A Look at the Future of the Bamiyan World Heritage Site

As one of Afghanistan’s two official World Heritage Sites, the Bamiyan Valley contains cultural and archaeological remains which make it a treasure to be safeguarded. Unfortunately, the site’s most famous cultural asset—the two colossal Buddha sculptures carved into the cliffs of the valley—was destroyed in 2001.

However, many efforts have been made since that time to preserve other aspects of the site. Today, an extensive rehabilitation plan, which includes the creation of a brand new cultural center, is currently in development.

The Site Remains Vulnerable

Despite these positive steps forward, the Bamiyan Valley remains vulnerable to threats such as environmental damage and security risks. This has resulted in its inclusion on a number of “at risk” lists, notably the list of World Heritage in Danger and the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List. Before the site can be removed from these lists, there is still a great deal of work to be done.

This question of what to do to ensure a safe and protected future for the Bamiyan Valley was the central focus of a recent three-day technical meeting. The event was organized jointly by UNESCO, the government of Afghanistan, and several other international partners. It was financially supported by the government of Japan.

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International Efforts to Reinvigorate the Site

Held in December 2018, the meeting brought national and international experts together in Salah, Oman. The result was three productive days of dialogue and strategizing about the future of the Bamiyan World Heritage site.

Meeting participants also went on field visits to several Omani heritage properties, including the Land of Frankincense World Heritage site and the Al Baleed and Khor Rohri museums and interpretation centers. The purpose of these visits was to draw inspiration from these models and explore the elements of their management and operation plans that could be applicable to Bamiyan.

At the meeting, specific topics of discussion included:

The Current Status of the Bamiyan World Heritage Property

To improve communication and access to information, the meeting proposed that all of the technical information about the Bamiyan site (produced by UNESCO and other agencies and experts) be centralized into a single system. This could then be shared by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture in order to facilitate better coordination among different stakeholders.

Such a system would make coordination around particular issues, such as illegal construction and land acquisition within the World Heritage property zone, much easier to implement. The meeting also recommended the establishment of a management plan and a relevant governance system for Bamiyan. Finally, conducting an inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage that could then be integrated into national and local government databases was recommended.

Sustainable Development of the Bamiyan Valley

Much of the discussion on this topic focused on a few particular elements of a previously-created Bamiyan Strategic Master Plan, notably the traffic plan component and a bypass road. These developments are an important part of improving access to the site and increasing the quality of life for the local community.

In order to ensure that development will not interfere with future preservation and rehabilitation efforts, the meeting recommended that further technical, geological, and economic feasibility studies be undertaken. The meeting also stressed that future development plans in Bamiyan should be based on accurate GIS-based cultural mapping information, rather than on previous maps which are now outdated, but still occasionally in use.

Potential Rehabilitation of the Eastern Buddha Statue

At an earlier UNESCO meeting (held in Tokyo in September 2017), four technical proposals for the rehabilitation of one of the destroyed Buddha statues were presented. At the Oman meeting, participants supported the authorities’ decision to further investigate the suitability of these proposals. In the meantime, emphasis was placed on the importance of properly preserving the existing fragments of the Buddha.

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Opportunities and Challenges of Bamiyan Site Management

The meeting first recognized the recent efforts made by the government of Afghanistan to revise its 2004 National Law for the Protection of Cultural and Historical Properties to incorporate best practices based on international cultural conventions. The recommendation was made to accelerate the adoption of this revised law as well as to implement further regulations and guidelines as necessary to support the protection and promotion of Bamiyan.

There was also further discussion about how best to secure the proper financial and human resources to manage the site, and to implement proposed initiatives such as a museum and an archaeological park. Meeting participants encouraged the Afghan government to promote further outreach activities for an enhanced interpretation of the World Heritage site.

Donor Initiatives in Bamiyan

The Bamiyan World Heritage site, and its related preservation efforts and development activities, has received strong financial support from a wide variety of international donors. The meeting recognized and acknowledged the generosity of these donors.

The Italian Agency for Development Cooperation was a supporter of the project “Preservation and Promotion of the Bamiyan Valley through Culture-Oriented Sustainable Development.” The government of Japan was also recognized.

Featured Image by Johannes Zielcke | Flickr

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.

A Look at the Winning Design Ideas for the National Museum of Afghanistan

As it prepares to mark its 100th birthday this year, the National Museum of Afghanistan is celebrating the past with its eyes firmly on the future. Originally founded in 1919 as a collection of objects from Afghanistan’s historic royal families, the National Museum of Afghanistan has been in its current home (a former municipal building) since 1931. Over the decades, the National Museum has seen and withstood a great deal, including the dramatic expansion of its collections as a result of archaeological work undertaken by the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan. In addition, the museum has sustained serious damage from vandalism and looting during periods of unrest in the country.

Today, the National Museum of Afghanistan is planning for the development of a new facility: a modern building that will showcase Afghanistan’s rich history and complex contemporary identity in a 21st century context. As a first step toward this goal, the National Museum hosted the International Architectural Ideas Competition in 2012 to solicit bold ideas for the future facility, which will be located adjacent to the museum’s existing premises. The design brief was a somewhat unusual one. Based on the assumption that most of the participants in the competition would not be able to travel to Kabul in person, the design brief contained extremely detailed and comprehensive information about the building site, including images, drawings, diagrams, and descriptions. Submission criteria included a requirement for a visionary but culturally sensitive design, an emphasis on sustainability and the use of renewable energy, and careful attention to Kabul’s unique urban planning requirements.

A special jury—chaired by Afghanistan’s Minister of Information and Culture and composed of international architects, archaeologists, museum planners, and design professionals—considered a total of 72 design proposals from 31 countries, and announced the results at an awards ceremony in Kabul in September 2012. While considerable financing will still be needed to proceed with the construction of the new facility, the National Museum of Afghanistan and its partners (including major institutions such as UNESCO) are committed to this important project. Read on for a look at the winning design proposal, as well as the second and third prize entries and the honorable mentions.

First Prize: AV 62 Arquitectos (Spain)

According to the jury report, the Spanish design team of AV 62 Arquitectos achieved an excellent balance between form and function with its prize-winning entry, which is conceived as a deceptively simple shell arranged on a grid. The design’s distinctive, yet understated exterior appearance works in harmony with the surrounding context, and the interior spatial forms are responsive to the type of materials that will be displayed within them, making the design an inviting and welcoming one that encourages circulation and interaction with both the interior and exterior displays. The jury further praised the practicality of the design (which would be affordable and relatively simple to construct using local materials and labor), as well as its simplicity, flexibility, and approachable scale. Some of the most unique aspects of this design concept include an internal courtyard and ceiling baffles, which make effective use of Kabul’s intense natural light; parallel brick vaults on the roof; and the use of traditional materials such as decorative ceramic tile. In addition, the jury felt that the additions proposed by this design were the best at connecting the existing museum with the new facility.

Second Prize: Mansilla + Tuñón Arquitectos (Spain).

“Demonstrative” and “monumental” were some of the adjectives that the jury used to describe the design from Mansilla + Tuñón Arquitectos, which was awarded second prize in the competition. Expressed as a series of spatial volumes arranged in a grid formation, the exterior profile of the design is larger and more sculptural than the first-place entry and is clearly visually responsive to the backdrop of the nearby mountains. While the jury appreciated this larger vision, they also felt that the construction costs for this design would be significantly higher. Furthermore, they felt that some aspects of the design, such as its relationship with the existing museum and the design references to historic Afghan architecture, could have been more fully developed.

Third Prize: fs-architekten, Paul Schröder Architekt (Germany)

The jury praised the strong, dramatic, and creative architectural statement of this free-form design, which earned third prize in the competition. The sculptural massings and volumes that comprise the design allude to the adjacent mountains and transform the building into a destination in its own right. The design idea demonstrates integrity when it comes to the collections to be housed. Strong, protective walls surround different exhibition rooms, while lighter, linear circulation spaces between high walls evoke the public routes of the region’s historic cities. From a practical perspective, however, potential problems with this design include its size, complexity, and monumentality, particularly the inclusion of a large glazed atrium space.

Honorable Mentions

Three honorable mentions, each of equal ranking, were awarded to IAN+ architecture & engineering (Italy), Lawrence and Long Architects (Ireland), and Luisa Ferro, Architect (Italy).

Featured Image by Ninara | Flickr