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Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Inauguration of the Stone Town Cultural Centre, Zanzibar-1997-03-16

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Event - 1997-03-15
Saturday, 1997, March 15
Aga Khan IV (H.H. Prince Karim)

Your Excellency President Mkapa
Your Excellency President Amour
Your Excellency the Chief Minister
Honourable Ministers
Distinguished Guests

The formal purpose of our gathering today is to inaugurate this lovely building - known locally as the Old Dispensary - as the Stone Town Cultural Centre. I would like to convey my sincere thanks to His Excellency the President of Zanzibar, for his support of the work of the institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network in Zanzibar and for honouring us by participating in these inaugural ceremonies this evening. Let me express, once again, my thanks to His Excellency the President of the United Republic of Tanzania, Mr. Mkapa, for performing the opening ceremony of the Zanzibar Serena Inn and finding time in his particularly busy schedule of today to join us again now, as another dimension of the Network is presented to the public.

Four years have been devoted to the painstaking restoration of this building. This work has been based on careful archival research into the building's history, design and construction. The structure as it existed in 1991 was subject to systematic physical examination. A concerted effort has been made to revive many of the skills and techniques used in its original construction, and the entire project has employed restoration techniques of the highest international standard. I hope you will find that this effort has faithfully and successfully recovered the building's essential genius.

Engaging as this physical structure is, however, and notwithstanding the efforts of the dozens of professionals and skilled craftsmen responsible for its restoration, I do not intend to say more about it. Tours, briefings and an exhibition have been arranged to provide a full range of information, and many of those responsible for the work are amongst us. Rather I would like to take this occasion to speak about the significance of the approach taken by the Aga Khan Development Network in Zanzibar for a much wider, even global set of issues. I would like to draw attention to the emerging understanding of the importance of culture as a critical element in development strategies in general, and for efforts to revitalise the historic cores of the world's towns and cities in particular,. For too long culture has been seen as something unproductive, something worthy of attention and support only after pressing social and economic needs are addressed. I would also like to highlight the special challenge presented by the nexus of culture and development for the Islamic world, given the significance that cities and their distinctive architectures have played in our history.

As someone whose responsibilities involve travel to most parts of the world on a continuous basis, I am struck by the fact that change is occurring everywhere - in the poorest countries of the world as well as the richest, and in the countryside as well as in towns and cities. The powerful political and economic forces that have emerged in the last twenty years are at work everywhere in some way or another.

Change means opportunity for those who are well prepared to manage it. But change can also be disorienting, particularly when it erodes the structures, values and symbols that have provided shape and meaning in a given society and culture. It can be particularly destructive among the less well-off in any society, the very people often found in urban centres, the growing squatter settlements on the edge of cities, and in much of the countryside. The preservation and revitalisation of the historic core of cities and towns is beginning to be seen as one important element in effectively managing these dimensions of change. Such environments express the creative genius of a particular people and document important aspects of their history and accomplishments. Attention to their preservation and revitalisation can contribute to stability, provide real economic opportunities, and increase the overall quality of life. Investment in historic cities can be a productive development investment, meeting practical needs, releasing creative energies and providing sources of social cohesion - not an unproductive investment in stagnating, barren environments. This has been practically demonstrated in several settings, but no more brilliantly and successfully than in Mostar until that historic town and its unique symbolic bridge, were systematically destroyed in the recent fighting in that troubled land.

But supporting historic cities in no simple business. Restoration of one building by itself will never make a difference. A successful effort requires planning to co-ordinate the array of interventions that are necessary, it requires the reform of regulations and policies to release creative energy and investment needed for the amount of work involved, and it requires the mobilisation of public support to sustain the physical work once it has been accomplished. The breadth of approach is exemplified in the work of the Aga Khan Development Network institutions in Zanzibar to date. A comprehensive plan has been developed in collaboration with a number of bi-lateral and UN organisations. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development has renovated two structures to create the Zanzibar Serena Inn which was inaugurated yesterday. And the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has restored the Old Dispensary as the Stone Town Cultural Centre and revitalised Kelele Square as an example of developed open space.

A comprehensive approach such as this is necessary to produce lasting change, but it will not be sufficient. Such interventions must reach a critical mass to be self-sustaining. Until other sources -- public, charitable and in the end most importantly private - are stimulated to emulate what has been modelled, the impact on the culture and the economy will be circumscribed. I concluded my remarks at the opening of the Serena Inn yesterday by observing that while the Inn and the cultural Centre are at opposite ends of the sea wall which defines Forodhani Park and that while both are replicable case studies for the Old Stone Town, neither alone, nor together do they represent the critical mass necessary to make a major change in the economic and cultural self-sustainability of the Old Stone Town.

The active engagement of the Government of Zanzibar and the island's population is another critical element for grasping the new future which lies before the Old Stone Town and the island as a whole. Only they can insure that the value of these efforts is captured and sustained. Culture is, after all, an ongoing expression of human talent and steps need to be taken to recuperate and sustain traditions into the future. Efforts to reach back and recapture traditions, skills and motifs and to integrate them into contemporary life and products can be focused in the Stone Town, which can become an important magnet for cultural tourism to add to the flow of beach-oriented tourists who have already "found" this lovely and fascinating island.

These comments, brief as they are, are meant to provide a concrete illustration of the rationale for attention to the needs and opportunities represented by historic cities in this time of rapid change.

Recognition of the nexus between culture and development has been spreading in recent years, and is now finding its way into the projects mounted by a number of inter-governmental, bi-lateral and private organisations. A few years ago I requested a survey of institutions concerned with culture in the Islamic World, given the special importance and particular richness of art and architecture in Islamic civilisations and given the fact that more than one third of the cities on the World Heritage list are in countries where Muslims have a significant presence. I was saddened to learn that although organisations with world-wide mandates sponsored projects in the Islamic World from time to time, there was no organisation, other than the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, with the mission to focus on the depth and diversity of Islamic architecture and with specialised expertise required to embrace its richness. The diversity of architecture in secular and in religious buildings in the Islamic World is extraordinary, is an important strength, and is a resource for the community. This plurality of cultural traditions within the widest interpretation of the all-encompassing faith of Islam is, however, relatively unknown and very poorly understood, particularly in the West, which thinks, too often, of all things Islamic in narrow, normative terms.

From the survey, I concluded that the Aga Khan Trust for Culture had an important continuing mission to support architectural traditions in countries where Muslims have a significant presence by identifying and publicising innovative solutions to contemporary needs of all peoples in those countries, by supporting efforts to revitalise and restore the historic cores of cities and towns, and by training architects and planners working in the Islamic world in the richness of the history and traditions of Islamic civilisations. But the task is immense and we invite others, from within the Islamic world and outside to join the AKTC in this effort.

Ensuring that these efforts continue to reflect the depth and diversity of architecture in countries of the Islamic world, is critical to all of the Trust's programmes. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture will continue to operate through an independent jury which is free in each three-year cycle to define themes and to select award winning projects across the full range of building and architectural types and thus to avoid becoming "a school" that would not do justice to diversity and innovation. The Historic Cities Programme consciously selects sites and projects to capture the richness and diversity of the architectural history of the Islamic World. Zanzibar was almost a natural choice, given the island's multicultural history. The other projects to date include a residence in the Muslim quarter of Granada, a medieval fort and the historic village core in Baltit in Northern Pakistan, and a planning exercise in the architecturally rich city of Samarkand. And we are about to undertake the development of an urban park along Cairo's historic wall in splendid juxtaposition with the Azhar and other major structures of Fatimid Cairo. Hopefully we can attract partners to enable this work to continue to spread into still more settings and provide models for national governments, community organisations, private initiatives and international organisations.

I would like to close my remarks by congratulating everyone who has been associated with the restoration of the Old Dispensary. It is a splendid piece of work. But even together with the Serena Inn, Kelele Square and the plan for the Old Stone Town, we are only at a beginning. I close with a sincere and urgent plea to all those who have participated in this work, or are considering becoming involved, to continue. For it is only by remaining active that we will realize the optimal contribution to Zanzibar's economy from the investments that have been made. I look forward with great anticipation to returning to Zanzibar in the years ahead and seeing the impact of the Stone Town Cultural Centre as it comes to life and begins to impact the lives and livelihoods of the people of Zanzibar.

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