Salman Beg was CEO of Aga Khan Cultural Service - Pakistan for over 22 years. He joined AKDN in October 1998, after a diverse career that included almost a quarter century in the army and an MBA (in 1997) from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). During his tenure, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) expanded into Baltistan, where the notable anchor-point projects of the fort-palaces of Shigar and Khaplu were restored. Rehabilitation of several traditional villages were also carried out. In 2007, Salman Beg facilitated the Trust’s partnership with the Government of Punjab in the Walled City of Lahore. In 2012, he oversaw conservation and restoration work in Lahore, particularly the Shahi Hammam and Wazir Khan Mosque and Lahore Fort’s Picture Wall, Royal Kitchen and Summer Palace. He stepped down in March 2021.
Why should Pakistan, which has many competing needs, restore cultural heritage?
Simply put, the benefits and impact of restoring and bringing cultural heritage sites into active re-use far outweighs the costs incurred in conserving them. I would like to reference the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s (AKTC) work on the forts of Baltit, Shigar, Altit and Khaplu Palace, which were conserved at a cost of around US$ 7 million. In 2019 (prior to COVID-19), these generated US$ 1.5 million in revenues (annually) with US$ 300,000 as surplus for re-investment into the local neighbourhoods. Over 150 direct jobs and much more indirect employment are the results. In addition, the returns on investment in terms of pluralism, identity, self-confidence, appreciation for culture and well-being are beyond measure.
AKTC’s experience makes absolutely clear that investments in cultural heritage repay themselves many times over. The real question, therefore, is not whether Pakistan needs to give priority to cultural heritage development but how it can develop the capacity to be able to carry out more such work across the length and breadth of Pakistan. As His Highness the Aga Khan has said, we need “to leverage the unique transformative power of culture to improve the socio-economic conditions prevailing in many Muslim populations – communities that often have a rich cultural heritage but that live in poverty.”
“Poverty” in this sense is not only a question of economics. Restoration and adaptive re-use of landmark monuments can anchor communities and help them mobilise development in general. It can also “promote good governance, the growth of civil society, a rise in incomes and economic opportunities, greater respect for human rights and better stewardship of the environment” – to quote His Highness the Aga Khan again.
In an interview with Paul Chutkow in September 1983, His Highness the Aga Khan talked about the importance of cultural identity. “What would be the consequences… when cultural heritage is lost?” he asked. What do you think the consequences of losing cultural heritage are for Pakistan whether through neglect, or disasters, or crises?
It may not be well known, but Pakistan is home to diverse sets of cultures, the earliest going back to the very first known human settlements, such as Mehrgarh (7000 BCE). There are also the Indus Valley civilisation (Harappa and Mohenjo Daro), the Ghandhara civilisation, and, in the 17th century, the Mughals at their peak. Even a strand of the famed Silk Road ran through this region. These cultures are gifts to the patrimony of mankind.
Losing cultural heritage in Pakistan would therefore be like simultaneously losing both a part of global heritage and the country’s history. If you lose an understanding of how Pakistan has been settled from the earliest stages of history – and the confidence it inspires – you lose something at the core of being. Pride is important. Losing your history is a catastrophe. It is like a man in the dark. There are no comforting signs of his or her ancestors.
By making everything homogeneous, we adopt the dominant culture of the time. For Pakistan it is critical to recognise, celebrate and ensure that this diversity is strengthened and disseminated. Otherwise, the clear and present danger is the takeover of hearts and minds by a radical mindset. We have realised that Pakistan – contrary to this plurality in thought, peoples, cultures and influences that we have proudly inherited – has over time been misperceived.
Can you recall your first major restoration effort? Can you recall that period and what AKTC wanted to achieve?
At the time I joined in October 1998, there were ongoing discussions about what to do next, both in terms of where, and the process to be followed. Extending the model of integrated sustainable area development – with Baltit Fort as an anchor point – was endorsed as a practical way forward to mitigate uncontrolled development while targeting poverty reduction. Baltistan was chosen (in addition to Hunza), at the request of notables of the region who had requested His Highness the Aga Khan be engaged.
AKTC – with assistance from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Islamabad – set out to do a study for the socio-economic development of Baltistan that was predicated on its cultural heritage. This study – spread over two years – showed Baltistan to be a treasure house of cultural heritage that was of regional and international significance. Moreover, locals expressed their full support for a development framework which would not only safeguard their heritage but make it a viable means for socio-economic development.
Restoring forts and making museums was not what we were after. We were trying to find how the assets of cultural heritage could be a springboard for people in poor or remote areas. The principles we followed were: (1) community-based conservation efforts could offer tangible benefits by infusing new life into historic landmark buildings; (2) restored buildings could be economically sustainable through adaptive re-use; and (3), most importantly, the restored buildings could serve as a nucleus for comprehensive area revitalisation.
Once the principles were in places, two integrated projects were taken up: Shigar (1999-2010) and Altit (2000-2010). The focus was on improving the quality of life for the communities living in settlements surrounding the forts. In both cases, the first step was formation of local institutions known as Town Management Societies (TMS), which were engaged with the works and other activities.
The restoration of Shigar Fort (1999-2004) was accompanied by major rehabilitation and upgrading of the settlements, including a clean drinking water supply, improved sanitation and the upgrading of community spaces and facilities. These spaces included water reservoirs/pools, gathering spaces and underground electrification. We also taught skills development and how to use local materials. These measures not only brought employment to the area but also helped revive meaningful traditional building techniques – which are now being replicated by people in the rehabilitation of their own houses. The impact of the conservation of Shigar Fort has since fostered an awareness of traditional construction techniques, use of sustainable greenwood like poplar or walnut, and revived traditional crafts such as carpentry and wood carving.
In the case of Altit, the Altit TMS was instrumental in saving the old village from being abandoned in favour of scattered and unsuitable modern construction in the precious fields and terraced orchards around the village. Moving cattle from the houses, paving the streets and providing proper sanitation to each house was a collective rehabilitation effort which directly engaged the local community in terms of both thinking processes and manual labour.
Eventually, these two projects in Shigar and Altit became a living demonstration of the fact that old cultural traditions and modern technical resources need not be incompatible.
Read more here.
AKTC went on to restore some smaller monuments, like mosques and khanqahs, as well as settlements, like Ganish and the Amburiq Mosque – more than 150 in all. What were you trying to achieve?
We tried to leverage those assets – often the only assets poor people had available to them – and use conservation as a means to provide employment, upgrade water and sanitation systems, and improve the quality of life. Not only did we restore old mosques, but we rehabilitated settlements, including upgrading of water and sanitation systems. Our focus was on making a tangible difference using a community-centred approach.
Since cultural heritage assets are not limited to forts and palaces – and these are in any case few – the need to spread awareness and stir thinking about the role of heritage assets led us to work with communities in a large number of areas stretching across Hunza and Baltistan. The 15th century Amburiq Mosque was restored to demonstrate that conservation of badly damaged monuments was feasible. Amburiq, the first mosque built in Baltistan, received a UNESCO Asia Pacific Award of Merit for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2005. The building and its courtyard have now been returned to modern use as a community museum, giving renewed life to one of the region’s historically and socially significant structures.
We also restored Khilingrong Mosque. Not only has the conservation since reinstated the religious function of the building, it has also reinvigorated an important public space for day-to-day social interactions amongst the community. It is important to restore places of gathering. Many poor communities have nowhere to meet, which is a prerequisite for development – people meeting and wanting to develop their area together.
AKTC has restored some forts, like Shigar and Khaplu, and subsequently made them into hotels. Why was it important to make those forts into commercial ventures? Why not just make the forts into museums, like Baltit?
We tried to create engines of development by re-purposing forts and palaces. Compared to Hunza, which had a tradition of tourism, Baltistan is more a trekking and adventure destination. The intent was to make these restored forts sustainable by making them into heritage hotels – which has happened as Serena Hotels now manage Shigar and Khaplu. In terms of revenues, 20 percent of the surplus is given to the Shigar and Khaplu TMSs and 10 percent to the regional Baltistan Culture and Development Foundation.
The idea is to improve the quality of life on an ongoing basis, and to have in place an enduring means of economic development.
Why did AKTC begin to restore the Walled City of Lahore? What aspect of that restoration was particularly important to the cultural patrimony of Pakistan?
Lahore is the cultural capital of Pakistan, and one of the world's most historically fascinating cities. It has retained much of its historic heritage despite centuries of turbulence. Today it remains a vibrant epicentre of commercial and cultural activity.
In 2005, the Government of Pakistan requested AKTC to make technical contributions to the World Bank-funded area development Shahi Guzargah pilot project in the Walled City of Lahore. The work carried out was initiated under a public-private partnership framework agreement, signed in 2007 with the Government of Punjab.
That engagement led to several ongoing projects, which include major Mughal period monuments, such as the 17th century Mughal period public bathhouse known as the Shahi Hammam, as well as Chowk Wazir Khan, the conservation of the Wazir Khan Mosque. Since 2015, AKTC has worked on the World Heritage Site of Lahore Fort, which has 21 major monuments, including the famous Picture Wall and the Royal Kitchens. AKTC also aided the Punjab Government in the preparation of a Master Conservation and Re-Development Plan for the Walled City of Lahore and also for the Lahore Fort.
The fact that the Government of Punjab is providing substantial funding for the Picture Wall, Summer Palace, Royal Kitchens and the Wazir Khan Mosque is recognition of the viability and importance of restoring cultural patrimony.
Read more here.
Your work has won 14 UNESCO awards. Why are they important?
We won UNESCO awards in every year starting in 2002. This is unparalleled in UNESCO Asia-Pacific history. Two awards of Excellence, seven for Distinction and three for Merit speak of the remarkable quality of work and even more for the community-based approach adopted by AKTC.
Of particular significance is the fact that additionally a community project – the Astana of Syed Mir Yahya, in Shigar -- won an Award of Merit in 2007. The UNESCO citation reads:
“The recovery of the Astana of Syed Mir Yahya by the Shigar community in Skardu, Pakistan has rescued an important local religious landmark on the brink of ruin in a modest and culturally appropriate manner. Through the active involvement of the local residents, and drawing upon other excellent models of community-led conservation undertaken in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, the project has itself become a notable example of successful local restoration effort. Through the voluntary efforts of the villagers and the use of traditional building techniques to realign and stabilize the structure, the tomb has been returned to its former status as the central cultural symbol of the village.”
I must mention that in November 2019, at the event in Penang, Malaysia celebrating 20 years of the UNESCO awards, AKTC received a special award for the remarkable work in the field of community-based conservation. Also, the Trust’s award-winning projects have been covered in the three volumes of Asia Conserved printed so far by UNESCO.
It is not only UNESCO that has recognised the approach practiced by AKTC for its work. The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) presented the 1997 Grand Award for Baltit Fort and the 2006 Gold Award for Shigar Fort. The 2000 British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award was presented for the Baltit Fort and Karimabad Environmental Project. This was followed with the 2008 Virgin Holidays "Best for conservation of cultural heritage" Award for the restoration and re-use of Shigar Fort Palace and then the 2012 Highly Commended in Best in Poverty Reduction Award for the Khaplu Palace & Residence. Earlier, Baltit Fort Hunza Valley featured on the cover and in the 4 July 2005 edition of Time Magazine Best of Asia.
What was your favourite restoration project?
The diversity of our interventions and array of engagements makes it difficult to single out a project, but my favourite project is clearly the Shahi Hammam, in the Walled City of Lahore.
There are a number of firsts associated with this project. This was the first conservation project of a monument in Lahore carried out by the Trust. This was the first time WCLA had requested AKTC for the Shahi Hammam’s conservation. This was the very first time that Norway was willing to support a conservation project outside Gilgit-Baltistan.
The conservation of the Shahi Hammam has been the trigger for all further ongoing conservation engagements in Lahore, informing and influencing partners such as Norway, USA, Germany, Government of Punjab/WCLA and l’Agence Française de Développement (AFD) to support conservation efforts in Lahore.
The primary objectives of the conservation efforts were to re-establish the monument as a bathhouse through the exposure, conservation and display of the remains of the original waterworks, drainage and hypocaust system through archaeological excavation, structural consolidation and restoration of the historic floor levels.
The Hammam has now been established as a heritage museum-site that welcomes tourists and visitors from all over the world into the Walled City, and is kept alive as a venue for talks, seminars and cultural and corporate events. Since its opening in June 2015, the Hammam has increasingly become the centrepiece of tourism in the Walled City, along with the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Lahore Fort.