remains of the Madjide Haji Pivada, one of the world’s oldest mosques. Balkh is also the reputed birthplace for some of the ancient Islamic world’s most notable figures, including the Sufi poet Rumi and the prophet Zoroaster.

 

Band-e-Amir (nominated in 2004)—Band-e-Amir is the only property on Afghanistan’s tentative list that is a natural wonder rather than a cultural one; and indeed, “wonder” is the word that most people use to describe this breathtaking collection of blue and turquoise lakes in the Hindu Kush mountain range. Band-e-Amir is what is known as a “travertine system,” which means that each of its six lakes is separated from the others by natural dams of hardened mineral deposits that built up gradually over time. Band-e-Amir may not be an official World Heritage Site yet, but a major step towards recognizing its value came in 2009, when it earned designation as Afghanistan’s first-ever national park.

 

Bagh-e Babur (nominated in 2009)—The largest public green space in Kabul, Bagh-e Babur, or Babur’s Gardens, has a history that stretches back more than 500 years. Babur, a descendent of Genghis Khan, created the gardens after he conquered Kabul in 1504. Designed in accordance with the principles of traditional Islamic gardens, Bagh-e Babur is one of the oldest surviving gardens of the Mughal dynasty. The gardens fell into decline following Babur’s death, but an extensive restoration program (launched in 2002 with the help of the Aga Khan Development Network) has beautifully restored the site to its former glory.

Spotlight on the Mes Aynak Archaeological Site in Afghanistan

Approximately 25 miles southeast of Kabul lies the incredible archaeological site of Mes Aynak, the remains of an ancient Buddhist city that was once at the heart of the thriving Silk Road trade route. Gradually abandoned over the centuries and all but lost to contemporary history until it was rediscovered in the 1960s, the site was catapulted into the international spotlight in 2007 following the news that a Chinese company had acquired the mining and extraction rights to Mes Aynak, which sits atop one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits.

For historical preservationists both within and outside of Afghanistan, the ensuing decade has been one of frantic efforts to save and protect the archaeological riches of Mes Aynak. While there has been no mining activity as of yet—the project has been repeatedly delayed due to logistics and other reasons—the future of Mes Aynak is still uncertain, and scholars and archaeologists are racing to learn about and preserve as much of the site as possible before it’s too late.

If you’re hearing about Mes Aynak for the first time, read on for a roundup of seven important things to know about this cultural treasure.

 

  1. It was rediscovered by accident.

While the accidental discovery of an ancient, buried city might seem more like the plot of a Hollywood movie than historical fact, in the case of Mes Aynak, that’s exactly what happened. In 1963, a French geologist was in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan’s Logar province, surveying an outcrop of copper-bearing strata. It was in the course of boring for samples that he stumbled upon what archaeologists today have called one of the most important cultural finds of Afghanistan’s history: the entire buried Buddhist city of Mes Aynak.

Mes Aynak

Image courtesy Jerome Starkey | Flickr

 

  1. It’s large and complex.

The physical site of Mes Aynak covers approximately 400,000 to 500,000 square meters. Within this area lies an incredible array of elements that once comprised the beating heart of a thriving city, including four fortified monasteries, several Buddhist stupas (a type of commemorative monument), a Zoroastrian fire temple, complexes of workshops and habitations, a mint, two small forts, and a citadel. The site also contains a vast treasure trove of cultural artifacts, including close to 600 large Buddha statues, vivid murals, rare wooden ornaments, and fragile early manuscripts.

 

  1. The site has a long history.

One of the most exciting aspects of the rediscovery of Mes Aynak has been the gradual disclosure of the many layers of history that it encompasses. While the Buddhist city that has so far been the focus of most of the excavation work was likely at its peak between the 5th and 7th centuries AD, during the golden years of the Silk Road, archaeologists have recently begun to uncover evidence of a much older settlement beneath the Buddhist remains. This lower layer of the site is estimated to date from the Bronze Age, meaning that the location of Mes Aynak has been home to complex civilizations for more than 5,000 years.

 

  1. There is still much more to discover.

It may seem difficult to believe given the volume of treasures that have already been unearthed, but archaeologists estimate that a mere 10% of the site of Mes Aynak has been uncovered. The extent of the work that remains to be done is one of the main reasons why archaeologists and scholars are working so hard to preserve and protect the site.

 

  1. Copper extraction is not a new idea here.

While historians are rightfully fearful of the modern open-pit mining techniques that are proposed for the extraction of copper from Mes Aynak, it’s interesting to note that copper mining in the area is not a new idea. Indeed, archaeologists posit that it was the copper deposits that drew the founders of the Buddhist city to the region in the first place—the name “Mes Aynak” means “little copper well”—and some of the discoveries that have been made at the site, including smelting workshops and ancient copper works, offer fascinating insight into the world of early metallurgy and mining.

 

  1. Researchers are examining ways to preserve the site.

One of the most intriguing strategies that archaeologists and researchers are employing in their efforts to conserve Mes Aynak is digital preservation. A French team of heritage specialists has been using drones and sophisticated camera apparatuses to take tens of thousands of pictures of Mes Aynak, which can then be used to create an incredible 3D model that allows for an amazing interactive digital exploration of the site.

 

  1. You can watch a movie about it on Netflix.

If you’d like to learn more about Mes Aynak, the documentary Saving Mes Aynak by American filmmaker Brent E. Huffman is an excellent place to start. Now available on Netflix, the film tells the story of the race to preserve Mes Aynak from the perspective of Qadir Temori, an Afghan archaeologist and a key player in the fight to save this vital cultural legacy.

A Journey through 10 of the Most Beautiful Cities in Afghanistan

Standing for millennia at the crossroads of multiple peoples and cultures, Afghanistan has a unique cultural heritage that is as rich and diverse as it is ancient. In an area smaller than the US state of Texas, hundreds upon hundreds of spectacular monuments, remarkable archaeological sites, and stunning architectural creations are testimony to an extraordinary civilization. And there’s no better way to experience this wide array of cultural treasures than by exploring Afghanistan’s most beautiful cities, many of which are so full of history and heritage that they serve as living museums. Here are 10 you’ll want to learn more about.

 

  1. Kabul

Afghanistan’s largest city and its national capital, Kabul has existed for more than 3,500 years. It’s therefore hardly surprising that the city is home to some of the country’s most notable historic sites, including the legendary Babur’s Gardens. But don’t think that Kabul is entirely focused on the past: the city has recently embarked on a number of new architectural projects, like the Abdul Rahman Mosque, which was designed in the traditional Islamic style but was just built in 2012.

  1. Balkh

Often called “the mother of cities,” Balkh is considered by many to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Located in northern Afghanistan at the crossroads between the Middle East and eastern Asia, Balkh has a history of strong Buddhist influence, which is visible in the ruins of many Buddhist fortifications and constructions that still stand in the city today.

 

  1. Kandahar

The second-largest city in Afghanistan, Kandahar rests on the site of another city that Alexander the Great founded nearly 2,500 years ago. Today, Kandahar plays an important role in Afghanistan’s spiritual life: the city’s Friday Mosque, a deeply holy Islamic place of worship, is often called “the heart of Afghanistan.”

 

  1. Mazar-i-Sharif

Mazar-i-Sharif is home to the Blue Mosque, an absolutely stunning structure that was built in its present form more than five centuries ago. Frequently described as “an oasis for peace,” the mosque is so extraordinary that it’s not surprising to learn that it originated in a dream: according to legend, a Middle Eastern scholar dreamed that the bones of a cousin of the prophet Muhammad were resting in northwestern Afghanistan. Fascinated by this story, the sultan at the time built a shrine to honor this cousin, and the city of Mazar-i-Sharif gradually grew up around it.

 

  1. Herat

Located in western Afghanistan, Herat was one of the country’s most impressive ancient cities, and its legacy is all the more exceptional given that it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times during its history. Today, the Old City of Herat is home to a spectacular collection of medieval Islamic buildings, including the Great Mosque complex, which includes a craftsmen’s shop, where visitors can see artisans at work creating the tiles and mosaics used in the restoration and upkeep of the structure.

 

  1. Bamiyan

Another city whose development was strongly impacted by Buddhist expansion, Bamiyan is a rich archaeological mix of Persian, Greek, Turkish, Indian, and Chinese influence. At present, the city is best known as the former home of the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan—giant Buddha statues that were unfortunately destroyed in 2001. Since that time, another giant statue has been discovered, along with cave paintings from the 5th and 9th centuries.

 

  1. Bagram

Located north of Kabul, the town of Bagram may be small, but in ancient times it was an important stop for merchants traveling along the Silk Road from India. The town was originally a Persian settlement, but its development was later influenced by Greek styles of city planning and by Arab rulers; as a result, the art and architecture of the community reflect the typical Central Asian mix of styles that has been dubbed “Greco-Buddhist.”

 

  1. Samangan

This small town in northern Afghanistan was once a medieval caravan stop. Samangan is best known for its weekly market, an ancient tradition that continues to be extremely popular. The market specializes in traditional Afghan musical instruments built by local artisans.

  1. Jalalabad

This eastern city played an important role in the establishment of modern Afghanistan as it was used as a military campaign base by Ahmad Shah Durrani, the 18th-century ruler whom most regard as the founder of the contemporary Afghan state. Somewhat unusually for Afghanistan, Jalalabad boasts large green areas and surrounding water, which are an important element of the city’s unique beauty. There is also a great deal of striking architecture in Jalalabad, including the Mausoleum of King Amanullah Khan and the more modern Nangarhar University.

 

  1. Faizabad

The northeastern city of Faizabad has historically been cut off from the rest of Afghanistan due to poor road connections. As a result, the local culture is remarkably well preserved. Today, there are still two functioning bazaars in Faizabad, where residents trade diverse items from cloth and cutlery to tea and sugar.