Cultural preservation builds ties to war-torn Afghanistan

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.

Published on 19 February 2010

Author(s): Marlis Schaum

Type:  Interview

Cultural preservation work builds ties to war-torn countries, says expert

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. 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 Germanyís 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 isnít 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 itís justifiable.

Why are the cultural preservation projects important then?
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, thereís 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 thatís 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 itís a beautiful place where they can relax and forget their daily problems.

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 canít be avoided.

However, when no one invests in cultural projects, itís 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.

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