The Bactria Cultural Centre

A UNESCO-sponsored project in Mazar-e Sharif, war-struck northern Afghanistan ? Success or Failure?

Published on 12 January 2011

Author(s): E-conservation Magazine, 17 (2010) pp. 64-70/Alessandro Califano

Type:  Project news

Though not a complete success per se, this approach may be seen as potentially useful in similar situations in post-war and post-disaster countries

South of the Tashqurgan road to Mazar-e Sharif, a cultural centre named after ancient Bactria is being built by ACTED and UNESCO in a new suburb. Started in 2007, it should be completed by 2017. But UNESCO’s funds for the project are exhausted and no more funds have been found in the meantime, so no further action has taken place since the building’s foundations were completed in late 2008.

In the light of a comparison between this project and another Bactria Cultural Centre built in Tajikistan, it could be considered that the Afghanistan-based one is not a success so far. It is also perfectly clear that in the current climate – where security concerns for other provinces have top priority – cultural heritage issues are lagging behind in getting both funding priority and consideration.
However, UNESCO’s strategy of considering as the main requirement for the funding the production of special dome tiles needed for the construction has been very effective: fostering traditional craftsmanship and passing on a traditional, high-quality building technique to the next generation of craftsmen is now a fact and so are the short and long-term benefits given to a local community in war-struck northern Afghanistan.


The case study of a UNESCO sponsored cultural centre providing on-site heritage related services in northern Afghanistan, and of its background – including the actions to foster traditional building craftsmanship and preserve immaterial cultural heritage – is compared to two other cases, in southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Though not a complete success per se, this approach may be seen as potentially useful in similar situations in post-war and post-disaster countries.

Project's background and setting

About half an hour away from Mazar-e Sharif's downtown area, driving east towards the border with Uzbekistan, a new suburb is under construction. Stretched out to the south of the main road leading to Khulm (the old town of Tashkurgan, where the summer residence of the Afghanistan kings used to be), right below the hills building a geographical border to the vast northern steppe, the construction dominates the lower lands. It is a bit less dusty here, and there is a chance that rivulets flowing down the mountain will make their way to gardens and water reservoirs instead of quickly evaporating in the desert plain, even before reaching the Amu Darya river farther north.

It is for this reason that the area had always been used as a pasture for sheep and goats by local herdsmen. According to my sources, the whole area was bought about five years ago, by or on behalf of Tajik Governor Atta Muhammad. He is now controlling the Balkh Region in the name of President Hamid Karzai's central government after the previous local leader, Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum, was called to other offices to the Afghan capital.

Measurements and subdivision of the whole area in different-sized land lots followed quickly. Two large roads were laid out through it, south of the Mazar-to-Tashkurgan road, while various north-south diversions drove straight towards the hills. The very same reasons that made the area very good for herdsmen made it an excellent choice for builders and landlords too. In fact, a new satellite town dedicated to hosting foreign institutes and affluent members of society couldn't have been planned better: in the opposite direction of nearby Balkh's notorious hemp (Cannabis sativa) plantations, it enjoys a quiet and relatively unpolluted position, with lots of space to be freely rearranged, and with an extremely low acquisition price to start with.

It is in this area that UNESCO and ACTED had planned to built a new cultural centre. The Bactria Centre, named after the ancient denomination of the wide area ranging from the mountain ranges of Hazarajat up to southern Tajikistan, had to cover multiple functions. Firstly, it was meant to foster local artistic efforts, and secondly to provide shelter to temporary exhibitions of both contemporary artefacts and of local archaeological findings. It was meant to be a hub of cultural activities – part museum, part incubator, part dissemination centre. There had been some previous similar achievements in the same macro region: on the one hand the small on-site museum at Fayaz Tepe in Uzbekistan and a Buddhist monastery blossoming near today's Termez from the Kushan period down to the 5th century, restored by UNESCO and the Japanese government, and on the other the first Bactria Centre established by ACTED itself in Dushanbe, almost as soon as Tajikistan headed out of its lengthy and bloody civil war1. Socio-economic conditions in the three states being somehow similar, though Uzbekistan was, and still is, far better off than the other two, the past experience suggested that the opportunity was to be seized in the Mazar-e Sharif area as well.

Project's description – 2008

In an on-site visit I paid to the construction site in October 2008, together with Czech fellow photographer Roman Pekar, ACTED's chief engineer for all projects in Balkh, Mr. Isar, and Mr. Sayed, who is monitoring monument control at ACTED, told me that the actual construction work started in 2007. The contract said that work should be finished by 2017 although they were confident to be able to have everything ready by 2013. The project, for which UNESCO had generously contributed, was developed by architects of the Russian Federation and was then handed out to the local branch of ACTED by UNESCO's office in Tashkent, which provided the funds. This might have been a rather uncommon procedure since Afghanistan already had its own UNESCO office in Kabul at that time. Ancient Bactria covered, however, the three locations, each now belonging to a different state. And since Barry Lane, at that time head of the UNESCO office in Tashkent, was very active in fostering both the Fayaz Tepe project in Termez and the first Bactria Centre in Dushanbe, it made sense that the impulse should come from one and the same source – and some of the funds, as well.

At the time of my visit, the about 8,000 square metre land lot was evened and fenced, while the building's foundations had been thoroughly laid out, emerging from the slightly sloping ground about 1.2 meters on the southern end to 1.6 meters on the northern end. The platform was laid out in a east-west direction, the north-south sides being the shortest. The main entrance was on the eastern side. Inside the one-storey building, chambers were clearly outlined in two rows: towards the outside the somewhat more spacious ones and looking towards the inner court the less spacious ones. The wide central court was going to be landscaped as a garden while the vast outer space had room enough for another garden as well as for a large parking place. All chambers were going to be covered by circular domes, for which special tiles had been provided.

In fact, UNESCO's main strategy was to foster traditional craftsmanship, and the funds provided were also meant to cover the production of the special dome tiles which were considered the main requirement for the granted funding. Neatly stacked along the southern fence of the land lot, two brands of tiles were in fact waiting to be set n place. One was the coarser, rather fragile sort of semi-industrial construction bricks every construction worker uses in the area, those bricks that one can see being baked at small local manufacturing plants all around in the plains, high chimneys puffing out vast amounts of pollutants and fumes. The second ones were of a completely different kind: traditionally used in the region of Balkh for local long-lasting buildings, these tiles where comparatively larger, smoother and heavier.

Completely handmade, the latter are prepared using a thick clay mix pressed into wooden forms, where the tiles rest for a while to let the water drip out, to finally be set out into the sun to dry out until hard. Resistance testing to both impact and pressure assure these tiles to be much more long-lasting than the usual construction bricks. The lengthy and accurate human labour involved in the production process, as well as the much higher care in choosing the raw material, caused however these techniques to be not only neglected, but even almost forgotten in present-day architecture, even in a region that had been originally famous for this very same high-end quality product.

Project's description – 2009

I had the opportunity to travel back to Afghanistan less than a year later, in May 2009, for a Kabul-based UNESCO consultancy contract. Though this of course implied that I would not have a chance to visit again the Bactria Centre building site on this occasion, I could nevertheless contact ACTED for a briefing about the further development since my previous visit to the country. Sadly, not very much has moved since. The funds granted by UNESCO have paid for the construction of the building's foundations, as well as for hoarding bricks and tiles for the further construction needs, but are now exhausted. In the mean time, no more funds have been found, and no more action has taken place.

In fact, even the first phase had been a pretty difficult one, as confirmed by two sources: despite having the approval of Balkh's Governor Atta himself, as well as being able to rely on UNESCO funds for the foundations, there was much wrangling to gain approval for the rest of the construction. There was even the impression of some interference from the government side regarding this issue. On the other hand, as was perfectly clear and well stated by everybody, in the current climate – seeing security concerns for other provinces having top priority – it seemed that Culture was definitely lagging behind in getting both funding priority and consideration.

ACTED itself had been very restricted in its action by not having enough funds. To this came staff changes in the Afghan offices of the NGO and a rising number of projects, so that they hadn't been in a condition to really follow up on this project. However, they were still hoping to come back to it in 2010, and would still continue to be looking for funds. But in comparison to the previously activated Bactria Centre in Dushanbe, it was evident that the situation in Afghanistan was either much more complex or, to say the least, by far not as positive in its medium-term prospective outcome.
An evaluation attempt

In the light of a comparison between the past and the prospective evolution of the two Bactria cultural centres, the one in Dushanbe and the one being presently built in Mazar-e Sharif (the museum at Fayaz Tepe being a positive achievement obtained on a much smaller scale), it could be deduced that the Afghanistan-based centre wasn't a success so far. Even more, that the continuing conditions of social and political uncertainty in many areas of the country, together with rising security and military related concerns, let many further difficulties be viewed ahead.

Nevertheless, it wouldn't be completely fair to let an evaluation rest entirely on this basis. With the completion of the foundations and the preparation of all the tiles and bricks needed for further building, the most arduous part of the work has been done. Neatly sheltered under a double layer of plastic sheets and earth, the bricks, and even more the tile stacks, are securely protected for future use, while the presence of guards on site should deter theft. On the other hand, bricks being readily (and cheaply!) available in the whole area – and tiles being of uncommon use – theft prevention partially lies in the materials themselves. The relative optimism of engineer Isar regarding a timely completion of the whole building can thus be better understood: even a long interruption of work at the construction site will not damage the part of the building completed so far, much less the material to be used to complete it.

Funds for another year of activity should possibly bring it to its final shape, while some more time would of course be needed for its inner decoration, landscaping, and eventually planning its activities – which will probably prove the toughest task to fully achieve.

But if time schedule and milestones for bringing the building process to an end are to be considered more or less adequate, (while only time will tell what will become of the original plan to make it function as a hub for multi-purpose, heritage related activities, and whether it will compare to the lively proposals of its twin in Dushanbe), there is still another point to take into account.

Choosing the peculiar and lengthy production process of old-fashioned hand-made tiles as the main requirement for their funding, UNESCO has had a primary role both in fostering traditional craftsmen's knowledge and passing it on to a younger generation of Afghan craftsmen, and in working towards the completion of a real and contemporary model that could proudly stand against the usual, pre-fabricated concrete-and-iron building solutions. This choice would then represent a real alternative solution, challenging the nefarious impact of mainstream cash-related building solutions which have no spin off effects at all on the local economy. Far from compromising with “modern” techniques, which in the end are generally revealed as only apparently cheaper than traditional building solutions – and certainly much less environmentally friendly – Barry Lane's project chose to involve local work forces, letting them participate in a complex but sustainable training and production process.

Even if the final product of the Bactria Centre project seems still to be largely floating in the future this at least has been already achieved: passing on a traditional, high-quality building technique to the next generation of craftsmen is now already a fact. It can be considered a healthy and sound approach, combining traditional craftsmanship training, planning and actual building, with the help of external funds to foster sustainability and economy in a destitute, war-struck area. With all its shortcomings, it should be considered as a good case-study of how immediate and long-term benefits can be given to local communities, and of what could be done – or maybe rather: could and should have been done – in Afghanistan, to effectively help a country disrupted by 30 years of war.


1 Bactria Cultural Centre, Tajikistan, URL (last consulted on 4 November 2010)

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