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Afghans plan museums to replace moonscapes

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• Kabul steps up campaign to restore cultural heritage
• Thousands of treasures repatriated from abroad
    * Helena Smith in Athens
    * The Guardian,
    * Thursday October 30 2008
 
It has been described as one of the great acts of cultural desecration of modern times, a rampant pillage that threatens to denude a country of much of its fabulous heritage. But now Afghanistan is stepping up an ambitious campaign to stop the looting of the country’s archaeological sites, with a programme to build museums, train archaeologists and repatriate the billions of dollars worth of stolen antiquities that have been spirited through its porous borders during the past seven years.
 
“We’re in the process of building 10 provincial museums, training more archaeologists, repatriating stolen treasures and making a red-list of [looted] art works,” the deputy culture minister, Omar Sultan, said during an official visit to Greece.
 
“But we also desperately need to educate young Afghans about the importance of their culture,” he told the Guardian. “There is a whole generation out there who have only ever known weapons and war. If they are sensitised, if they can be made to feel there is a cultural heritage of which they can be proud, they can influence their parents who help the gangs.”
 
The authorities are starting to make progress with repatriating stolen artefacts retrieved from overseas: in the past year, thousands of treasures have been repatriated from Denmark and Switzerland. Four tonnes of valuable items, holed up at Heathrow airport since 2005, are also due to be returned in coming weeks.
 
But formidable challenges still face Sultan and his colleagues. Attempts to hire extra guards to protect sites have failed because the authorities were unable to pay them more than $10 (£6) a month, or even equip them with telephones and cars. The security vacuum has allowed illegal smugglers to prosper. Working at night, gangs of Afghans in the pay of warlords and plunderers have turned swaths of the country into the moonscapes that now stand as testimony to the cultural desecration.
 
“People are hungry and they’re desperate, and smugglers play on that,” said Sultan, a Greek-trained archaeologist. “There are heroes in Afghanistan who have worked without any credit to save our treasures. But I worry that if this continues, looters will take everything – such is the scale of the organised crime.”
 
He is appealing for international funding to provide stronger protection for important sites and better equipment to guards. He also wants more countries to follow Greece’s lead in offering scholarships to trainee archaeologists. Afghanistan has only six trained archaeologists.
 
Even before the 2001 US-led invasion, nearly three decades of war and the fundamentalist Islamist rule of the Taliban had resulted in terrible loss to Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, most notably with the looting of the national museum in Kabul.
 
The destruction by the Taliban of the giant Buddhas carved into the mountainside at Bamiyan, with dynamite, picks and axes in 2001 – monuments the Afghans, in collaboration with international conservationists, are trying to restore – highlighted the country’s plight.
 
Sultan said it would be a big moment for Afghanistan when the relics currently impounded at Heathrow are returned. The objects date mostly from the great Bronze Age of the Bactrian civilisation in the second millennium BC, as well as the later pre-Islamic period.
 
“It will be a great moment for us when they return from Britain,” Sultan said. “I always say that our cultural heritage doesn’t just belong to us – it belongs to the world, and that’s why I hope the world will come and help us. About 90% of what we have underground has still not been discovered, and it needs to be protected.”
Backstory
 
Afghanistan has some of the finest treasures and Hellenistic sites in the world, thanks in part to Alexander the Great, who invaded in 337BC. The looted Bactrian treasures include gold discs, elaborate jewels and gold-carved weapons. The national museum saw 70% of its treasures lost to looters in 1993. Antiquities are frequently smuggled through Pakistan and Iran. Treasures seized at Heathrow in 2005 included hundreds of jewels, axe-heads, stone statues, gold ornaments, ivory games pieces, ceramics, bronze seals and other ancient objects.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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Written by afghandevnews

October 31, 2008 at 3:37 am

Posted in Culture and Arts, Drugs

In Afghanistan, French archaeologists uncover ancient city

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Poor villagers who once looted the site now help excavate walls and artifacts at what they call the City of Infidels.

By Matthew Pennington
Associated Press
August 31, 2008

CHESHM-E-SHAFA, AFGHANISTAN — Centuries-old shards of pottery mingle with spent ammunition rounds on a wind-swept mountainside in northern Afghanistan where French archaeologists believe they have found a vast ancient city.

For years, villagers have dug in the baked earth on the heights of Cheshm-e-Shafa for pottery and coins to sell to antiques smugglers. Tracts of the site that locals call the City of Infidels look like a battleground, scarred by craters.

But now tribesmen dig angular trenches and preserve fragile walls, working as laborers on an excavation atop a promontory. To the north and east lies an undulating landscape of barren red-tinted rock that was once the ancient kingdom of Bactria; to the south a verdant valley that leads to the famed Buddhist ruins at Bamian.

Roland Besenval, director of the French archaeological delegation in Afghanistan and leader of the excavation, is sanguine about his helpers’ previous harvesting of the site.

“Generally, the old looters make the best diggers,” he said with a shrug.

A trip around the northern province of Balkh is like an odyssey through the centuries, spanning the ancient Persian empire, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the arrival of Islam.

The French mission has mapped 135 sites of archaeological interest in the region, best known for the ancient trove found by a Soviet archaeologist in the 1970s.

The Bactrian Hoard consisted of exquisite gold jewelry and ornaments from graves of wealthy nomads, dated to the 1st century. It was hidden from the Taliban regime, concealed by its keepers in the vaults of the presidential palace in Kabul, and finally unlocked after the militia’s ouster.

The treasure, currently on exhibition in the United States, demonstrates the rich culture that once thrived here, blending influences from the web of trails and trading routes known as the Silk Road, that spread from Rome and Greece to the Far East and India.

But deeper historical understanding of ancient Bactria has been stymied by the recent decades of war and isolation that severely restricted visits by archaeologists.

“It’s a huge task because we are still facing the problem of looting,” said Besenval, who first excavated in Afghanistan 36 years ago and is fluent in the local language, Dari. “We know that objects are going to Pakistan and on to the international market. It’s very urgent work. If we don’t do something now, it will be too late.”

Looting was rife during the civil war of the early 1990s when Afghanistan lurched into lawlessness. People here say it subsided under the hard-line Taliban rule, but the Islamists’ fundamentalism took its own toll on the country’s cultural history. They destroyed the towering Buddha statues of Bamian chiseled more than 1,500 years ago, and smashed hundreds of statues in the national museum because they portrayed the human form.

The opening up of Afghanistan did little to curb the treasure hunters. British author Rory Stewart, who made an extraordinary solo hike across the country in 2002, wrote about poor tribesmen systematically pillaging the remains of a lost ancient city dating to the 12th century around the towering minaret of Jam in western Afghanistan.

State control is a little more pervasive in Balkh, but still patchy. The provincial culture authority says it has just 50 guards to protect historical sites across an area nearly the size of New Jersey.

Saleh Mohammed Khaleeq, a poet and historian serving as the chief of the province’s cultural department, said that the guards ward off looters but that the only way to safeguard Afghanistan’s rich heritage is through public education.

“People are so poor. They are just looking for ways to buy bread. We need to open their minds, as they don’t know the value of their history. We have to give them that knowledge and then they will protect it,” he said.

Villagers hired as laborers at Cheshm-e-Shafa recall how they used to be among hundreds of people who would scavenge the site they now excavate, for about $4.80 a day.

“During the civil war everyone was involved,” said Nisarmuddin, 42, who covered his face with his turban to block the dust whipped by a stiff breeze.

Nisarmuddin, a farmer who like many Afghans goes by one name, said people used to keep their finds secret so the local militia commander would not claim them. They could sell items of ancient pottery and glass for a few dollars to antiques dealers in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, an hour’s drive down a bumpy track through the desert.

One of the Afghan culture officials working at the Cheshm-e-Shafa excavation was clearly concerned that news reports could bring unwanted attention to the site, where archaeologists have uncovered a 6-foot-tall anvil-like stone believed to have been an altar at a fire temple originating from the Persian Empire period around the 6th century BC.

“Hezb-e-Islami and Taliban and other extremists might use explosives and blow up this stone,” archaeology department official Mohammed Rahim Andarab said.

Many archaeologists remain wary of working in Balkh as Islamic militancy seeps into more regions of the country. Yet the sheer breadth of history to be unearthed is enough to lure Besenval and his colleagues.

They are also restoring an ornate 9th century mosque. Its stout, half-buried columns, decorated with abstract floral and geometric patterns in stucco, reflect local art but also influences from central Asia, Buddhism and Persia.

Chahryar Adle, a Frenchman of Iranian descent who has long experience in Afghanistan, said the mosque of Noh-Gonbad, or Nine Cupolas, is the oldest in the country and “undoubtedly it is one of the finest in the world of this period.”

French archaeologists have a long association with the region. They first visited in 1924 to excavate a fortress in the nearby town of Balkh. They hoped to find an ancient city of Alexander, who is believed to have married a local princess, Roxanne, in Bactria, in 327 BC, but left disappointed.

The mirage of Alexander also lurks over Cheshm-e-Shafa, about 20 miles away. The site had a strategic location at the southern entry point into Bactria with fortifications circling an area of about 1,000 acres, and its network of mountaintop lookout towers suggest it was well defended. A large flat field that may have been a parade ground or barracks lies on the plain below. And the local nickname City of Infidels also suggests a foreign occupation at some time.

So could this have been Alexander’s redoubt in Bactria, where he met the princess Roxanne? The archaeologist allowed himself a rare foray into the realms of speculation.

“Who knows? Maybe they married in Cheshm-e-Shafa,” Besenval said, smiling.

Written by afghandevnews

September 3, 2008 at 3:04 am

Posted in Culture and Arts

Afghan empire’s last symbols under threat

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By Sayed Salahuddin
Sun Aug 10, 9:06 PM ET

GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) – For more than eight centuries the “Towers of Victory” — monuments to Afghanistan’s greatest empire — have survived wars and invasions, but now weather and neglect could cause them to come crashing down.

From its base in the Afghan city of Ghazni, the dynasty of Sultan Mahmoud Ghaznavi extended its rule to stretch from the River Tigris in modern day Iraq to the River Ganges in India.

The two toffee-colored minarets, adorned with terra-cotta tiles were raised in the early 12th century as monuments to the victories of the Afghan armies that built the empire.

Since then, Afghanistan has more often been victim of invasion than the perpetrator of them.

The upper portions of the Towers of Victory have eroded away over time, so now only the bases remain — though they still stand at around 7 meters (24 feet) tall.

“If attention is not paid, there is the possibility they will be destroyed,” said Aqa Mohammad Khoshazada, a senior official with Ghazni’s culture and information department. “Floods and rain in spring and snow in winter all end up around the minarets.”

Ghazni is regarded as the cradle of Afghan culture and arts and during his rule Mahmoud had attracted 400 scholars and poets to his court. But the sultan was also an iconoclast who destroyed hundreds of Hindu statues during campaigns to introduce Islam into India.

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Mahmoud died in 1030. His son, Sultan Masud, built one of the minarets. The other was erected by another successor.

The Ghaznavis’ rule lasted for more than two centuries.

The city was then razed to the ground by Allauddin Ghori from central Afghanistan, who earned the nickname of “World Burner” for the massacre of Ghazni’s people in an orgy of destruction and looting.

The city flourished again, only to be destroyed again by a son of Ghenghiz Khan in 1221. But the minarets survived.

Ghazni changed hands between British and Afghan forces several times in the 19th century suffering more sieges and massacres. More fighting during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, followed by the civil war of the 1990s, also left their mark on Ghazni.

Ghazni’s Towers of Victory stand several hundred meters away from each other and lie at the bottom of a hill.

Holes and ditches, made by illegal excavations for antiquities and buried treasure collect water and are now undermining the foundations of the minarets.

One has panels of bold Kufic lettering on the top. The tops of the towers are capped with corrugated iron, after the upper sections came down in an earthquake.

But despite repeated appeals and warnings, Afghanistan’s impoverished central government, fighting a Taliban insurgency, has allocated just $100 dollars in six years to fill some of the holes around the towers, said Sayed Wali the head of the culture department in Ghazni.

“They are under threat and we have no resources to stop it,” Wali said.

Written by afghandevnews

August 24, 2008 at 5:14 pm

Posted in Culture and Arts

Archaelogists uncover ancient city in Afghanistan

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The Associated Press
August 8, 2008
CHESHM-E-SHAFA, Afghanistan: Centuries-old shards of pottery mingle with spent ammunition rounds on a wind-swept mountainside in northern Afghanistan where French archaeologists believe they have found a vast ancient city.
For years, villagers have dug the baked earth on the heights of Cheshm-e-Shafa for pottery and coins to sell to antique smugglers. Tracts of the site that locals call the “City of Infidels” look like a battleground, scarred by craters.
But now tribesmen dig angular trenches and preserve fragile walls, working as laborers on an excavation atop a promontory. To the north and east lies an undulating landscape of barren red-tinted rock that was once the ancient kingdom of Bactria; to the south a still-verdant valley that leads to the famed Buddhist ruins at Bamiyan.
Roland Besenval, director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan and leading the excavation, is sanguine about his helpers’ previous harvesting of the site. “Generally the old looters make the best diggers,” he said with a shrug.
A trip around the northern province of Balkh is like an odyssey through the centuries, spanning the ancient Persian empire, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the arrival of Islam. The French mission has mapped some 135 sites of archaeological interest in the region, best known for the ancient trove found by a Soviet archaeologist in the 1970s.
The Bactrian Hoard consisted of exquisite gold jewelry and ornaments from graves of wealthy nomads, dated to the 1st century A.D. It was concealed by its keepers in the vaults of the presidential palace in Kabul from the Taliban regime and finally unlocked after the militia’s ouster.
The treasure, currently on exhibition in the United States, demonstrates the rich culture that once thrived here, blending influences from the web of trails and trading routes known as the Silk Road, that spread from Rome and Greece to the Far East and India.
But deeper historical understanding of ancient Bactria has been stymied by the recent decades of war and isolation that severely restricted visits by archaeologists.
“It’s a huge task because we are still facing the problem of looting,” said Besenval, who first excavated in Afghanistan 36 years ago and speaks the local language of Dari fluently. “We know that objects are going to Pakistan and on to the international market. It’s very urgent work. If we don’t do something now, it will be too late.”
Looting was rife during the civil war of the early 1990s when Afghanistan lurched into lawlessness. Locals say it subsided under the Taliban’s hardline rule, but the Islamists’ fundamentalism took its own toll on Afghanistan’s cultural history. They destroyed the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan chiseled more than 1,500 years ago, and smashed hundreds of statues in the national museum simply because they portrayed the human form.
The opening up of Afghanistan did little to curb the treasure hunters. British author Rory Stewart, who made an extraordinary solo hike across the country in 2002, wrote how poor tribesmen were systematically pillaging the remains of a lost ancient city dating back to 12th century around the towering minaret of Jam in western Afghanistan.
State control is a little more pervasive in Balkh but still patchy. The provincial culture authority says it has just 50 guards to protect historical sites across an area nearly the size of New Jersey.
Saleh Mohammad Khaleeq, a local poet and historian serving as the chief of the province’s cultural department, said the guards ward off looters, but concedes the only way to safeguard Afghanistan’s rich heritage is through public education.
“People are so poor. They are just looking for ways to buy bread. We need to open their minds as they don’t know the value of their history. We have to give them that knowledge and then they will protect it,” he said.
Villagers hired as laborers at Cheshm-e-Shafa recall how they too used to be among hundreds of locals who would scavenge the site they are now paid 230 afghanis (US$4.60) a day to excavate.
“During the civil war everyone was involved,” said Nisarmuddin, 42, who covered his face with his turban to block the dust that a stiff breeze whipped across the mountainside.
Nisarmuddin, a farmer who like many Afghans goes by one name, said people used to keep their finds secret so the local militia commander would not claim them. They could sell items of ancient pottery and glass for a few dollars to antique dealers in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which lies an hour’s drive down a bumpy track through the desert.
One of the Afghan culture officials working at the Cheshm-e-Shafa excavation was clearly anxious that media coverage could bring unwanted attention to the site, where archaeologists have uncovered a 6-foot-tall (2-meter-tall) anvil-like stone believed to have been an altar at a fire temple originating from the Persian Empire period around the 6th century B.C.
“Hezb-e-Islami and Taliban and other extremists might use explosives and blow up this stone,” said archaeology department official Mohammed Rahim Andarab.
Many archaeologists remain wary of working in Balkh as Islamic militancy seeps into new regions of the country. Yet the sheer breadth of history to be unearthed is enough to lure Besenval and his colleagues.
They are also restoring an ornate 9th century A.D. mosque. Its stout, half-buried columns, decorated with abstract floral and geometric patterns in stucco, reflect local art but also influences from central Asia, Buddhism and Persia. Chahryar Adle, a Frenchman of Iranian descent with long experience in Afghanistan, said the mosque of Noh-Gonbad, or Nine Cupolas, is the oldest in the country and “undoubtedly it is one of the finest in the world of this period.”
French archaeologists have a long association with the region. They first visited in 1924 to excavate a fortress in the nearby town of Balkh. They hoped to find an ancient city of Alexander, whom history recounts married a local princess, Roxanne, in Bactria, in 327 B.C., but left disappointed.
The mirage of Alexander also lurks over Cheshm-e-Shafa, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) away. The site had a strategic location at the southern entry point into Bactria with fortifications circling an area of about 1,000 acres (400 hectares), and its network of mountaintop lookout towers suggest it was well defended. A flat field the size of several football pitches that may have been a parade ground or barracks lies on the plain below. And the local nickname “City of Infidels” also suggests a foreign occupation at some time.
So could this have been Alexander’s redoubt in Bactria, where he met the local princess Roxanne? The archaeologist allowed himself a rare foray into the realms of speculation.
“Who knows? Maybe they married in Cheshm-e-Shafa,” Besenval said, smiling.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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August 8, 2008 at 4:05 pm

Posted in Culture and Arts

Olympics: Afghanistan pins its medal hopes on Taekwondo

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Thursday August 7, 2008
KABUL, Aug 7, 2008 (AFP) – On the fourth floor of a Kabul building still under construction, amid the roar of a power generator punctuated by cries and punches, the world taekwondo vice champion says he is going to Beijing to fetch Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal.
“I don’t want just to participate. I am going to China to win a medal,” says 23-year-old Nesar Ahmad Bahawi.
At 1.86 metres tall, Nesar is one of the favourites in the 68 kilo division in the Korean combat sport.
He has been working hard for his dream. “I started my specific training six months ago, including a preparation trip to South Korea. I train six hours a day, to develop speed, physical training and technique,” he says.
Afghanistan has never won a medal at the Olympics. Its most notable link with the world event is that the 1979 Soviet invasion led to a US-led international boycott of the games in Moscow the following year.
“I discovered taekwondo 11 years ago and I liked it from the beginning,” enthuses Nesar, whose speciality is the back-kick.
“When I was a child, I saw a lot of martial arts movies. I choose taekwondo because it focuses on kicking and I like kicking!” he says, with a disarming smile.
Behind him teenagers and young adults, some of them in the national team, exchange powerful kicks to the chest, shielded by a trunk protector, or to the head, their blows reinforced by loud cries.
Few among them have the money to buy a dobok, the sport’s uniform, and most wear tracksuit pants and a t-shirt.
All dream of a future like that of Nesar, silver medallist in the 2007 world championships, who has already been to Beijing where he qualified for the games.
He will return to the city with Rohullah Nikpa who will take part the sport’s 58kg event, having qualified at the Asian Games.
“It’s the first time ever that Afghans qualify in any sport for the Olympics with their technique and results. Before they just had wildcards,” says Ghulam Rabani Rabani, 33, president of the Afghan Taekwondo Federation.
“Now their minds and bodies are ready, they will try to do the best for a medal,” he adds enthusiastically. “Afghanistan has never won a medal in the Olympics — it will be the first one ever.”
The war-wracked country’s team to the Beijing games consists of just four athletes: the two men taking part in taekwondo events due on August 20 and 21 and two runners, Massoud Azizi and a woman named only Robina.
Robina is a last-minute replacement for Mahbooba Ahadyar, who has disappeared in Europe reportedly after threats from Islamic fundamentalists even though she chose to run with a headscarf and full tracksuit.
An Olympic sport since Sydney 2000, taekwondo is popular in Afghanistan where it is by far the most practised combat sport.
Rabani says there are 700 taekwondo clubs in the country with more than 25,000 members.
The sport was introduced to the country in 1972 by an American master, he adds.
Its development was not without obstacles especially during the 1996-2001 rule of the Taliban when “students of religion” would interrupt training to check if beards were long enough for their version of Islam and that trainees were praying five times a day.
Today it is financial constraints that are handicapping the sport.
Without funds or much government support, athletes taking part in competitions overseas sometimes have to sleep in airports or go without food for a whole day.
A South Korean foundation is however giving vital support to taekwondo in Afghanistan. It pays for a Korean master trainer and for equipment — trunk protectors, arm and leg guards, masks.
“National team members only receive 16 dollars a month from the government,” says Rabani. “It’s a joke.”
After he won his silver medal, Nesar received a bonus of 2,000 dollars from President Hamid Karzai.
But a few weeks later, the Afghan leader handed the same amount to a 14-year-old would-be suicide bomber from Pakistan who had asked for forgiveness.
It is a parallel that Nesar and his team cannot understand.
Sport could keep Afghan youth away from drugs, says Nesar, arguing for more government support. Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s opium and drug use is increasing.
“Narcotics are a big problem in this country. If people do sport, they don’t use narcotics or cigarettes. I wish the government would support sport to keep young people away from drugs.”
An Olympic medal could get more youngsters involved, he says.
“When I got the silver medal, hundreds of new people came to do taekwondo. All teachers in the clubs were calling me to thank me. I hope to do the same after Beijing.”
Copyright © 2008 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.

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August 7, 2008 at 4:07 pm

Posted in Culture and Arts

Secret service finds ‘ancient’ statues

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Written by Quqnoos.com  
Thursday, 07 August 2008 10:35
Intelligence officials to hand statues over to government for tests
THE INTELLIGENCE service has discovered three “ancient” statues in the eastern province of Kunar, the provincial governor said.
The National Directorate of Security (NDS) found the statues, which are thought to be extremely valuable, on Tuesday, the province’s governor, Said Fazallulah Wahidi, said. 
He refused to give any details about the statues for security reasons.
The statues will soon be handed over to the province’s information and culture department, which will carry out tests to determine which historical period they belong to.
Two days ago, the NDS arrested four men in Baghlan province for attempting to smuggle precious statues out of the country.

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August 7, 2008 at 4:06 pm

Posted in Culture and Arts

Afghans fix crumbling history, one shovel full at a time

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Canada is the biggest single donor to a project to unbury the ancient heart of old Kabul, writes Graham Thomson
Graham Thomson
Canwest News Service

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

KABUL – One of the more promising signs for Afghanistan’s future lies, perhaps, in its past, in the heart of old Kabul — buried under decades of filth, garbage and neglect. Two metres underneath, to be precise.

In the ancient commercial district of Murad Khane — in a project in which Canada is the biggest single donor — more than 200 workers are digging away dirt and debris in this labyrinth of mud-walled alleys and boxlike buildings. At places, the accumulated earth is two metres deep, choking old passageways and raising the floor level of aged courtyards so high that people had to stoop through doorways.

In a technique that would make recyclers smile in Canada, workers are using the recovered earth as the main ingredient in a traditional cement to rebuild crumbling walls of the district’s historic buildings. Murad Khane is rising like a phoenix from its own ashes.

Equally exceptional is that this program, supported by western donations, has no guards, no guns, no checkpoints. In a country where many westerners wouldn’t go out without a helmet and body armour, Murad Khane’s security is remarkably slim. The only protective gear is hard hats.

The project’s security might lie in the fact it is so discreet. In a country suspicious of outsiders, the project doesn’t look remotely western. Its heart might be foreign money, but its face is Afghan. The workers are mainly Afghan. Even the head architect, who was born in Germany and has an office in London, is of Afghan descent.

To help solidify support among the people who live in this rundown neighbourhood, the project operates an emergency repair program to help fix up homes that share the decrepit state of the historic buildings.

“The mission is to regenerate Afghanistan’s historic areas and revive the traditional economy,” said John Elliott, a spokesman for the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which runs the project. “We’re working in the middle of Kabul, the very centre of the centre and there’s just a chance that if you can give some kind of economic underpinning to Murad Khane — an economic purpose, an educational purpose — it might act as a catalyst for the rest of the city and the rest of Afghanistan.”

That sounds like a lofty goal for a program with a yearly budget of just $4 million, compared with billions being spent by western countries and aid groups. Turquoise Mountain thinks modest projects are the way to go.

“What we need is a patient approach to development here,” said Mr. Elliott. “I think it has to do with having smaller, more discreet projects. And if you could replicate that across the board, rather than having huge programs which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, having smaller, lower risk projects, then you might achieve something.”

Turquoise Mountain started out as something of an experiment in 2006 under the leadership of former British diplomat and author Rory Stewart. Since then, it has attracted attention, accolades and an increasingly long list of donors, including the Canadian government, which is providing $3 million over four years — making Canada the largest single financial supporter.

While Murad Khane is the most visible sign of Turquoise Mountain’s work, the core is a school tucked away in a corner of Kabul where master craftsmen teach apprentices the arts of Afghan woodworking, ceramics, calligraphy and jewelry making.

The Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture has 100 students who spend three years learning their craft along with English and the fundamentals of running a business.

The goal is to graduate not only skilled workers, but entrepreneurs. Students are already turning out intricately carved support columns and decorative panels as part of the restoration work on the historic buildings. By doing so, they are also helping to build a new home for themselves. The centre plans to relocate to the refurbished Murad Khane district, making the Centre for Traditional Afghan Arts a prominent showpiece.

“If you look at this neighbourhood and other parts of the old city, it is absolutely important to keep and preserve these buildings, not just because they’re beautiful buildings, but there’s a connection between the people now and the people in (the) past,” said Sayed Majidi, the head of architecture at the Murad Khane site. “If you look at the history of Afghanistan, if you look at the culture that still exists and is expressed in these neighbourhoods, it is a quite important and serious project for all Afghanistan, not just for Kabul.”

The five-year project is halfway done and is proving to be symbolic of the country’s struggle to dig itself out of three decades of war, destruction and neglect. The work is done slowly, laboriously, by hand, one shovel at a time.

“We’re not taking on the whole world and not trying to change the world overnight,” said Mr. Elliott. “The only prudent thing to do is (to) take it one step at a time.”
© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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July 31, 2008 at 4:12 pm

Posted in Culture and Arts