What Is the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership?

With a history stretching back thousands of years and a landscape full of ancient monuments and cultural sites, Afghanistan truly is a dream destination for archaeologists. However, factors like challenging environmental conditions, transportation and accessibility issues, and security concerns also mean that the country isn’t the easiest place to conduct fieldwork.

To overcome these obstacles and continue the quest to explore Afghanistan’s treasure trove of cultural heritage, a team of resourceful, US-based archaeologists is employing a surprising new tool: satellites. Drawing on satellite imagery and other geospatial technologies, the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership is uncovering never-before-seen archaeological sites across Afghanistan and forging a new path for archaeological research and cultural heritage preservation monitoring in difficult-to-access regions. Read on to learn more about this exciting project.

 

What is the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership?

The Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership (AHMP) is a three-year project that aims to use imagery from satellites and other geospatial technologies to build a comprehensive database, known as a geographic information systems (GIS) database, of archaeological sites in Afghanistan. The AHMP is based at the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes, a department at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and is supported by grants from the US State Department and the US Embassy in Kabul. Other partners working on the project include the Afghan Institute of Archaeology in Kabul and Kabul Polytechnic University.

 

How did the AHMP get started?

The AHMP was first conceived by Dr. Gil Stein, a University of Chicago archaeologist and the director of the Oriental Institute. Concerned about the impact that years of conflict, development pressures, and environmental challenges could have on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, Dr. Stein and other cultural heritage experts met with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in 2014. Ghani, who holds a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University and served as the top anthropologist for the World Bank, called for a unified and detailed effort to discover, identify, and catalog cultural relics from the country’s past; in doing so, he emphasized how critical cultural heritage is to economic development and the creation of a strong national identity. The following year, Dr. Stein’s team received a grant from the State Department, along with access to US government satellite imagery that is typically a full order of magnitude more precise than most images that are publicly available.

 

What are the goals of the AHMP?

Some of the top priorities for the AHMP team include:

Comprehensive inventory and mapping efforts—The backbone of the AHMP project is the creation of a comprehensive database of archaeological sites in Afghanistan, both those that have already been identified and cataloged (specifically, those that are listed in the Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan, a 1982 publication serving as a primary resource for the AHMP project), and those that are previously unmapped. High-resolution geospatial datasets allow AHMP researchers to positively identify sites with exceptional accuracy, as well as offering important insights into how Afghanistan’s rapidly expanding cities and development projects are affecting areas of archaeological importance.

Monitoring site threats and destruction—Unfortunately, many archaeological sites in Afghanistan have already suffered as a result of conflict, looting, mining development, and urbanization. The AHMP aims to document and analyze the types and severity of destruction that have affected key archaeological sites, as well as examine areas where site preservation and protection efforts have proved effective. To accomplish these objectives, AHMP researchers work with time-based images, available through an online repository at the US State Department, to look at how sites have changed over time and to examine what risks might still be facing them.

Training Afghan researchers in the use of GIS technology—An important priority for the AHMP is providing on-the-ground training in geographic information systems (GIS) technology to Afghan archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists. To achieve this, scholars from the Oriental Institute worked with the GIS faculty at Kabul Polytechnic University, which has two GIS laboratories at its disposal. The goal of these training programs is to give archaeologists new tools to use in their work and teaching and to help introduce students in the urban planning and mining sectors to the importance of heritage preservation.

 

What discoveries have been made by the AHMP so far?

By late 2017, the AHMP had already made significant progress, with team members announcing that their work with satellite imagery had more than tripled the number of Afghan archaeological features that had previously been published. Some of the most exciting discoveries include the identification of 119 caravanserais—inns with courtyards—in the deserts of southern Afghanistan. Dated from the late 16th and early 17 centuries, these mudbrick buildings were important roadside stops for travelers along historic trade routes. The caravanserais are spaced roughly 20 kilometers from each other, which would have been about the distance that a large caravan could travel in a day.

Spotlight on 8 Amazing Afghan Craftsmen and Artisans

Over the last decade, the nonprofit, non-governmental organization Turquoise Mountain has been working tirelessly to revive and revitalize traditional Afghan arts and crafts. Today, thanks to initiatives like the Turquoise Mountain Institute—Afghanistan’s premier vocational training institute for arts and crafts—and extensive partnerships with international organizations, markets, and artists, a whole new generation of artists are breathing new life into Afghanistan’s unique crafts traditions, and transforming their own lives in the process. Read on to meet a few of the 450 artisans that Turquoise Mountain has worked with over the years.

 

 

  1. Javid Noori

The Noori family has been in the jewelry business since Javid’s father founded his first shop in the 1950s; it was here that Javid began to watch and learn his future craft. Although his family left Afghanistan during the conflict years, Javid returned in 2002 and established one of the country’s best-equipped jewelry workshops. Having quickly gained a reputation for working exclusively with Afghanistan’s finest gemstones, Javid saw his business thrive, leading to a host of opportunities, including a collaboration with renowned international jewelry designer Pippa Small.

Despite the scale of his success, Javid remains firmly committed to supporting and nurturing the next generation of Afghan jewelers. To this end, he teaches part time at the Turquoise Mountain Institute and nurtures promising emerging talents as apprentices in his workshop.

 

  1. Ahmad Shafiq

A 2011 graduate of the jewelry and gem-cutting school at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Ahmad Shafiq is the cofounder of Blue Diamond, a jewelry business that specializes in creating unique, modern pieces that are inspired by traditional Afghan designs. Together with his three fellow cofounders, Ahmad has collaborated with Hattie Rickards, a UK-based designer, on a contemporary jewelry collection that features indigenous stones and bold geometric patterns. He has also worked with jewelry designers Vicki Sarge and Zara Simon, and with prestigious international labels MADE and Bajalia. The Blue Diamond workshop is based in the old city of Kabul.

 

  1. Tamim Sahebzada

As a member of a family of well-known calligraphers, Tamim Sahebzada was just seven years old when he began learning the art of miniature painting. Today, at the age of 35, Tamim continues his family tradition of working to preserve the Behzad School of illumination work, a style of painting that originated in Persia in the late 15th century. In addition to teaching miniature painting, illumination, and design at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Tamim has exhibited his work locally and internationally to wide acclaim.

 

  1. Samira Kitman

Although just 25 years old, calligrapher Samira Kitman is already running one of the most successful arts enterprises in Afghanistan. A graduate of the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Samira established her own business, Muftah-e Honar, in 2012. Two years later, the company garnered a prestigious commission for Mecca’s five-star Anjum Hotel, which Samira completed along with 15 fellow calligraphy graduates from Turquoise Mountain. Since that time, Samira’s reputation for producing quality handmade artworks has grown significantly, enabling her to work on numerous bespoke commissions for public buildings, exhibitions, and private clients all around the world.

 

  1. Masoud Abdul Baqi

Born in Kabul in 1984, Masoud Abdul Baqi grew up outside Afghanistan but returned to the country at the age of 10. After completing high school, Masoud enrolled in the Turquoise Mountain Institute’s woodwork program. Today, he is a specialist in jali, a unique form of woodwork that features hundreds of different geometric patterns created by using delicate joints to hold slender slivers of wood together.

 

  1. Sayed Jan Nuristani

Also known as the “Land of Light,” the Nuristan region in the Hindu Kush Mountains of northeastern Afghanistan is home to a distinctive woodcarving tradition, the hallmarks of which are geometric and repetitive patterns made by cutting deep ridges and angles. It was in a Nuristan village, working alongside his father carving interiors for village homes, that Sayed Jan Nuristani learned his woodworking craft. Today, in addition to teaching at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Sayed works alongside his son at his family business in Kabul.

 

  1. Samim Nasimy

Unlike many other artisans, Samim Nasimy is the first member of his family of distinguished engineers to receive vocational training in traditional crafts. As he explains, there is something very powerful about using one’s hands to transform raw natural material into a beautiful object. A 2012 graduate of the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Samim teaches pottery and helps to run Afghan Traditional Pottery, an independent Kabul-based business.

 

  1. Zahir Shah Amin

Born in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1988, Zahir Shah Amin is the son of one of the most renowned tile-makers in Afghanistan. Zahir has been with the Turquoise Mountain Institute since 2007, when he worked in its tile-making program. Today, Zahir is the program’s head teacher. In addition, he directs his own business and has received tile commissions for a number of prestigious projects, including an exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and the new façade of the National Museum of Afghanistan.

Will This Amazing New Facility Put Bamiyan Back on the Map?

For centuries, the historic Buddhas of Bamiyan stood guard over the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan. These two massive sculptures—one measuring 115 feet in height, the other 174 feet—were carved directly into the valley’s sandstone cliffs approximately 1,500 years ago.

Visitors came from around the world to view these unique examples of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage. However, years of fighting and conflict took their toll on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Unfortunately, the statues were destroyed in 2001, an incident that was devastating for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

Today, however, a bold new initiative is in development that aims to pay homage to the legacy of the Bamiyan Buddhas and to put the Bamiyan region back on Afghanistan’s cultural map. The Bamiyan Cultural Center, a project initiated by UNESCO in collaboration with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture, is intended to serve as a hub for culture and creativity in Afghanistan and to contribute to a vital national discussion on the past, present, and future of the country’s cultural heritage. Read on to learn more about this exciting project.

 

What is the vision for the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

Image by DVIDSHUB | Flickr

The Bamiyan Cultural Center is envisioned as a vital space for a wide range of activities and programs around the topics of cultural diversity, cultural heritage, and the future of cultural identity and cultural preservation in Afghanistan. The Afghan government, like many of the country’s citizens, believes that sparking conversations around these topics is an essential part of rebuilding and redevelopment efforts, and that the thread of culture and heritage is one of the most important in the fabric of civil society.

Practically speaking, the Bamiyan Cultural Center will be home to two gallery spaces (focused on Afghan archaeology and similar cultural subjects), an auditorium for live performances, a tea house, and an extensive outdoor garden. The Center will host a variety of events—from speakers and lectures, to regular exhibits, to special displays like the Kabul Photo Biennale. When it is complete and operational, the Center will benefit many stakeholders from a wide demographic, including schoolchildren, visiting scholars and researchers, and national and international organizations.

 

Who will design the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

In 2015, after being flooded with a remarkable 1,070 design entries from 117 different countries, UNESCO and the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture chose a proposal from an Argentina-based architectural team as the winning design. Carlos Nahuel Recabarren, Manuel Alberto Martínez Catalán, and Franco Morero won over a panel of distinguished jury members with their proposal, entitled “Descriptive Memory: The Eternal Presence of Absence.”

The vision of the Descriptive Memory proposal is of a generous public park that extends out to meet the rooftop of the Cultural Center, which is imagined as a sunken building complex which surrounds a public plaza and is bordered by a reflective pool. As the architectural team described in a statement, its vision was inspired by the image of a meeting place where ideas can be shared and communicated, and which highlights the impressive surroundings of the Buddha Cliffs.

Thus, rather than imposing a newly-built structure on the landscape, the team is working very much with the notion of the Center as something that is “found” or “discovered” by carving it out of the ground. This strategy ensures that the building is fully integrated into its environment. It also pays homage to the area’s ancient building traditions.

In choosing this proposal as the winner, the jury particularly praised the design’s well-conceived plan and sensitive site strategy that minimizes the structure’s visual impact; the choice of brick as the designated building material; the Center’s elegant curving passageways; and the project’s appropriate consideration of scale and feasibility of construction. The design has been endorsed by Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, who also took the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to protecting the country’s cultural heritage through the announcement of a national program to support cultural diversity.

 

Who is financing the Bamiyan Cultural Center?

Image by txmx 2 | Flickr

Financing for the main complex of the Bamiyan Cultural Center—which has a projected cost of US $2.5 million—is being provided by the government of South Korea. The Afghan Ministry of Urban Development and Housing is supplying an additional US $1.5 million for the creation of the outdoor areas, including the gardens and public park.

 

Why is the Bamiyan Cultural Center important?

Initiatives like the Bamiyan Cultural Center, with its focus on national unity, cross-cultural awareness, and the safeguarding of ancient heritage, are hugely important elements in the broader process of reconciliation, peace-building, and economic development in Afghanistan.

In addition, the Bamiyan Cultural Center is expected to make a valuable contribution to Afghanistan’s socio-economic development by revitalizing visitor interest in the Bamiyan valley, which remains a UNESCO World Heritage Site even without the famous Buddhas. Finally, the Center will encourage local residents to participate in tourism-oriented efforts that will help grow their communities and showcase their ancient heritage.