Two lesser-known Egyptian legacies have been put on the World Monuments Fund watch list
Two of Egypt’s heritage sites — a 50-year-old village built by a famous architect, and an 800-year-old mosque built of mud and salt — are in danger of decay, according to the World Monuments Fund (WMF).
The WMF releases a biennial watch list of the 100 most endangered sites worldwide. This year, the Old Mosque of Shali Fortress in Siwa and the New Gourna Village, occupied by residents for only the past two and a half years, were named as endangered monuments where protection is both needed and possible, if conservation authorities take the necessary steps.
The New Gourna Village
The New Gourna Village, an earthen settlement on the West Bank of the Nile near Luxor, is remarkable for being designed by late architectural guru Hassan Fathy, who later documented the village in his famous book Architecture for the Poor. The village is also historically significant as it was built to house families being relocated by the government away from sensitive archeological sites and tourist locations.
Erica Evrami, director of research and education at the WMF, explains that Fathy has influenced architects and communities around the world who feel that, as a classic example of his work, the New Gourna Village deserves to be protected. The WMF says that Gourna is a “testament to how the relationship between heritage and society is often fraught with multiple meanings and conflicting values.”
The village was built in the late 1940s as an alternative home for 20,000 Gournawis who were being relocated to enable excavations of, and prevent theft from, tombs thought to lay below the original Gourna village. Although the site was completed in 1949, Gournawi residents refused to leave their homes for the newly-built village; they resisted government relocation until early 2007.
The new village was built so as to preserve the feel of old Gourna with facilities including schools, a theater, a market and the Khan, where Fathy built his house. Fathy wrote Architecture for the Poor, in which he discusses solutions to rural housing problems in Egypt and tells the story of New Gourna, a project that served as the perfect place to implement his theories.
According to the WMF, Fathy was commissioned to build the new village because he was renowned for intergrating traditional materials and technology with modern architectural principles; it turned out to be one of his greatest achievements. “Fathy’s philosophy and vision derived from humanistic values about the connections between people and places and the use of traditional knowledge and resources in designing the built environment,” says the WMF.
Today, however, nearly half of the village is suffering from poor maintenance, says the WMF. Increased urban pressure and an expanding tourism sector are compounding the situation.
The Old Mosqueof Shali Fortress
In a country with such a plethora of ancient monuments, and a rumored 1,000 minarets in Cairo alone, the Old Mosque of Shali Fortress is often overlooked. Dating back to 1203, the mosque is situated on an elevated site to defend against attacks from nomadic raiders. It is the oldest monument in Shali, part of Siwa Oasis, and is the oldest mosque in the world constructed using karshif, a naturally-occuring mixture of mud and salt found in the oasis’ dry lake bottoms.
Gaetano Palumbo, WMF program director for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, says the mosque was included on the watch list because “it represents a peculiar type of construction in earthen material  This traditional method of construction is disappearing, and we hope that the listing of the mosque will attract national and international attention to this unique heritage.”
Floods, World War II bombing and the abandonment of the karshif tradition in favor of concrete developments have endangered the Shali heritage that distinguishes Siwan architecture. Yet, according to the WMF, “the mosque has remained a perpetual and unremitting symbol of the history and community of Siwa Oasis. Despite its small size and state of dilapidation, the mosque remains an important symbol of the community and a place of religious rituals and celebrations.”
The WMF decided to call for the preservation of the mosque in order to maintain the town’s link with the karshif tradition, once a distinguishing feature of the region. Palumbo says, “more attention is required to regulate the growth of the inhabited sector of the village in order to avoid unsympathetic developments that may spoil the character of the site.”
How it Works
Evrami explains that the watch list is composed of sites nominated by individuals and organizations; the WMF itself does not nominate sites. “Anyone can nominate a site, and site owners need not endorse a nomination for it to be considered,” says Evrami. This process ensures diversity and openness, bringing lesser-known sites to the WMF’s attention. The WMF and outside professionals review the nominations and a panel of international experts makes a final selection. According to Evrami, the selection is based on four main criteria: significance, urgency of action, viability of saving the site and relevance. The site’s significance can be historical, artistic, social, civic, spiritual, religious, research, natural, economic or symbolic, and the panel determines if the site is informative to the heritage field at large.
Sites identified by the WMF are not necessarily dealt with in a uniform way. In some cases, WMF can provide technical and/or financial assistance for watch sites, but the projects to which these resources are applied are determined in cooperation with the authorities responsible for the site, according to Evrami. Palumbo adds that the WMF has already helped to preserve several sites in Egypt — on and off the list.
Some of the sites that received grants for preservation included Aqsunqur Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque) Khasekhemwy, the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III, Qaitbay Sabil, Shunet el-Zebib, Tarabay al-Sharify and Valley of the Kings. “We also financed a series of projects at sites that were not listed, but for which we received requests for assistance that we deemed important to support,” said Palumbo, citing their work on Karnak Temple in Luxor, the Luxor Temple and two minarets in Darb Al-Ahmar in Cairo.
The WMF’s newest project is the Blue Mosque in Cairo. Built in 1347 by Amir Aqsunqur, it is the largest mosque in Bab El-Wazir and an exceptioanl example of early Mamluk religious architecture. During restoration in 1652, the mosque’s sanctuary was redecorated with blue Iznik tiles, hence the name the Blue Mosque. Parts of the mosque were endangered after the 1992 earthquake and the building was in a general state of disrepair. Moisture around the foundation, corrosion on the decorations and theft of tiles from the qibla all threaten the site. The project, funded in part by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Historic Cairo, is expected to be completed by 2012. et
Guidebooks Available for Three Historic Syrian Citadels
Revitilisation projects are currently underway in Syria at Masyaf Citadel, the Castle of Salah ad-Din, and Aleppo Citadel through the efforts of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). Guidebooks providing visual and textual documentation for each of these prominent architectural sites are now available on ArchNet.
Published by the AKTC, the three guidebooks are all 45-50 pages long and include a description, history, site plan and visitor tour. Each is helpfully illustrated with rich color photographs, drawings and maps depicting the site and its place in the region. Elevation, section, and axonometric views are also included, providing a heightened sense of the architecture of these historic citadels.
Click below to download the guidebook for:
The Castle of Salah ad-Din
Following Geografías del Islam: Obras de arte islámico del Museo Aga Khan, which ran from October through January in Toledo, Spain, two new exhibitions will be mounted in Spain:
Madrid: at CaixaForum, 3 June 2009 to 6 September 2009
Barcelona: at CaixaForum, 1 October 2009 to 17 January 2010
For more information, please see the brochure.
Museums & Exhibitions: Introduction
Detail from the Akhlaq-i Nasiri (Ethics of Nasir),
one of the paintings on display at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
14 March to 6 July 2008. "Currently, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) is in the process of establishing three new museums in Cairo, Toronto and Zanzibar, as part of the Trust’s programme of cultural initiatives aimed at revitalising the heritage of communities in the Islamic world and contributing to their social and economic development.
Within these broader objectives, the museums are dedicated to presenting Islamic arts and culture in their historic, cultural and geographical diversity. Their aim is to foster knowledge and understanding both within Muslim societies and between these societies and other cultures.
At the same time, a series of travelling exhibitions and a programme of assistance to museums in developing countries are under way.
For more information, please see the current brief in English and Portuguese (A3 format, PDF).
Museums as Educational Institutions
01 August 2008 - Museums are no longer merely repositories of culture, but vital educational institutions that can have a profound effect on public discourse. Museums can testify to the existence of other cultures and faiths in ways that go beyond the written or spoken word. They provide evidence of other realities, other histories and other influences beyond the ones we might have learned or perceived.
Exhibition from Aga Khan Museum Collection Inaugurated by King of Spain and Aga Khan in Madrid
04 June 2009 - His Majesty the King of Spain and His Highness the Aga Khan inaugurate Madrid exhibition: "The Islamic Worlds in the Aga Khan Museum Collection" at CaixaForum in Madrid.
“Masterpieces of the Aga Khan Museum” Opens at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon
13 March 2008 - "The Path of Princes: Masterpieces of the Aga Khan Museum Collection" exhibition at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon was officially opened today by Emílio Rui Vilar, President of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Prince Amyn Aga Khan, who was representing his brother, His Highness the Aga Khan.
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Aga Khan Museum (AKM)
The Aga Khan Museum, due to open in 2011 in Toronto, Canada, will be dedicated to the acquisition, preservation and display of artefacts - from various periods and geographies - relating to the intellectual, cultural, artistic and religious heritage of Islamic communities.
An architectural rendering of the future Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.Planned as a venue for large international exhibitions, the 10,000 square meter building designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki will house its permanent collection as well as major temporary exhibitions. Surrounded by a large landscaped park, the Museum will provide a forum for permanent exchanges between the Islamic and Western worlds. It will also be a major centre for education and research and for the discovery of the musical heritage of the Islamic world.
The Museum’s collection contains some of the world’s most important masterpieces of Islamic art, including the famous collection of miniatures and manuscripts created by the late Prince Sadruddin and his wife Princess Catherine, and objects in stone, wood, ivory and glass, metalwork, ceramics, rare works on paper and parchment. Covering over one thousand years of history, they create an overview of the artistic accomplishments of Muslim civilisations from the Iberian Peninsula to China. His Highness the Aga Khan’s personal commitment to the objectives of the Museum will keep the collection growing in size and importance.
Specific educational programmes on Muslim history, arts and culture will make the Museum a unique space in North America. It will be an institution dedicated to disseminating knowledge of Islamic civilisations through outreach to the widest public - school children, students, adults and families, as well as researchers, including educational resources via the web. The building will house a large auditorium with lecture, film and concert programmes, as well as a library offering direct access to specialised documentation and information from virtual sources.
The Museum’s temporary exhibitions, which will be developed in partnership with key international partners, will spotlight the diversity of Islamic arts and cultures. They will be major events that will attract the public from the densely populated areas in a 300-mile radius of Toronto. This area contains more than 76 million people.
Beyond the traditional presentation of major periods of Muslim history, original approaches will include, for example, the relationships between Islam and other cultures and the evolution of arts, sciences, religion, literature, or music in a Muslim context.
Museum of Historic Cairo
At the north end of Al-Azhar Park - which AKTC spent two decades building on a 30-hectare (74-acre) site - AKTC is now building a Museum of Historic Cairo, in cooperation with the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt. The Park site, bordered by 1.5 km of the old city’s Ayyubid wall on one side, and the Mamluk “City of the Dead” on the other, was a rubble dump for 500 years. Inaugurated in 2004, Al-Azhar Park is today a major attraction for tourists and Egyptians alike.
The Museum’s 2,500 square meter building will be situated at the entrance to the historic city. It is designed to give both Cairenes and foreigners insights into the amazing cultural and architectural heritage of the Egyptian capital’s historic area. The Museum will be complemented by exhibition spaces within the neighbouring Ayyubid wall and within major restored cultural buildings in the historic city, which visitors will be encouraged to discover, following special itineraries, as they leave the Museum.
Art and architectural elements from Heliopolis, the early settlements of Cairo, and the City’s major historical periods will be on show, including the Fatimid Golden Age, the periods of the Ayyubids and Mamluks, and the era of Ottoman rule. Special rooms will recreate the atmosphere of nineteenth century Cairo. The Museum will house some of the great wealth of art and artefacts of Cairo’s mediaeval heritage that are not currently on display to the public.
To conserve and restore the artefacts and artworks which will be shown in the Museum, AKTC has set up a conservation laboratory which is training young local technicians in this field. At the same time, important art and architectural elements for the Cairo Museum of Islamic Art are being restored in the same facility.
Indian Ocean Maritime Museum, Zanzibar
As part of long-standing revitalisation work in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, AKTC has restored several landmark buildings, one of which - the Old Dispensary - will house a museum dedicated to the Indian Ocean as a maritime space in which, since prehistory, the exchange of goods, ideas and myths took place between its diverse coastal civilisations.
The museum space will cover two floors of the building and include sections on various aspects of Indian Ocean geography, trade and culture, including the role of monsoons and ocean currents, the evolution of Arab navigation, and the travels of Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Ibn Majid, Zheng He, and others, from the Mediterranean, the Middle East and beyond. Other sections will recount the incursions and eventual domination of the ocean by European powers, the exploits of pirates and privateers and the importance of the great trade companies.
Historical spaces will highlight the transformation of Zanzibar as the propeller replaced the sail and cloves replaced the slave trade. Models of naval vessels, old navigation instruments and maps and other original artefacts that illustrate the history of the commercial and cultural contacts between Africa, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and the Far East will be featured. Indian Ocean ecology and the effects of human activity on local ecosystems will also be highlighted in interactive models and displays.
The ground floor of the Indian Ocean Maritime Museum will have educational and vocational training facilities, a cafeteria and shop, and an aquarium. The celebrated Sultan’s Barge, a nineteenth century vessel complete with canopy, oars and gilded decoration, will be a major attraction for visitors, following a full restoration undertaken by AKTC.
In the period leading to its official opening, selections from the Aga Khan Museum’s collections are being shown in different European locations. They allow the public in this part of the world to have a glimpse of what the Museum will contain, and at the same time bring public attention to the creation of a new institution of international standing.
Exhibitions have taken place in the following venues:
Splendori a Corte, Palazzo della Pilotta, Parma, 31 March to
3 June 2007;
Spirit & Life, The Ismaili Centre, London, 14 July to 31 August 2007;
Chefs-d’œuvre islamiques de l’Aga Khan Museum, Louvre, Paris,
5 October 2007 to 7 January 2008;
The Path of Princes, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon,
14 March to 6 July, 2008.
Further exhibitions will take place in Toledo, Spain; Berlin, Germany; and Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2008 - 2010.
Support for Developing World Museums
The Museums Projects unit also provides support services for museums in the developing world, including the National Museum of Mali, where it is helping upgrade information technology systems, improve the conservation facilities, reorganise the Museum’s reserve collections of archaeology and textiles, and assist with the construction and equipping of a new building earmarked for conservation and restoration work.
In early November 2009, exceptionally strong rain fell on Djenné. At first the mosque, whose superstructures were drenched, seemed to hold up well. However on 5 November, the upper part of the South tower of the East façade collapsed, leading several tons of laterite mud to slide onto the East terrace. The organization Aga Khan Trust for Culture is leading its reconstruction with the support of international experts and local workers.
Humayun’s tomb to get back its crown jewels
Richi Verma, TNN, 31 January 2010, 12:48am ISTText Size:|Topics:humayun
Archaeological Survey of India
World heritage site Humayun’s Tomb is all set to regain its lost architectural marvels. The eight canopies on the dome of the 16th century monument — which originally had striking blue, yellow and green colour tiles — will be restored as per the original Mughal design and architecture.
Experts said that the process of rebuilding the tiles was a very long process and involved detailed studies aimed at understanding the original design and composition of the Mughal-era tiles.
Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) director-general K N Shrivastava said: ‘‘We are going to reconstruct the original blue tile work on the canopies of the monument. Since the monument is a world heritage site, we will have to keep Unesco updated about the plan and also about the progress of the conservation work. Under the principles of conservation, monuments have to be conserved according to the original design and shape. Reconstructing the lost blue tile work is a structural requirement of the tomb.’’
According to ASI officials, the smaller canopies on the roof of the tomb were originally decorated with ceramic tiles in lapis blue, turquoise blue, green, white and yellow as was the tradition at that time. ‘‘These striking colours were highlighted by the contrasting milky whiteness of the marble dome in the background. During the early 19th century, most of the original tiles started peeling off. Only traces of them remain today,’’ said a senior ASI official.
Experts said that traces of tile work that remained have helped reveal the original pattern, and laboratories in Roorkee, Oxford and Barcelona have tested the tile samples. ‘‘An international workshop — co-sponsored by Unesco and ASI — on conservation of Humayun’s Tomb tile work was held in April 2009 to discuss, debate and find possible solutions for conservation of tiles on the tomb’s canopies, including restoration of the missing tile work,’’ added officials. About 40 participants from nine tile producing countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan participated in the workshop.
According to historians, tile work is a significant element in several Lodhi and early Mughal period structures and remnants of tile work can be seen on several monuments in Delhi. However, the tile-making traditions followed by the Mughals have been lost over the centuries and hence very little in conservation terms could be done when the tiles have fallen, vandalised or simply gone missing.
Tile work is a significant architectural element, and it also protects the underlying surface. The loss of tile work severely disfigures the historic architectural character/integrity of the monument.
‘‘Conservation of existing tile work should be a priority at all sites and efforts should be made to minimise further loss of the original tiles. Any new tile work that will replace missing tiles should match the original ones in colour, texture, composition and other physical and chemical properties and the conservation work should respect the original patterns,’’ said Ratish Nanda of Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).
AKTC will also train youths of Nizamuddin Basti to produce Mughal-style tiles and to preserve tile-making traditions in the country.
The conservation work at the Humayun’s Tomb is part of a public-private partnership between the ASI, AKTC, Central Public Works Department (CPWD), Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and Aga Khan Foundation.
Some months ago, ASI and AKTC officials had removed a thick layer of cement concrete from the roof of the mausoleum. The concrete was putting a pressure of about 10 lakh kilos on the structure. This layer that had been added to the monument during the British rule to prevent water seepage also blocked the water drainage channels on the roof, leading to accumulation of rainwater causing considerable damage to the monument.
Ansari vists Ghalib tomb, appreciates restoration work
New Delhi, Feb 2 (PTI)
Vice President Hamid Ansari today visited the tomb of revered poet Mirza Ghalib here to witness the conservation work and landscaping that has been carried out at the site.
The conservation work on the tomb and the surrounding areas, a heritage site, had begun in early 2009 by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Hundreds of skilled and unskilled craftsmen and master craftsmen were employed for restoring the tomb and landscaping works including replacing the concrete pavement with marble inlay and hand-chiselled sandstone paving to reproduce the Mughal-era look.
Ansari visited the restored site of the tomb and also witnessed the renovation of an MCD Primary school in the Nizamuddin Basti and was "visibly impressed," the Aga Khan Trust said in a statement.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is restoring historic buildings in cities across the Muslim world. While culture can be a catalyst for development, urban poverty remains a massive challenge.
February 04, 2010 Jurjen van der Tas and Ellen Lammers
What is the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and where does it work?
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is part of the Aga Khan Development Network. This network, founded 50 years ago, brings together 80,000 people working for many private and non-profit organizations. It is headed by His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. The member organizations carry out their work without regard to faith, although most projects aim to improve the quality of life in societies where Muslims have a significant presence.
About 90% of the Trust for Culture’s work goes into its Historic Cities Programme. It was started in 1992 to promote the conservation and re-use of buildings and public spaces in historic cities. Of all UNESCO’s world heritage sites, one-third are located in the Muslim world. That says a thing or two about its incredibly rich heritage. But for decades, and sometimes centuries, many of these sites have been succumbing to decay. Countless old mosques, palaces and town houses, city walls and gardens are in a dismal state. The sad fact is that culture becomes a luxury when social and economic needs are not met.
In other words, you have no shortage of work ...
Indeed. We have so far had extensive projects in eight very different settings – from Mali to Pakistan, from Bosnia to Zanzibar. In 2002, we started on the rehabilitation of the old Asheqan-i Arefan neighbourhood of Kabul. A cluster of beautiful houses, some 300 years old, has since been restored. Elsewhere in the Afghan capital, the 16th-century Baghe Babur, the oldest Mughal garden, has been cleared of debris and other remnants of war. The shrine and water channels have been restored, the terraces planted, and it is now once again a place where people come for leisure or cultural events.
Our first landmark project was in Egypt, where we helped create a city park on a 30-hectare mound of rubble that for 500 years had been a rubbish dump. Al-Azhar Park is now a popular open space in this frantic city. Moreover, it has proved a powerful catalyst for urban renewal in the neighbouring district of Darb al-Ahmar, once one of the poorest districts of Cairo.
Does your approach differ from those of other organizations involved in conservation efforts?
In most of our projects we work with national and local governments, local investors and international organizations such as UNESCO or the World Monuments Fund. One way in which we have distinguished ourselves is through our holistic view of the importance of cultural heritage. Restoring cultural sites is extremely valuable in and of itself, as these sites are the tangible markers of our history. As such, they play an important role in raising people’s self-awareness and shaping their identity.
Yet for us the relationship between culture and development is just as important. We believe that conservation and restoration projects will only succeed, and prove sustainable, if they tackle socio-economic development at the same time. Our projects therefore go beyond mere technical restoration. We take on the rehabilitation of a building or historical site in ways that spur social and economic benefits for the people living in its vicinity.
This means that we try to involve local people in the work, which is not always easy. They are often very poor, living in run-down old parts of town. Their vulnerability makes them suspicious, and they often feel threatened by the prospect of change. Sometimes we resort to ‘goodwill gestures’, such as organizing solid waste collection and sewage systems, to get them on board. The reason we want them on board is that we want to sustain the social fabric of an area. What you often see is that after renovation, wealthier people move in, pushing out the original inhabitants. Market forces are strong, but we try hard to avoid this ‘gentrification’.
How else do you try to make a difference?
By not limiting our focus to the specific monument that needs conservation, but including the built area that surrounds it. We usually make a long-term commitment to the areas where we work and help people renovate their houses, even if they have no particular historical value.
When restoring Baltit Fort in Hunza, Pakistan, for instance, we used the restoration to generate new employment opportunities. Of course the specialized restoration work is carried out by experts, but at the same time we set up vocational training to remedy the lack of good craftsmen, such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians. Once the restoration projects in Hunza were completed, Town Management Societies were charged with defining future strategies and creating local institutions to operate and maintain the restored landmark buildings. The same process is now under way, but on a much larger scale, in places such as Cairo’s historic Darb al-Ahmar quarter, Districts 1 and 7 of Kabul and the Nizamuddin area of Delhi, India.
In Mali, the restoration of the famous Great Mosque in Mopti (see photo) included on-the-job training of craftsmen and apprentices in traditional earth-building techniques and in new restoration methods. Since then the programme has grown to encompass a water supply and sanitation programme. We also helped set up a brick manufacturing facility to produce street paving blocks made of sand and recycled plastic bags. For such efforts we link up with other organizations and sometimes bilateral donors.
What questions does your work raise for researchers?
My questions relate to the issue of urban poverty. We have built up a reputation in the field of conservation and restoration, and we know our trade. But what often proves much harder to get a grip on is the often desperate situation of people who live in the neighbourhoods where we work. It seems to me that many of the interventions in cities are in fact based on the accumulated wisdom of rural development. But the problems of urban and rural areas hardly compare. We believe that culture can be a catalyst for development also, or especially, in urban areas.
But that clearly is not enough. Urban unemployment will be one of the most pressing problems of this century. Again and again, we find that people want jobs, to feel useful and ‘in the game’. But mostly this is because, unlike in rural areas, everything in the city needs money. Especially for urban migrants, the loss of family and social networks means they have no one to fall back on. All services must be paid for in cash, and in overcrowded slums and neighbourhoods there is no space for growing even basic vegetables.
One question that researchers should tackle is the difference between urban and rural poverty. How do poor people in the city generate an income, and how do they spend it? Such questions have been largely ignored because they are so difficult to answer when dealing with people who operate in the messy and elusive realities of cities in developing countries. But we need answers if we are to get a better understanding of the conditions of urban poverty – and better solutions.
We try to help a little by revitalizing old city areas and making sure that the restored buildings are re-used. We believe that these cultural centres must become an active part of the community, not simply serve as isolated tourist attractions. In Egypt, we managed to get approval from the Supreme Council of Antiquities to establish a medical clinic in a restored Ottoman palace that is located right next to Cairo’s Khayer Bek mosque. We have a vocational training centre in the madrassa of the Um Sultan Sha’aban complex. Both of these monuments are now serving the local community in several ways, as well as helping to enhance a local sense of pride in the cultural heritage.
Five years after opening, Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park has surpassed all expectations. Built by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) on top of an ancient dump, the miraculously lush 74-acre park is among the biggest in a city with 18 million people and one of the world’s lowest ratios of green space per inhabitant. It is also the linchpin of an extensive historic-preservation and community-development effort in Al-Darb al-Ahmar, the vibrant, impoverished neighborhood just across the ramparts of the newly excavated medieval Ayyubid wall. Its projects include the restorations of several mosques, mausoleums, and 17th-century Ottoman houses, most of which were completed by the end of last year. But work on the 14th-century Aslam al-Silahdar mosque, which reopened last October along with a renovated public square and ten rebuilt shops, only began at the urging of local residents.
Dina Bakhoum, the project’s preservation manager, says residents approached AKDN’s team of restorers as they were working on the Umm al-Sultan Sha’ban and Khayer Bek mosques to ask if theirs could be spruced up too. “It was just a natural process,” she says. “We were finishing up and had already trained a lot of people. Plus, we realized that Aslam al-Silahdar contained a number of elaborate decorative elements, such as the marble carvings at the entrances.” As a training ground for local artisans, the restorations are encouraging a revival of traditional skills. “We don’t go out of the area for resources,” says Sherif Erian, CEO of Aga Khan Cultural Services Egypt. “Most of the wood and marble workshops come from the community, as do the brass-lantern producers and the workers. So the project involves a heavy economic advantage for the area.” Local participation also increases the likelihood that the buildings will be well cared for in the future.
As the mosque approached completion, it became clear that its dilapidated public square and the shops opposite it also needed help. But convincing the suspicious shopkeepers that nothing would be demanded in return for rebuilding their stores took at least a few meetings. “We asked them to estimate their monthly income and gave them the cash to cover the three-month construction period,” Erian says. “Now they want to sell touristic stuff, which will be more profitable.” The influx of visitors will be another economic boost to the area, now a treasure trove of pristine historic monuments and a link to the key sights of Islamic Cairo.
“The opening of Aslam Square caught the attention of government officials, and they are encouraging us to do more,” Erian says. “So our focus in the coming year will be more public spaces and shops.” The next phase of the ambitious neighborhood project, which has included new health and community centers, is the Museum of Historic Cairo and a commercial complex to sustain the park economically. A plaza will connect to an illuminated promenade along the top of the historic wall, overlooking both the park and the teeming quarter on the other side. But the modest Aslam al-Silahdar—the legacy of a mere emir rather than a sultan—stands as a symbol of the true strength of AKDN’s Historic Cities program, which is transforming Muslim urban centers as diverse as Zanzibar, Delhi, and Khorog, Tajikistan. “One of the big successes we have had in Cairo,” AKDN’s Sam Pickens says, “was to convince city authorities not to clear the poor people away from the medieval wall and to let us restore their housing so that they could have a stake in the benefits coming out of the ensuing revitalization.” In other words, the greatest thing AKDN has done is to prioritize the city’s human assets over its enduring monuments.
Read more about this story on the February 2010 Reference page.
AKTC Collaborates with Germany in Cultural Preservation Projects
Cultural preservation work builds ties to war-torn countries, says expert
Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: A lot of work has been put into restoring Herat
Germany is contributing to civil aid projects in Afghanistan - with schools, police training and better streets, but also with money for the maintenance of Afghan cultural heritage sites.
Since 2002, the German Archeological Institute in Afghanistan has been busy with projects to help preserve culturally significant sites. Archeologist Ute Franke proposed this idea to the Department of Foreign Affairs and has worked on location in Afghanistan. Her contribution includes leading the research into the history of the city of Herat and supervising the excavation of the Bagh-e Babur park in Kabul.
Deutsche Welle: Isn't it more important for the people of Herat to have fresh water and jobs than to know what their old town once looked like?
Bildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Ute Franke is very involved in Afghan cultural reconstruction
Ute Franke: These two things are not mutually exclusive. Also, this project had very concrete, everyday-life effects. For example, as part of the old town restoration work by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture - which was financed by Germany's Department of Foreign Affairs - the sidewalks in certain areas were asphalted. The canalization has been redone; the sewers and stale water have disappeared and new water reservoirs have been excavated. Thanks to this, the living standard in this area has increased.
But isn't the maintenance of cultural sites an excessive measure when one considers the problems that many Afghans have due to the invasion and civil war?
If I had to decide whether to improve the water supply or carry out an archeological excavation, it would also be very hard for me to say that we should do an excavation. You have to assess what should be financed first, but the maintenance of cultural sites should not be left out altogether. The UN Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property states that this is a part of humanitarian aid. It can be questioned, but I believe that it's justifiable.
Why are the cultural preservation projects important then?
Bildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Restoration projects create many jobs, says Franke
Firstly, they are important because they create jobs and income for many people. Also, we offer training opportunities - for excavators, restorers, bricklayers and carpenters, among others. In this way, old artisan skills are developed - skills that have almost disappeared but that are useful for the people.
In Herat, for example, there's a lot of building going on. The people who were trained and employed as part of this project have an easier time finding jobs later on because they can say, "I have learned this; I have work experience." It makes them more employable.
Advantages like this do mean a lot. But from your point of view, why is it important to maintain the cultural heritage of a politically unstable country?
I personally find it important, and not just from the point of view of a scholar. Afghanistan, for example, is a country with a big academic research past - in both archeology and history. This research has been strongly supported right up to this day by the Afghan ministry for culture. This is probably because cultural heritage is connected to national pride and identity.
The investment in cultural preservation is also a contribution to the restoration of the civil society, which is the foundation of a modern state. Maybe this is hard to understand at first, but I have experienced it myself - during the park project, for example.
I have participated in the restoration of the Bagh-e Babur gardens from the start. They were in ruins at the beginning, but now they are a blooming park landscape, and that's a positive sign for the people of Kabul. The park is full on weekends; on Fridays as many as 10,000 people go there because it's a beautiful place where they can relax and forget their daily problems.
Bildunterschrift: Thanks to restoration efforts, the people of Kabul can once again enjoy the Bagh-e Babur gardens
The Department of Foreign Affairs says that the preservation of cultural sites has the good side-effect of creating a positive relationship with the country that finances the projects. Does it really work this easily?
Definitely. For example, since 2002 we have developed close personal and professional relationships with Afghanistan. We are perceived as a positive factor; as a reliable contact.
When I see ISAF soldiers in Herat, they also evoke very mixed feelings in me. They all travel around in convoys, heavily armed, with armored vehicles and vests - that does not make a positive impression, but it can't be avoided.
However, when no one invests in cultural projects, it's a lost opportunity. It naturally costs money, but I think that thanks to the various projects Germans have a positive image in Herat - whereas a nation that has a military presence there is generally seen rather negatively.
The Jashn e Khusrau, which celebrates the Sufiana kalaam (mystical poetry of Islam) of Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), rendered in the khanqah of his beloved pir, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325), and which has been kept alive for over 700 years by khanqahi qawwali at sama-e-mehfil (Sufi music communion) of the Chistiya silsilah, will run from 4-14 March 2010.
Amir Khusrau (1253 – 1325) was a medieval poet, musician, courtier and historian par excellence. A disciple of Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya, Khusrau was a devout follower of the Chishtiya order while being associated with the courts of at least seven kings of Delhi. His fluency in Persian, the language of the court, and Hindavi, the language of the common people, enabled him to compose poetry, riddles and historical treatises in both languages making his work accessible to all strata of society. A cultural figure without parallel, he holds an exalted position in international literary and cultural domains from Istanbul to Isfahan and Kabul to Rangoon.
The celebration has been organized by Aga Khan Trust for Culture in collaboration with the India International Centre, with co-funding from the Ford Foundation.
The festival forms a vital part of the Humayun’s Tomb-Sunder Nursery-Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti urban renewal programme being undertaken through a public private partnership involving the Archaeological Survey of India, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Central Public Works Department.
The Jashn e Khusrau brings together, for the first time, an exclusive assembly of khanqahi qawwal with different dargah affiliations, each performing a repertoire of Amir Khusrau’s kalaam in their distinctive style.
Besides the qawwali performances, the Jashn, in an integrated effort to showcase the Aalam e Khusrau project, includes several related events such as lectures, film screening, heritage walks and an exhibition on the Humayun’s Tomb-Sunder Nursery-Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti urban renewal project (please see the programme).
The Jashn e Khusrau is the first festival being organized through the Aalam e Khusrau project, which is co-funded by the Ford Foundation. The Aalam e Khusrau project seeks to document and revive the contribution of Amir Khusrau in the field of music – from the popular qawwali and folk genres to classical music.
Reviving the rich tradition of Sufi music and the legacy of Amir Khusrau, qawwals from across the subcontinent will render the compositions of the legendary scholar at the place where he lived and worked in the 13th century.
A 10-day long musical and literary festival, Jashn-e- Khusrau, will bring together over 50 qawwals from India and Pakistan -- an exclusive assembly with different dargah affiliations, with each performing a repertoire of Amir Khusrau's kalaam in their distinctive style.
Besides remembering the 13th century Sufi legend, the festival also aims to revive a monument, that has been recently restored and landscaped.
To be held at the Chausanth Khamba here -- the Mughal period tomb, the festival is the first event to be held at the complex that has been recently landscaped and restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Jashn-e-Khusrau brings together authentic qawwali singers from India and Pakistan who traditionally perform in Chistiya dargahs across the Indian subcontinent and their repertoires for the festival are based entirely on the Persian and Hindavi compositions of the celebrated poet, musician and scholar.
"We could have done it anywhere -- there are so many monuments in the capital -- but the idea is to revive a dead monument by preparing it for performances that were once its tradition," said Ritish Nanda, Project Director at the Trust.
Humayun’s Tomb is ‘most tourist-friendly monument’
Hamari Jamatia Posted online: Friday , Mar 05, 2010 at 0109 hrs
New Delhi : For years, Humayun’s Tomb underwent restoration and conservation work and now the results are for all to see. Overcoming tough competition from Red Fort and Qutub Minar, the monument, signifying a wife’s love for her husband, won the award for the “Best Maintained Tourist-Friendly Monument” for 2008-2009, organised by the Ministry of Tourism.
The prize, which was shared with Bhima Devi Temple in Pinjore, Haryana, did not come as a surprise to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) officials, who received the award at a function on Wednesday. Superintending Archaeologist of ASI (Delhi) KK Muhammed said, “The monument had a huge potential to be developed into a heritage zone and we have been able to do so in collaboration with Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC),” he said.
The monument is now set to become bigger and better soon with the ASI having acquired the surrounding land. After a 12-year battle between the ASI and the Delhi State Bharat Scouts and Guides (BSG) over an 11-acre plot next to Humayun’s Tomb the Ministry of Urban Development handed over the land to the heritage body in January.
The plot houses two Centrally-protected monuments —- Bada Batashewala Mahal and Chotabatashewala Mahal.
It took ASI and AGCT around three years from 2000 to 2003 to restore the monument. The team planted trees all over the place and around 12 hectares of lawns were replanted.
They reinstated the walkways and reactivated water channels. After the conservation work, water began to flow through the water-courses and dried up fountains started functioning. The monument, said Muhammed, is very popular with foreign tourists and there are plans to develop the surrounding area.
The restoration work was done under the aegis of the National Culture Fund.
According to the AKTC website, “the objective of the project was to revitalise the gardens, pathways, fountains and water channels of the chahâr-bâgh, the four-part paradise garden surrounding Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi.”
A lot has been said about the need to conserve the 5,000-odd monuments protected by the state and central governments. A lot is being done by the Archaeological Survey of India, along with agencies such as the World Monuments Fund, UNESCO, Aga Khan Foundation and several NGOs, to create awareness and protect the fast-disappearing heritage.
Whatever be the reason for their present state of neglect, these monuments are essential to our national identity. In this regard, the recent restoration of Humayun’s Tomb, Qutab Minar, the Rathas of Mahabalipuram, the Synagogue in Cochin, the buildings in Kala Ghoda in Mumbai, etc has not gone unnoticed. These projects may have attracted contradictory opinions from conservationists and archaeologists, but what does the common man care about such controversies? The matter of whose garden surrounds Humayun’s Tomb — the original or the one restored by Lord Curzon — is often not the reason a visitor enjoys the space. It is the symmetrical green lawns of the ‘char-bagh’, with its red sandstone water channels, the squirrels that hide behind the hedges, the sprawling banyans and swarms of parrots that make Humayun’s Tomb a destination visitors come back to again and again.
The question is, what is more important — the monument or its setting? Contemporary conservationists would say both. A monument must be connected to the cultural system of the city since it has the potential to inform and reinforce the patterns of civic society, not only through its historical references but also by the land it sits on.
Take the prominent monuments of Delhi, starting with the old cities and the central vista, add a few of the tombs and you arrive at a staggering 2,500 acres of land under these monuments! With the cost of land at an average of Rs 80 crore per acre, this adds up to figures that are best left to imagination. The economics makes it imperative, thus, to evaluate the use of these monuments. While tourists, both local and global, are the primary target audience, can our cultural landscape extend itself into the city as infrastructure rather than as merely ornamental as now?
At Delhi’s Lodi Gardens, the tombs are of less importance to the local community than the gardens; on the beach at Mahabalipuram, the Rathas dot the landscape and yet are not the prime reason for the recreational value of the seafront. The monuments here provide a unique ambience but do not overwhelm the space. Then there is the Taj Mahal. The most visited tourist destination in India is ironically a prime example of a monument whose beauty does not extend itself into either the river or the city that surrounds it.
India’s cultural heritage is priceless. Yet the priority of ‘use’ may overwhelm its physical or historical value. One way out could be to create a series of ‘democratic’ public spaces as an artery to the otherwise fragmented heritage structure. This artery could combine recreation, social and cultural activities and sports to become a platform to promote the sense of community.
We live today in a paradoxical moment when we are seeking our roots as differentiators and are also obsessed with global modernity. In such a scenario, the setting of the monuments, far more than the monuments themselves could act as links between the past and present.
An incredible journey: Basti to heritage guide
Richi Verma , TNN, Mar 14, 2010, 02.08am IST
NEW DELHI: Eighteen-year-old Moninuddin was born and brought up in Basti Nizamuddin. But it's been just 18 months since he learnt about the area's historical and cultural sigificance.
Moninuddin is one of 15 teenagers from the Basti who have been trained to impart local knowledge as tourist guides.
After nearly two years spent identifying the tangible and intangible heritage of the Basti, the young people were trained to conduct heritage walks. It's part of a project launched during the ongoing Jashan-e-Khusrau festival here. The project, called the heritage volunteer programme, is part of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture's (AKTC) urban renewal plans.
The teenagers have formed a self-help group — Sair-e-Nizamuddin — which aims to share the Basti's cultural heritage with visitors.
Cairo— In Khan al-Khalili bazaar, near the two-hundred-year-old al-Fishawi café where the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz penned his magnificent sagas of Egyptian life, two tiny girls in ragged party dresses stomped joyfully through the puddles of a burst water main. Across the street in Darb al-Ahmar, middle-aged men were playing rapid-fire card games at one of the thousands of coffee houses where the Egyptian male measures out his life with coffee spoons. In the dusty shops and alleyways of this impoverished district at the heart of Islamic Cairo, the spirit of the medieval capital endures.
Change has come to Cairo, as evidenced by the forest of satellite dishes sprouting from centuries-old tenements, or the call to prayer from a far-off mosque, blaring through a sound system along with Jimi Hendrix-style feedback as the muezzin completes his sound check: “Allah . . . (tap tap) . . . Allah . . . (tap tap) . . . Allah . . . ” Yet rarely does progress improve daily life for most people who live in this polluted metropolis of seventeen million, and seldom does it help neighbourhoods such as this one.
It is something of an anomaly that Darb al-Ahmar—home to hundreds of historically significant buildings and to some two hundred thousand Egyptians who survive on a dollar or two a day — has become the site of a unique urban intervention designed to reconcile two goals that are typically in opposition in the modern world: development and conservation. At issue is the fact that many of Darb al-Ahmar’s derelict stone and brick houses have been built close to, or into, a historic twelfth-century wall constructed as a fortification against invaders by the great Sultan Saladin (best known for kicking the Crusaders out of Jerusalem). Saladin’s Wall remained largely forgotten for centuries, buried so deep under rubble that even Napoleon’s efficient team of experts omitted it from their early-nineteenth-century maps. The construction of a lush new park nearby has changed that.
The al-Azhar Park project was conceived twenty years ago by Prince Karim Aga Khan, the Geneva-born, Harvard-educated spiritual leader of the world’s fifteen million Shia Ismaili Muslims who is purportedly a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. The idea was to create a park as a gift to the city of Cairo, which was established by his ancestors, the Fatimid caliphs. Built by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (aktc) through its Historic Cities Support Program, the park would act as the much-needed “lungs” of a metropolis that had less than a footprint of green space per person.
And so a massive rubble dump—“a monument in garbage to the endurance of Cairo,” as the writer Max Rodenbeck called its five hundred years of accumulated debris—was transformed into the mile-long jewel of green that is al-Azhar Park. Situated high on a hill next to the thousand-year-old mosque of al-Azhar, the world’s oldest university, are more than six hundred thousand plants, thriving in soil that previously had the salinity of the Red Sea. When construction for that project uncovered much of Saladin’s Wall, the aktc launched an archaeological restoration that led it to confront the many problems plaguing Darb-al-Ahmar, which borders the park beyond the Wall.
Egypt’s antiquities laws usually protect historic sites the old-fashioned way, by simply evicting nearby residents and demolishing their houses. Darb al-Ahmar has been through a round of such evictions, and its residents, faced with pending demolition orders, have had little incentive to prevent the area from sliding into decline. (Ironically, this has protected the area from overzealous developers who have effectively turned many historic areas of Cairo into interchangeable high-rise complexes.)
The aktc has taken a very different approach. “The Wall, being a monument, should not be a threat to the community,” said Dr. Mohamed El-Mikawi, general manager of the ambitious urban-development project. He explained in his office high atop al-Azhar Park that when residents are evicted to preserve monuments, most are uprooted to satellite communities around Cairo. Within months, many leave their new homes and head straight back to Darb al-Ahmar, where they take what meagre shelter they can find. “They live in a small room, sometimes with no running water,” he explained, “because . . . employment is nearby, the kids can play and are taken care of by neighbours, and people feel secure in their community.”
Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities initially ordered the aktc to demolish all housing within thirty metres of the Wall. This would have involved relocating thousands of families, said Dr. Mikawi. “When we refused, they came back and said, ‘Okay, let’s demolish ten metres only.’ We held to our guns and said, ‘No, we won’t demolish any.’”
Thus began a pilot project to renovate some of the dilapidated tenements bordering the Wall. “At the beginning people were a bit suspicious,” Seif El Rashidi, a young Egyptian urban planner with the project, explained. Even where renovations were offered free of charge, only the boldest accepted. “People thought that what we wanted to do was just demolish the whole area.” Rashidi is one of many local professionals employed by the project, which has helped offset the chronic brain drain afflicting Egypt’s educated class. Indeed, many Egyptian professionals spend their careers working in the wealthy Gulf States or elsewhere, given the dearth of opportunities to employ their skills at home.
“When we said that we were creating a park on the hills behind, they didn’t believe us,” he continued. “It was only when we started doing work like restoration and employing local residents, and it started to become obvious that this was in fact a park and not some project we were trying to hide, that people became much more interested.” (Drawing on the philosophy that has made the Aga Khan a leader in international development—his philanthropic organizations have contributed significantly to the rebuilding of Afghanistan, for instance—the aktc has also extended micro-credit business loans, a third of which are directed to women, and instituted skills-development programs in order to contract sophisticated tilework and carpentry to local businesses, with the long-term goal of keeping traditional crafts alive.)
To date, nineteen dwellings, housing seventy families, have been transformed into modest Mediterranean-style townhouses. Another two hundred home renovations are envisaged. The aktc has established a community health clinic and employment program, partially restored two medieval mosques and a palace, and rescued a former school building, built into Saladin’s Wall, from demolition by transforming it into an elegant community centre. It includes two children’s libraries, a computer lab, an employment centre, and an outdoor community cinema.
The renovations have had some unforeseen effects. With tenants temporarily vacating their homes during renovations, at least one landlord, prohibited by law from hiking the rent (and perhaps resentful that the rental home is now nicer than his own), has tried to reclaim the property by deeming it abandoned. There are also concerns that while the renovations are intended to inspire further community development, future projects may not take as sensitive an approach. Egyptian elites continue to view the area as a crime- and drug-riddled slum. “If Darb al-Ahmar was totally destroyed,” Rashidi said, “not many people would care.” Where local authorities have begun to grasp the value of historic areas, he says they typically view them as a “cash cow.” Worse than gentrifying, he said, “they tend to work towards something more serious: Disneyfication.” They envisage the kind of “Oriental bazaar” that is a caricature of the neighbourhood, intended to attract tourists rather than serve residents.
In the meantime, to the surprise of locals, the construction of al-Azhar Park has brought many benefits, not least the park itself. Compared with the frenzy of life in Darb al-Ahmar — of life anywhere in Cairo — its hilltop vista is remarkably quiet. Orchards and formal gardens of native Egyptian plants are interspersed with sunken gardens that lead to a pavilion-café perched on a small lake. From there a promenade bordered by swaying royal palm trees ascends to the five-star Hilltop restaurant. Under the midday sun, a few employees are tending plants or sweeping the promenade, and a young man pauses to unroll his mat to pray.
Campbell is the author of a book on the Israel/Palestine conflict and an associate editor at Adbusters.
It’s a piece of detail only a loving eye would notice: the six-metre-long gold-plated finial rising from the marble dome of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi shines brighter these days. Fortunately, this 16th-century monument, a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracts many loving eyes, and in the past two years, they’ve seen it blossom under the attention of squads of technicians, workmen and craftsmen. These drones have removed the dead weight of one million kilos of concrete from the mausoleum’s roof, mounted scaffolding to repair its splendid double dome and lifted giant quartzite stones to restore its imposing plinth.
Not far away, in Nizamuddin Basti, a boxy, four-storey municipal primary school, set not in pretty gardens but arid urban squalor, has been undergoing its own transformation: dilapidated toilet blocks have been replaced, collapsing water, sewage and electrical infrastructure overhauled. Bright furniture and computers have arrived in classrooms, there is a riot of colours on the walls—from paintings by Madhubani artists to art work by students, who include children of local ragpickers. Outsiders show up all the time, to train teachers and provide learning support to students. Principal Syed Ali Akhtar, pointing out sights with the aplomb of a tour guide, says triumphantly, “Our window panes are of no use now to all those stone-throwers below—look, unbreakable plastic!”
What’s remarkable about these two initiatives is that they belong to the same project. It is an ambitious exercise, unfolding over a 180-acre sprawl in the capital’s heritage-rich Nizamuddin area. Its prime mover, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), is on familiar ground, with a background of leading cultural and socio-economic renewal in historic Muslim neighbourhoods, like old Cairo and the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo. But in India, where heritage conservation rarely goes hand-in-hand with development (rather, often finds itself on collision course with the poor), it is charting new territory. Architect K.T. Ravindran, chairman of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, confirms, “There is no precedent here for what they’re doing, and if anyone can pull it off, they can, with their track record.”
A more accessible Chaunsath Khamsa
The idea that drives this project, of regenerating Nizamuddin, home to about a hundred medieval monuments, is not a new one. But it has always been safer to talk about than implement, since it involves dealing with a press of humanity, conflicts over land and Kafkaesque negotiations with official agencies. “If it wasn’t tough, someone would have done it long ago,” says AKDN’s project director, Ratish Nanda. “The sense of opportunity is amazing, but daunting.” Appropriately, a veritable army was assembled: a multi-disciplinary team of 100, and three government partners, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD). Many donors have also come on board, including two Tata trusts.
The relatively straightforward part of the exercise is the conservation work, and the reconfiguration of spaces in and around Humayun’s Tomb and its neighbour, the serene and lovely Sunder Nursery. The outcome will be 150 acres of scenic archaeological parkland, studded with restored monuments. “Straightforward”, though, is not a word that the ASI would want to use. It fought a court battle and filed police FIRs (this, against another government agency, Northern Railways!) to regain control of tracts of land abutting the tomb complex with neglected monuments on them.
For conservationists, the Nizamuddin basti has both delights and despair. Residents don’t just live with history but also under, over and in it.
But across the traffic-choked Mathura Road lies a decidedly more complex challenge: the teeming basti, a place that is many things to many people. For the well-heeled, it is an eyesore in a genteel neighbourhood. For dog-owners, it is a place to buy cheap beef; for penniless gourmands, a haven. For social scientists, it is a 97 per cent Muslim settlement that illustrates the community’s marginalisation—only 6 per cent of young women here work, compared to about 35 per cent in urban Delhi. For seekers of the currently fashionable Sufi encounter, the basti exudes “character”, with its shrine, its qawwals, its rose-petal vendors, tiled teashops, carcass-flaunting meatshops, its skullcaps and burkhas, its limbless mendicants. For historians, and the thousands who pour in to pray at the dargah of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, the 700-year-old settlement is much more: a cultural and spiritual lodestar. It was to be near Nizamuddin, described by one of his most famous disciples, the poet Amir Khusro (also buried here), as “a king without throne or crown, with kings in need of the dust of his feet”, that tombs of rulers, generals, ministers and poets accreted here over the centuries.
For the conservationist, therefore, there are delights around every turn. Despair awaits him too, since residents don’t just live with history, they live under it (in the crypt of the stunning mausoleum of Akbar’s aide, Atgah Khan), over it, in tenements hugging the edge of a 14th century baoli (stepwell), and within the precincts of Tilangani’s mausoleum, Delhi’s first octagonal tomb. A local land mafia thought nothing of demolishing Lal Mahal, a 13th-century Islamic palace where the traveller Ibn Batuta once stayed.
Through a mirror of newness A more dignified setting for the tomb of Mirza Ghalib
Unsurprisingly, AKDN’s arrival on the scene in 2007, after the government cleared its project, generated an explosion of fear and insecurity. For the basti, this was another demolition squad (Delhi’s infamous one-time heritage czar Jagmohan had made an attempt earlier), and the project’s surveyors were roughed up and sent home. But nearly three years on, much water has flowed down the nullah; or, more aptly, quantities of murky, fetid liquid have been sucked out of the baoli, one of many places here where the project has made a sea-change. The tomb of the great Urdu poet, Ghalib, has had its shamefully shabby courtyard elegantly restored; and earlier this month, the sound of Indian and Pakistani qawwals singing Khusro’s famous Man Kunto Maula filled the newly landscaped forecourt of the beautiful 17th-century Chaunsath Khamba at the project’s first cultural festival.
Parallel makeovers of schools and health centres, laying of sewer lines and new toilets have helped break the ice. So have English lessons and a gym.
There is no doubt that the parallel makeovers of sarkari educational and health infrastructure, the connecting of homes to sewer lines and the building of community toilets have helped break the ice. So have English lessons, which the community was quick to demand, despite giving every impression of being trapped in a time-warp. Its women also petitioned, successfully, for a well-equipped gym. “So many of us are overweight, with nowhere to walk,” explains Shehzadi, a rickshaw-owner’s wife, and a mother of five. “The aspirations here are the same as everywhere else,” says Delhi’s ex-mayor and the area’s municipal councillor, Farhad Suri, who opened many doors in the community.
Continuous dialogue and negotiation remains crucial, though, whether for reviving community parks reduced to wastelands (it took two years to get permission from their owner, the Delhi Development Authority) or for finding homes for 19 families living precariously atop the baoli, on a cracked wall. The solution found within the framework of Delhi’s relocation laws is moving them 25 km away, to a resettlement colony, with AKDN buying and building their first legal homes. An equitable solution? “We have negotiated more with the Delhi government on this issue than any other, and done more for these people than anyone else has,” declares Nanda.
Facing page, students at the made-over municipal primary school
While the project is well-entrenched, with planned cultural and socio-economic tasks for the seven years it hopes to be around, its future course also remains, in many ways, open-ended. It depends, among other things, on more basti-dwellers joining the dots—that is, realising that these ancient buildings could well be their passport to a better future. As Ravindran puts it, “It’s about getting the people to believe in what you believe in, and making a narrative out of it.”
As the project’s newly trained heritage guides, basti-born and bred boys, take visitors around their neighbourhood, it seems some fragments of the narrative are missing, but others clearly in place, much like the tilework on medieval monuments. As we go past a tomb occupied by visitor-wary families, our poised guides advise us to speak softly “in a sensitive area”. As we turn a corner, sure enough, someone hurls an insult: “Yehudi (Jew)!” Not losing their stride, however, the young men carry on enthusiastically, explaining, in lesson-perfect English, the features of monuments that meant nothing to them a year ago.
April 19, 2010, 5:00 pm
Aleppo, Syria, to Undergo Historical Restoration
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Descending the steps of the citadel, a 13th-century fortress in Aleppo, Syria.
In this ancient fortress city in northern Syria, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements, an ambitious restoration project is near completion in the Old City. Bloomberg is reporting that a master plan for development has been laid out for the next 15 years.
The most spectacular renewal is the Citadel castle: Workers cleared its deep moat, cleaned its formidable walls and removed tons of rubble. The work is backed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, whose goal is to revitalize run-down communities and monuments.
Syria remains on the U.S. State Department list of terrorism sponsors, but new visa-free travel to and from Turkey has made Aleppo a way station.
The Mansouriya Palace boutique hotel, a combination of two houses set around a courtyard decorated by a rectangular pool and an orange tree, provides a preview of tourism in old Aleppo. Its nine rooms are done in styles reflecting parts of the city’s history, among them Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Hittite.
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