7 of the Most Important AKTC Restoration Projects in Afghanistan

AKDNlogoAs one of the most important philanthropic organizations currently operating in Afghanistan, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) supports, implements, and executes projects across a broad range of focus areas, including cultural development. Through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), one of its affiliate agencies, the AKDN works to conserve and restore Afghanistan’s cultural heritage in order to preserve the country’s rich historic legacy, stimulate local economies, and improve the quality of life for local residents.

Over the last 16 years, AKTC has implemented restoration projects in three of Afghanistan’s major cities. Read on to learn more details about seven of the most important projects.

 

Kabul

AKTC has been working to restore and rehabilitate significant historic buildings and public spaces in Kabul since 2002. Specific initiatives have ranged from urban regeneration efforts to community development programs, all of which have had a significant impact on Kabul neighborhoods that have been damaged by the ongoing conflict. AKTC rehabilitation projects in Kabul include the following:

  1. Bagh-e Babur restoration—Home to the tomb of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, this 16th-century Islamic garden was once one of the most important spaces in Kabul before it fell into decline. Today, thanks to significant restoration work spearheaded by AKTC, the 11-hectare site has a fully re-established historic character—complete with the water channels, planted terraces, and pavilions that are the hallmarks of a traditional Islamic garden—and serves once again as a public gathering space for Kabul residents.
  2. Conservation of Timur Shah Mausoleum—This 18th-century historic landmark is located in one of central Kabul’s busiest commercial areas. The restoration of the monument has not only helped preserve a unique piece of the city’s cultural heritage, it has also provided an important training ground for Afghan craftsmen and artisans. In addition, a sizable garden around the monument, which had been taken over by informal traders in recent years, has been reclaimed as a public park stretching down to the Kabul River.
  3. Stor Palace restoration—A fabled example of 19th-century architecture, the Stor Palace (also known as the Qasre Storay) underwent a comprehensive restoration process that was completed in July 2016. As part of the project, workers not only fully restored the building’s traditional decorative elements, but they also upgraded the plumbing, heating, and electrical services. A fruitful collaboration between AKTC, the government of Afghanistan, and the government of India, the conservation project employed over 300 Afghan craftsmen and provided 282,000 days of employment.

Herat

For millennia, Herat has been a center of strategic, commercial, and cultural significance. Throughout its history, it has been repeatedly ravaged by war, but incredibly, many significant Islamic monuments and buildings have survived. Since 2005, AKTC has been working hard to safeguard this heritage. Specific projects include the following:

  1. Herat Old City rehabilitation initiative—The surviving residential and commercial quarters of the Old City of Herat follow a distinctive rectilinear plan, which makes the area unique in the region. Since 2002, however, uncontrolled construction has dramatically transformed the neighborhood’s character. To combat this, AKTC supported the activities of an Old City Commission, which worked to map all property in the Old City of Herat, formulate appropriate planning directives for key neighborhoods, and conserve important historic houses and public buildings.
  2. Gozargah Shrine Complex conservation—Abdullah Ansari, a 12th-century Sufi poet and scholar, is buried in the courtyard of an important shrine complex in Gozargah, which is one of the region’s most important religious sites and a beloved place for prayer and contemplation. AKTC helped spearhead work to protect the complex’s distinctive decoration and to upgrade the complex for modern visitors. In addition, workers documented and interpreted the decorations and dedications on the historic graves in the shrine.

 

Balkh

Often referred to as “the mother of cities,” the northern Afghan city of Balkh is considered to be one of the world’s oldest cities. Because of its location at the crossroads of the Middle East and eastern Asia, the city and its surrounding region are home to a diverse range of monuments and buildings, from Islamic structures to Buddhist architecture. AKTC has carried out restoration work on the following:

  1. Khwaja Parsha Shrine Complex—AKTC identified this 16th-century shrine complex, located in a park in the city’s center, as being in urgent need of conservation and landscaping efforts. The project, supported by AKTC and the German Federal Foreign office, included the restoration of the shrine and the reconstruction of an adjacent historic mosque, rehabilitation of the public park housing the complex, and the consolidation of two other important historic structures inside the park.
  2. Noh Gumbad Mosque—Dating from the 9th century, the Noh Gumbad Mosque is believed to be Afghanistan’s oldest and most important building from the early Islamic era. It is currently on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but it is at high risk for core structural failure. AKTC has worked to stabilize the damaged columns supporting the site and to protect some of the unique interior plaster decoration.

Spotlight on the Most Important Holidays That Afghans Celebrate

Afghans enjoy celebrating their national holidays. For people across the country—and, indeed, for members of the Afghan diaspora around the world—traditional holidays are observed with great enthusiasm, bringing together family, friends, neighbors, and entire communities in joyous celebration. Read on for a closer look at some of Afghanistan’s most important holidays and festivals.

 

Nowruz

Perhaps the most popular and lavishly celebrated holiday in Afghanistan is Nowruz. Literally translated as “new day,” Nowruz is the Persian New Year, a day of rebirth and renewal which originated from the Zoroastrian tradition. Zoroastrianism is a Persian religion which was prevalent long before the rise of Islam. Due to this connection, Nowruz was officially banned in Afghanistan during its years of fundamentalist rule, although many Afghans continued to hold secret celebrations.

 

Nowruz

Image by alisamii | Flickr

 

Nowruz, which occurs on March 21, the vernal equinox, is celebrated across the Middle East and Central Asia with music, dancing, and, above all, feasting. Some of the special traditional dishes prepared for Nowruz include samanak, a sweet dessert paste made of wheat and sugar that can take two days to prepare, and haft-mehwah, a dish comprised of seven dried fruits and nuts—almonds, pistachios, walnuts, red and green raisins, apricots, and the Afghan fruit called sanjit—that symbolize the coming of spring. Given that community is at the heart of Nowruz celebrations, Afghans always cook more food than usual for this holiday so that they are able to offer hospitality to unexpected guests.

 

Eid al-Fitr

Eid al-Fitr is the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. One of Islam’s most sacred traditions, Ramadan is a month of ritual fasting associated with the lunar calendar during which most Muslims (except for children, the elderly, the sick, and pregnant women) do not eat from dawn till dusk. In addition, many businesses, particularly restaurants, are closed during the month-long observance. It’s not hard to imagine, therefore, that an event marking the end of this period would be quite the party, and that is indeed the case. The celebration of Eid al-Fitr lasts for about three days, and involves congregational prayers in mosques, visits to friends and relatives, games, gifts of new clothes (especially for children), and of course, plenty of feasting. Since it is based on the lunar calendar, the timing of Eid al-Fitr, and indeed of Ramadan itself, varies by about 11 or 12 days every year.

 

Eid-e-Qurban or Eid al-Adha

Another important Muslim holiday in Afghanistan is Eid-e-Qurban or Eid al-Adha. Celebrated during the 12th month of the Muslim (lunar) calendar, Eid-e-Qurban marks the preparation for the hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca that all observant Muslims with the necessary physical and financial ability are obliged to make at least once in their lifetime. During the feast of Eid-e-Qurban, animals such as sheep, goats, and sometimes camels are sacrificed in commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice of a sheep, instead of his son Isaac, according to Allah’s command. One-third of the sacrificed animal is used by the family, one-third is given to relatives, and the remainder is given to those in need. Friends also give and receive presents during Eid-e-Qurban.

 

Mawlud-un Nabi

The holiday is a celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (note, however, that not all denominations of Islam observe this day). For those denominations that do observe it, Mawlud-un Nabi is celebrated with prayer, stories of the Prophet’s birth, life, teachings, and wisdom, and the decoration of mosques and buildings with colorful pennants and bright lights. In addition, Mawlud-un Nabi is an important time for charity, with affluent Muslims making generous charitable donations.

 

Ashura

The Islamic month of Muharram is a period of mourning in memory of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, around the year 680 AD. Ashura, which is held on the 10th day of the month of Muharram, is a day of fasting that marks the climax of the mourning period.

 

Ashura

Image by Ninara | Flickr

 

Jeshyn-Afghan Day or Independence Day

Held annually on August 19, Afghanistan’s Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919, which restored full independence to Afghanistan after its years as a British protectorate. The day is a source of great pride for Afghans and an opportunity to remember a time when Afghans fought for independence with a shared vision of unity and prosperity. Many people celebrate the holiday by visiting galleries, attending poetry readings, or taking part in other activities that celebrate Afghanistan’s culture and heritage.

 

Labor Day

Celebrated on May 1 along with many other countries around the world, Labor Day is a holdover from the Soviet era in Afghanistan. Many Afghans consider it a valuable occasion to draw attention to the plight of unemployed Afghans and to advocate for better and safer working conditions for the country’s laborers.

4 Facts about Islamic Calligraphy That Will Amaze You

Turqoise MountainTraditional arts and crafts suffered greatly during Afghanistan’s long years of civil conflict, but over the last decade, the country has seen a renaissance of traditional art forms and the launch of a brand-new generation of artisans. One group spearheading this remarkable revival is the nonprofit, nongovernmental organization Turquoise Mountain, an international association founded in 2006 that is dedicated to revitalizing historic areas in Afghanistan and to spurring the development and growth of the Afghan arts and crafts industry.

One of Turquoise Mountain’s most important initiatives is the Turquoise Mountain Institute. As the premier arts vocational training institution in Afghanistan, the Institute is where the country’s future master artisans get their start. Around 15 students are accepted every year via a highly competitive application process, and successful candidates then receive three years of intensive training in their particular craft from some of the world’s most distinguished artisans (both Afghan and international faculty teach at the Institute).

In addition to offering world-class training in disciplines like woodworking, ceramics, and jewelry-making and gem-cutting, the Institute serves as the home of the Alwaleed Philanthropies School of Calligraphy and Miniature Painting. Calligraphy is a highly revered art form throughout Afghanistan and the rest of the Islamic world, and it has a rich and captivating history that few Westerners are familiar with. Read on for some fascinating facts about the beautiful art of Islamic calligraphy.

 

Islamic calligraphy is a sacred art form.

Islamic calligraphy began as the practice of handwriting text directly from, or based on the contents of, the Quran, the sacred book of Islam. Early calligraphers drew inspiration from significant parts of the Quran and particular sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, such as the statement “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” and they took these messages to heart in developing writing styles that would enhance and formalize the text of the Quran as people began to write it down on parchment. Because these artists regarded the words of the Quran as the verbal manifestation of divine truth, they viewed their work as an act of worship. Indeed, experts describe devoted Islamic calligraphers as adopting a meditative and almost mystical approach to penmanship, attempting to craft an inscription that is as pleasing to the eye and as rewarding to the spirit as the harmonious rhythm that emerges from recited verses of the Quran.

 

 

Islamic calligraphy exists in a surprising number of places.

While Islamic calligraphy began as the act of inscribing the Quran onto parchment, the art form quickly expanded to other materials. Over the centuries, people have applied calligraphy to ceramics, tile, metal, stone, glass, textiles, carpets, wood, leather, and ivory. In an exhibit of Islamic art, for example, calligraphy exists on almost every precious object, from a carved jewelry box to an inlaid pen case to a decorative water pitcher. But perhaps the most striking place to view Islamic calligraphy is in architecture: Muslim structures all over the world are adorned with beautifully crafted, flowing script running throughout the building. Some of the most famous examples include the Alhambra Palace in Spain, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and the Taj Mahal in India.

 

The instrument that people use to write calligraphy is called a qalam.

The tool that Islamic calligraphers use to create their art is called a qalam. Made from a dried bamboo stem or sometimes a dried reed, the qalam is treated and carved to hold different-colored inks. It’s important to understand, however, that the qalam is much more than just a pen—it is a spiritual tool. In fact, Muslim literature states that the first thing that God created was the qalam, which had the sacred duty to record everything that happened in a person’s life. In addition, because a calligrapher spends so much time using the qalam, it essentially becomes an extension of the hand and a repository for the calligrapher’s ideas and feelings.

For all these reasons, the qalam is treated with a particular reverence, and there’s perhaps no better illustration of this than the ritual of the qalam shavings. According to a custom long respected by calligraphers, all the shavings a calligrapher produces whenever he or she cuts and sharpens his or her qalam must be kept, from the calligrapher’s first day of learning to the day he or she dies. After the death of a calligrapher, the family performs the ritual of collecting the shavings and burning them in the fire that heats the water that will be used to wash the calligrapher’s body. In this way, the calligrapher and his or her qalam both disappear from the material world together.

 

Image by Doctor Yuri | Flickr

 

There are a number of different script styles in Islamic calligraphy.

While “Islamic calligraphy” is referred to as a single discipline or art form, there are several different script styles that calligraphers use depending on what they are writing and where they are writing it. For example, the Kufic style, which was popular during the 7th through the 10th centuries, is one of the oldest script forms and the source for other major styles that emerged later, while the Thuluth script style, which developed in the 9th century, was often used for architectural inscriptions because of its larger size and high visibility.