Old city Herat under threat

As in other countries in turmoil, the city of Herat is about to loose its old centre due to rigorous urban development

Published on 13 March 2010

Author(s): UNAMA/Henri Burgard

Type:  News

Urban development threatens the old city of Herat

Experts cannot state with precision when the old city of Herat was built as it stands today. Herat’s history as a human settlement dates as far back as the Iron Age, and under Alexander the Great, during pre-Islamic times, the city was already a well known location. Genghis Khan destroyed it, Timur destroyed it, and Sharooz, the head of the Timurid dynasty, devoted his tenure to expanding and embellishing it. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the city mostly stood north of the actual citadel, Qala Iktyaruddin.

It now stands south of it, a square of 62,000 inhabitants, with beautiful vestiges upset by the scars of new constructions. The old city was not affected by the Soviet War the way Kabul was during the mujahideen era. Fighting was conducted in the western part of the city, but the whole city suffered mostly from the migration of inhabitants and its subsequent neglect. Little interest was taken in a 1978 master plan created to regulate the development of the city.

Jolyon Leslie, the chief executive officer for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), a charity whose conservation work in the old city is ubiquitous, reflected: “To some extent, this was the old city’s salvation. The master plan is too complicated, nobody really followed it and Herat was left behind, which means no planner was set to destroy it!” After the fall of the Taliban government, the population came back and some – now disputed – projects were launched, such as the development of the road that passes through the minarets, a famous attraction in Herat.

With the return of migrants, the economy and the city developed. New constructions were built north-west of the old city, according to Iranian or Pakistani standards. In the newly developed areas, prices started going up and the speculative rise also affected the poorer old city. People and institutions started tearing down old buildings to rebuild new and, according to Jolyon Leslie, inadequate ones: “This is not a mere aesthetic issue. Rarely has such a change occurred in just one generation. Afghan houses were traditionally built around a courtyard with two buildings, north and south, facing each other. No indication of the wealth of the owner appeared outside, and all windows looked towards the central pool or drainage. Today, glass houses rise up, looking over the neighbour’s yard. Hot in summer and cold in winter, they consume more water and electricity. Their foundations often cut through the ancient drainage system.”

AKTC has worked on drainage and paving to the benefit of half the population of the old city. It has also restored 20 public buildings, 15 houses and helped 50 other houses through small scale grants, technical advice or material donation. In 2005, it initiated the creation of a commission for the safeguarding and development of the old city of Herat. The commission decided that traditional materials should be used for construction, and no building should stand higher than seven metres. Enacted into law by a presidential decree, those conditions are not respected. Since 2005, the AKTC monitored the changes in the historic fabric, and the result is worrying. In 2009 alone, 90 new buildings have been erected without proper authorizations, more than twice the previous year’s figure. Failure is looming as Jolyon Leslie deplores: “I don’t know whether we are winning or losing. It is hard to justify investment to donors when Heratis are not showing their commitment, politically and materially. No unlawful construction was ever stopped since we started our survey.”

Ayamuddin Ajmal, who’s in charge of the department of historic monuments in Herat, identifies different reasons for the government’s inability to implement its decision: lack of personnel, lack of interest and widespread administrative corruption are mentioned. To improve the situation, Ayamuddin Ajmal advocates: “We must develop the awareness of the people.” He regrets that political changes play against conservation interests. “No sooner are the governor and the chief of police sensitized, they are replaced and we must start again.” He also calls for a control unit: “One exists under the Ministry of Interior, unit 012. Unfortunately, it is not present in Herat.” Lastly, he calls for more means to carry out his task: “We lack a proper budget. I could not even raise enough money to clean the area surrounding Herat’s minarets!”

Some Heratis feel strongly about the historical position of their city. Engineer Abdel Bashir Shiwa is by no means a typical inhabitant. As deputy head of the Engineer Association, he studied architectural design and discusses Herat’s treasures as well as Italian and French monuments. He agrees with Ayamuddin Ajmal on the necessity to change people’s minds regarding their historical environment. He also expresses the importance to force the citizens to respect laws. There is a sense of urgency in his speech: “Historical places cannot wait. If it can’t be rebuilt, at least it should be protected. If the fifth minaret falls down, we cannot find another one, or rebuild it.” At the municipality, the current administration feels under pressure when conservation is mentioned. Mohamed Salim Taraki, deputy to the former mayor, currently in charge of Herat municipality, emphasizes that his administration is in the process of buying land to allow a new road to circumvent the minarets, thus hoping to obtain a UNESCO registration for the site. Confronted with the current trend of building in the old city, Herat municipality staff blame the previous administration – of which they were part. Mr Taraki expresses: “It is the legitimate right of people to build on their land. If the municipality is unable to buy all the conservation sites and organize a proper resettlement programme, people are entitled to build to accommodate their growing families.” He insists: “We cannot act as warlords!”

Touching directly the living conditions of the population, the issue requires hard decisions to be taken. While some work to restore it, the old city of Herat is being damaged by unlawful development. It will take a strong administration to uphold the standards it has set to protect one of Afghanistan’s richest historical sites.

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