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.

An Amazing New Way to Explore Afghan Heritage

Afghanistan is a country with a rich history and a vibrant cultural legacy, but it hasn’t always been easy for people to discover and explore the country’s unique heritage. Fortunately, however, the recently launched Preserving Afghan Heritage platform on Google Arts & Culture offers an exciting new way for cultural enthusiasts all over the world to get up close and personal with Afghan heritage. This online treasure trove offers people all over the world the unparalleled opportunity to experience some of the finest examples of Afghan arts, crafts, and architecture, and to meet some of the artisans behind Afghanistan’s cultural renaissance. No plane ticket required; all you need is an Internet connection. Read on to learn more about this fascinating initiative.

What is Google Arts & Culture?

Originally launched in 2011, Google Arts & Culture aims to make global cultural heritage more accessible to the broader public. The initiative leverages sophisticated technologies, notably Google Street View and high-resolution photography equipment, to provide a new way for people to discover and explore individual artworks, collections, and famous historic sites. Visitors to Google Arts & Culture can take a virtual stroll through the halls of some of the world’s most famous museums, like London’s National Gallery or St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, tour architectural treasures, such as Machu Picchu, and glimpse stunning artworks in extraordinary detail.

Who are the partners behind the creation of the Preserving Afghan Heritage platform?

Hosted on Google Arts & Culture, the newly created Preserving Afghan Heritage platform was developed and launched with the support of a number of other partners. The most important collaborator on the platform is Turquoise Mountain, the nonprofit NGO that has spent the past 13 years working to restore Kabul’s historic Old City, as well as revitalizing Afghanistan’s traditional arts and crafts industry by providing vocational training and business support to the next generation of Afghan artisans. As one of the founders and supporters of Turquoise Mountain is His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, the Preserving Afghan Heritage platform was launched in late 2018 in celebration of his 70th birthday.

What kinds of experiences does the platform offer visitors?

The Preserving Afghan Heritage platform brings together a range of online exhibits, virtual tours, images and videos, 3D digital models, and articles on different aspects of Afghan art, culture, and history. Some of the exciting opportunities available to visitors to the platform include the following:

school children

Discover the historic Kabul neighborhood of Murad Khani—The transformation of Murad Khani is one of Turquoise Mountain’s most impressive achievements. Ranked by the World Monuments Fund as one of the world’s most endangered sites, this once-vibrant historic neighborhood had fallen into decay and disrepair after years of conflict. To save the area, Turquoise Mountain embarked on an extensive rehabilitation project that involved clearing the neighborhood of garbage and painstakingly restoring traditional buildings to their former glory. Today, Murad Khani is home to the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, the organization’s artisanal and vocational training facility, as well as many other community organizations and facilities. On the Preserving Afghan Heritage platform, visitors can learn about the restoration project and step into the bustling heart of the neighborhood with a 360-degree video of the Murad Khani bazaar.

Take a 3D tour of the Great Serai—One of the last remaining caravanserais (guesthouses or hostels) of its kind in Kabul, the Great Serai is the restored site in Murad Khani that now houses the Turquoise Mountain Institute. Through an incredible series of 3D models, visitors can explore the details of this amazing architectural site, from a bird’s eye view of the entire compound to a close-up of the interior rooms’ stunning carved plasterwork and walnut wood furniture.

Walk through classrooms at the Turquoise Mountain Institute—Google’s Street View technology takes visitors inside some of the classrooms at the Turquoise Mountain Institute where young artisans and craftspeople learn their trade. Visitors can stroll through the light-filled calligraphy classroom, with its wide wooden desks and walls covered with framed examples of calligraphic art, or the gem cutting and jewelry classroom, full of workbenches and specialized equipment for cutting and polishing precious stones.

Explore online exhibits of traditional Afghan arts and crafts—Visitors to the Preserving Afghan Heritage platform can gain a new appreciation for traditional Afghan arts and crafts through beautifully detailed online exhibits that offer a step-by-step guide to the methods used to produce works such as brilliantly colored carpets made from local yarn, the traditional and distinctively glazed glassware of Herat, pottery from Afghanistan’s finest clay, and the intricate latticed style of woodworking known as jali.

Meet the people of Murad Khani—At the heart of the neighborhood of Murad Khani are its people—not only the artisans and craftspeople of the Turquoise Mountain Institute, but also the children who attend Murad Khani primary school, the staff of the community’s Feroz Koh Family Health Center, and the merchants who sell their wares in the Murad Khani bazaar. The Preserving Afghan Heritage platform introduces visitors to some of the neighborhood’s amazing residents, helping them to quite literally see a different face of Afghanistan.