Breathing new life into the legacy of past civilisations calls for a creativity, imagination, tolerance, understanding, and wisdom well beyond the ordinary. The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP), established in 1992, implements conservation, urban revitalization and area development projects in historically significant sites of the Islamic world undertaking the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures and public spaces in ways that spur social, economic and cultural development. Its projects seek to mobilize local potential and resources in order to ensure their eventual self-sustainability through operational income, human resource development and institutional management capabilities. Through this integrated approach, the Programme seeks to demonstrate that strengthening cultural identity can go hand in hand with socio-economic progress.
Going beyond mere restoration of monuments, the Programme engages in activities related to adaptive re-use, contextual urban planning and the improvement of housing, infrastructure and public spaces. It carries out related socio-economic development initiatives directed at upgrading local living conditions and improving quality of life.
Investments in single project locations or regions are coordinated with other Aga Khan Development Network programmes so that they reinforce each other as they grow together into a critical mass for positive change. In all project locations, community participation and training of local professionals are essential components.
The city of Kabul is thought to have grown around a Buddhist settlement mentioned by Ptolemy in AD 150. The fortified Citadel of Bala Hissar bears witness to its turbulent history, as do the defences along the ridge of the Sher Darwaza Mountain to the south, dating in part to the period of Hindu rule prior to the advent of Islam in AD 871. Kabul seems to have remained little more than a military outpost during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the cities of Ghazni and Herat witnessed significant prosperity and architectural innovation. It was not until the early sixteenth century, when the founder of the Mughal Empire Babur visited and laid out several gardens in and around the city (including the newly rehabilitated park now known as Bagh-e Babur), that Kabul seems to have grown in importance. While based in India, Babur’s successors continued to show an interest in Kabul, with Shah Jahan’s governor, Ali Mardaan Khan, building the covered Char Chatta bazaar in the centre of the commercial quarters in the mid seventeenth century. By the time that Timur Shah moved his capital from Qandahar to Kabul in the late eighteenth century, Kabul was home to approximately 60,000 people.
Accounts from nineteenth-century travellers to Kabul describe a dense settlement of traditional dwellings, accessed by means of narrow alleyways and divided into distinct quarters, some of which were walled. The only neighbourhoods in which this dense urban fabric has survived are Asheqan wa Arefan and Chindawol. Apart from the imposing brick Mausoleum of Timur Shah, built in the late eighteenth century, and the royal residences and walled gardens within the citadel, the bazaars and serais seem to have been the principal landmarks in the city.
It is in the war-affected historic quarters of Asheqan wa Arefan, Chindawol, Pakhtafurushi, Shanasazi and Kuche Kharabat, which together are home to some 18,000 people, that the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has undertaken a range of planning, conservation, upgrading, training and socio-economic initiatives since 2002. Within an area that is now the most densely populated in Kabul, a dozen historic public buildings – including mosques, shrines, a mausoleum, a madrasa, traditional hammams, and educational facilities – have been restored over the past seven years. During the same period, some fifteen important historic homes have been rehabilitated in these quarters, where more than seventy families have been able to undertake essential repairs to their traditional homes through a system of small-scale grants. This conservation work has provided opportunities for on-the-job training for more than a hundred carpenters, plasterers and masons, many of whom live in the historic quarters.