Afghanistan - Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme
Aga Khan Development Network

Afghanistan: Kabul and Herat Area Development Projects

Babur's Gardens after restoration by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.Babur's Gardens after restoration by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

In Afghanistan, a range of conservation efforts, living condition improvements, community development programmes and planning initiatives have been implemented in several neighbourhoods of the war-damaged old city of Kabul, notably the restoration of Babur's Gardens, the Mausoleum of Timur Shah and urban regeneration projects in the Asheqan wa Arefan neighbourhood. In Herat, revitalisation efforts have encompassed five important historic houses and 17 public buildings, including the grave of the 12th century Sufi poet and scholar, Abdullah Ansari, in Gozarga.

In 2002, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) signed an agreement with the Interim Administration of Afghanistan to restore and rehabilitate a number of significant historic buildings and public open spaces in the city of Kabul. Since then, a range of conservation and urban regeneration efforts, living condition improvements, community development programmes and planning initiatives have been implemented in war-damaged neighbourhoods of the Old City of Kabul. A similar initiative commenced in the Old City of Herat in 2005. The Trust is also involved in the preservation of intangible cultural heritage in Afghanistan through the Aga Khan Music Initiative.

In early 2003, conservation began of the sixteenth-century Baghe Babur in Kabul, where the first Mughal Emperor Babur is buried. Now managed by an independent Trust, the restored 11-hectare garden not only re-establishes the historic character of the site with its water channels, planted terraces and pavilions, but also provides the population of Kabul with a space for recreation and cultural events. The bulk of physical works were completed by 2007, since when the various facilities – including a swimming-pool, garden Pavilion, caravanserai and Queen’s Palace complex – have been in public use. In addition to the conservation work in Baghe Babur, investments have been made in upgrading basic infrastructure for residents of the surrounding neighbourhood, while the joint formulation of a District Action Plan continues.

In 2008, Baghe Babur has seen a steady increase in number of visitors, with some 60,000 per month in mid-summer. Since the introduction of a new system of management under the Baghe Babur Trust, with participation from Kabul Municipality, the Ministry of Information and Culture and AKTC, there has also been an appreciable increase in revenue. In order to ensure that the restored landscape and monuments can be maintained to appropriate standards, the Trust aims over time to achieve financial sustainability by generating revenue from entrance fees and appropriate public events in the various facilities.

Conservation of  Timur Shah Mausoleum, Kabul
Located in a busy commercial area in central Kabul, conservation of the eighteenth-century Timur Shah Mausoleum commenced in 2003. In addition to safeguarding an important historic landmark, the project has enabled the training of Afghan professionals and craftsmen, as well as the reclamation of a sizable garden around the monument, which had over recent years been encroached upon by informal traders. Since its conservation, the mausoleum has been regularly used for public meetings and exhibitions, while visitors can again make use of the park, which stretches down to the Kabul River and has been replanted with mulberry trees, as in the original garden.

Babur's Gardens before and after restoration by the AGa Khan Trust for Culture.Babur's Gardens before and after restoration by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.Urban Regeneration Projects in Kabul
The Asheqan wa Arefan neighbourhood, which takes its name from an important shrine at its centre, represents one of the last surviving clusters of historic fabric in the Old City, which suffered massive damage in the early 1990s. Since early 2003, 11 homes and 15 historic public buildings have been conserved, and the living conditions of more than 60 households improved through access to small-scale grants and building advice in this and adjacent areas. A range of upgrading measures have been undertaken, including paving of alleyways and selected streets, along with the construction of drains and improvement of water supplies. This rehabilitation has benefited nearly 20,000 residents and generated some 80,000 work/days of employment, while the conservation works has provided the opportunity for training of more than 60 apprentices under the instruction of 15 master-craftsmen and 65 skilled labourers. Efforts have been made to protect and upgrade public open space through the old city. In the case of Zarnegar Park, to the north of the old city, a degraded space has been transformed through re-planting, installation of irrigation, paving and provision of public facilities. The Park now provides a shady respite on a daily basis for thousands of visitors. Among the socio-economic initiatives supported in the Old City are home-based training and literacy courses for women, and the operation of a restored community bath-house, whose revenue is used to meet the costs of neighbourhood upgrading. A second bath-house is currently under restoration.

AKTC staff continue to work closely with members of the Kabul Old City Commission to oversee development in the historic fabric, as well as providing technical support to planners from Kabul Municipality and the Ministry of Urban Development. In 2008, work began on the formulation of a planning framework for the Old City and on proposals for a national policy for urban heritage preservation, with support from the World Bank.

Herat Old City Rehabilitation Initiative
Herat has long been a city of strategic, commercial and cultural significance. It came under the rule of the Abbasid caliphate at the end of the eighth century and was renowned for the production of metalwork. At a crossroads between competing armies, traders and cultures, Herat was home to Persians, Pushtuns, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Baluchs and Hazaras. In the fourteenth century, it was sacked by Timur, only to experience a renaissance under the rule of his son Shah Rukh. Though repeatedly ravaged by war throughout its history, many significant Islamic monuments have survived. Today, the Trust is working hard to safeguard this unique heritage.

The distinctive rectilinear plan of the old city of Herat and the surviving fabric of residential and commercial quarters makes it unique in the region. It has undergone a dramatic transformation since 2002, largely as a result of uncontrolled construction, which often entails the destruction of historic homes or commercial buildings. In order to address this situation, a series of surveys were undertaken to track the rapid changes that continue to take place. In parallel, efforts have been made to formulate appropriate plans for key neighbourhoods, in order to preserve the unique character of the old city. An Old City Commission, comprising representatives of key urban institutions, now oversees urban development and upgrading within the confines of the historic quarter, with support from AKTC. This has helped to develop an awareness of the need to safeguard and strengthen official capacity to promote appropriate processes of development in the historic fabric.

Restoration work in Herat undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.Restoration work in Herat undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

In 2005, AKTC initiated a process of mapping of all property in the old city of Herat, which has taken place in parallel with the conservation of five important historic houses and 17 public buildings, along with provision of small-scale grants to more than 70 households. In parallel with these efforts, support has been provided for the conservation of two cisterns, several community mosques and private houses, as well as for upgrading of the infrastructure in two quarters of the old city. This work alone has generated more than 60,000 work/days of employment. Based on surveys of living conditions, investments have been made in repairs or reconstruction of 2,500 metres of drain and laying of more than 4,000 metres² of stone paving in pedestrian alleyways. Along with the removal of solid and liquid waste, these measures have benefited more than half the residents of the Old City. With technical support from AKTC, an Old City Commission now oversees urban development and upgrading within the confines of the historic quarter, as well as formulating neighbourhood plans and raising public awareness of the need for safeguarding in the Old City and beyond.

Gozargah Shrine Complex
The grave of the 12th century Sufi poet and scholar, Abdullah Ansari, in Gozargah is one of the most important religious sites in the region. Situated in the courtyard ofan important shrine complex dating from 1425 AD, Ansari’s grave remains an important focus for prayer and contemplation to this day. In order to protect the distinctive decoration in the complex, repairs have been carried out to all roofs, while access by visitors to the courtyard has been enhanced by brick paving, the installation of discreet external lighting and the replacement of modern fittings where necessary. Work continues on documentation and interpretation of the decoration and dedications on the many historic graves that lie in the courtyard of the shrine. Parallel restoration work on the adjoining Namakdan Pavilion (left) and Zarnegar Takiahana is now complete.

AKTC’s urban conservation and development work receives support from the governments of Germany, Norway, US, UK and Uzbekistan, as well from as the Prince Claus Fund (Netherlands) and the Open Society Institute.

For more information, download the following publications:
Afghanistan Project Brief, 2012 (PDF)
Urban Conservation and Area Development in Afghanistan (Brochure), June 2007
AKHCP Afghanistan Newsletters
Find out more on AKDN activities in Afghanistan