Pakistan - Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme
Aga Khan Development Network

Pakistan: Conservation and Development in Gilgit-Baltistan and the Punjab

Shigar Fort, after restorationBaltit Fort, after restoration by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP) in Pakistan has restored a number of major forts, traditional settlements, mosques and public spaces in the high valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan province, most notably the Balit Fort in the Hunza Valley and Shigar Fort in Baltistan. More recently, it has begun work on the restoration of the Walled City of Lahore, Punjab.


As it enters its third decade of dedication to cultural development work in Pakistan,  the mission of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has taken on renewed and heightened importance against the backdrop of the challenges that the country is facing, thereby emphasizing the importance of arts and culture in promoting understanding and collaboration among peoples inside and outside Pakistan, and thus, contribute to peace and security.

AKTC became active in Northern Pakistan in 1989, in response to concerns that the unique culture of the area was under threat due to developments that followed the completion of the Karakoram Highway in 1978. Increased accessibility to hitherto remote valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan, which were part of the old Central Asian Silk Route but which had remained inaccessible to vehicular traffic, coupled with the impact of tourism, introduced a rapid transformation of local customs and economic patterns, which called for new strategic development visions and adapted procedures capable of steering ongoing rapid change.

The conservation of the Baltit Fort, the earliest elements of which date back more than 700 years, and the stabilisation of the historic core of the village of Karimabad in the Hunza Valley, were the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP’s) first major interventions, completed in 1996.

It was clear from this experience that meaningful restoration works needed to be associated with the ongoing rehabilitation of traditional settlements as well as promotion of building techniques. Projects in Hunza and Baltistan have included the restoration of several other historic forts and former palaces, as well as other culturally relevant landmark buildings. Baltit Fort has become a local history museum and cultural centre, while Shigar Fort (completed in 2004) serves as a small hotel. This holistic approach was followed in the restoration of Khaplu and Altit Forts.

The villages and neighbourhoods around the Forts, which were in danger of being deserted in favour of dispersed modern construction in the fields, are now being rehabilitated through active efforts of residents - a new trend which not only boosts cultural pride, but also helps reduce costs for road construction and infrastructure provision and saves the precious agricultural terraces from uncontrolled construction. Preserving indigenous values and at the same time introducing contemporary living standards (including sanitation) has been the key to the ongoing cultural development process, which is undertaken with the active involvement of the local communities.
Strategic planning principles to both protect and take advantage of existing environmental and cultural assets in the light of growing tourism are now being implemented through newly created local institutions, such as Town Management Societies and Cultural Heritage Trusts. New local NGOs have been groomed to revive and market traditional local crafts, such as weaving, embroidery, woodcarving and gemstone production.

The work being carried out in Lahore Walled City (LWC) by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) differs from the earlier work undertaken in the north. AKTC’s efforts in Lahore are embedded in a historic urban context.

These projects have won a number of prestigious prizes, including UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation given to Shigar Fort Palace, Baltit Fort and Amburiq Mosque; a Time Magazine Asia: Best of Asia Award; and a British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award for the restoration of Baltit Fort. For more information, please see Awards.

Lahore, PunjabWazir Khan Mosque conservation project in Lahore, Punjab

Walled City of Lahore Conservation
Lahore, the capital of the province of Punjab, and the second most populous city in Pakistan, is also known as the "Gardens of the Mughals" or "City of Gardens", after the rich heritage of the Mughal Empire (1524 to 1752). This once fortified city has a concentration of monuments and buildings that reflect cultural diversity in architecture, and despite a dynamic and tumultuous past spanning several centuries has retained much of its historic urban form.

Upon the completion of the Shigar Fort project in 2005, the Government of Pakistan requested AKTC to make technical contributions to a World Bank funded area development “pilot” project in the Walled City of Lahore.  The work consequently carried out by AKTC and AKCSP was initiated under a 2007 public-private partnership framework agreement which came to an end in 2012. The first phase of the project completed in 2014 comprises urban infrastructure improvement, the conservation of the urban fabric and of the major Mughal period monuments, and included an important social and economic dimension aimed at poverty alleviation and the creation of economic opportunity. The area of the still ongoing project comprises some 11 per cent of the 285 hectares of the Walled City. The technical engagement of the AKTC continues currently on the basis of a MOU and the AKTC assistance programme is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.

Pilot Project

For the pilot project AKTC-AKCSP provided both technical and financial assistance and the project has been subsumed in a LWC-wide framework of integrated area development. This framework is contained in a Strategic Plan developed in February, 2008, and supported by physical and socio-economic baseline data established by AKTC’s Lahore office, and by a new GIS system for the Walled City.

There are several reasons why AKTC considered it necessary to intervene in Lahore’s Walled City.

  • A sharp decline that was registered in the number of people residing in LWC. By the time AKTC became involved, the number of local residents had dropped to below 150,000 (down from 240,000 five decades earlier). At the same time, properties of high historic relevance were being demolished or converted into warehouses by the commercial sector. The Strategic Plan emphasizes the importance of maintaining a substantial residential population within LWC by improving housing conditions and by providing basic social services, thereby arresting further decay and laying the foundation for LWC’s socio-economic revival.
  • Goodwill exists among local policy makers to turn LWC into a preferred destination for local, national and international visitors. This positive mindset has enabled AKTC to help prepare for LWC’s economic development, thereby emphasizing an increase in the numbers of visitors and the creation of employment opportunities for local residents.

Under AKTC aegis, a medium term infrastructure development plan was prepared for the entire Walled City, integrating the design of different utility services into a phased programme spread over fifteen years. Additionally in over two years beginning in 2010, an integrated project at the micro scale, partly supported by the German government for the conservation and rehabilitation of 13 historic homes in the project area, was completed that demonstrated urban rehabilitation at the fine grain of the urban fabric, and established design paradigms for both infrastructure and architecture that were replicated in the rest of the Pilot Project area.

Current Projects

  • Residual components of the Pilot Project and project preparation for its remaining phases.
  • In addition, AKTC and AKCSP are also providing complete technical assistance, with the help of a grant from the Government of Norway, for the conservation of the 17th century Shahi Hammam, built as part of the Wazir Khan Mosque ensemble and  located just inside the Delhi Gate. It was built as public bath house by Wazir Khan during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1634. A Memorandum of Understanding for project assistance was signed in July 2013 with
  • A major urban open space rehabilitation project in fall 2015. AKTC is likely to be subsequently engaged in the conservation of the Wazir Khan Mosque itself, and in providing technical assistance for the conservation and management of the Lahore Fort ensemble, a World Heritage monument. 
  • The Lahore Walled City Authority has recently requested AKTC0’s assistance in the planning and carrying forward of the work for Master Conservation and Re-Development Plan (MCRP) for the Walled City of Lahore Authority.

Expected Impact

The Strategic Plan for LWC will be implemented in phases involving different sections of LWC. In the areas of LWC where AKTC has concentrated its efforts, the expected impact will be noticeable with regard to the number of rehabilitated monuments, improved housing conditions for local residents, improved access to utilities by these residents, improved access for visitors to historic monuments and improved safety on the street.

  • The completed AKTC pilot project for improved housing has set a high standard for quality. The impact of this project has been such that this effort is already being replicated on a larger scale.
  • The removal of makeshift retail outlets that for decades have obscured important historic monuments along major arteries within LWC, as well as the rehabilitation of these monuments, is already having substantial visual and psychological impact – leading to an increase in the number of visitors to the area.

Project Partners

Growing awareness about LWC’s historic and socio-cultural importance among prominent businessmen, political leaders and the higher educated, as well as their acknowledgment of the high standards of AKTC’s conservation and rehabilitation efforts, has led to a  number of key partnerships that include: the Lahore Walled City Authority (a newly created Government of Punjab agency), the Lahore Heritage Foundation, a group of prominent local business leaders, the World Bank, the Royal Norwegian Embassy, the Embassy of Germany and the Ambassador’s Fund of the Embassy of the United States.