HERAT, Afghanistan (AFP) — In the ancient Afghan city of Herat, the fight is on between restoring historical monuments, palaces and houses or demolishing them to make way for bleak structures of smoked glass and concrete.
The battle in this once-essential stop along the Silk Road seems to be going the way of demolition — even if much of it is illegal.
Reconstruction needs a lot of time and work, as well as money and craftsmen skilled in ancient techniques necessary for recreating the vision of ancient architectural plans.
Herat is one of the few cities in Central Asia to have kept its medieval structure despite the march of time and the ravages of war.
In the 1980s the city near the Iranian border was home to around 200,000 inhabitants; today about three million people live here and the buildings stretch for miles.
Those who have swapped their traditional mudbrick homes for the new concrete blocks say they left to escape “the absence of comfort: running water, hot water, electricity and sanitation,” says Bismillah Fateh from the Agha Khan Trust for Culture.
The trust is working to restore a number of sites and lodgings in the western city which is more than 2,000 years old.
“It is a fight every day,” says Daud Sidiq, an architect with the foundation who has restored the Malik Cisterne and Mosque at the foot of the imposing Ikhtyaruddin citadel, the present structure of which was built in the 15th century.
Work is also underway on the palace of Attarbashi, the home of a wealthy physician that was constructed at the turn of the century and which is being restored with the agreement of the owner.
Winter and summer apartments face into a rectangular courtyard. Workers have put a large waterproof plastic sheet into the roof, a contemporary addition to a traditional technique.
Columns of stucco, reinforced with steel and asphalt, are whitewashed with a material made of limestone, ashes and flax, says Sidiq. For added protection from aging, nothing is better than mixing in “egg white, cooking oil and flour,” he says.
“We have been working for three months to bring back the old house,” says the architect, who is passionate about this undertaking.
Down narrow lanes, the historic homes of Kebabi and Akhawan have been entirely renovated and returned to their owners or their descendants.
To enter through their huge wooden gates, one has to choose between two large knockers — one for men and one for women: their different tones alert those inside to whether a man or a woman should answer.
In this maze, traditional structures are being given new life.
There is new paving in the old Jewish quarters, deserted in the 1970s. Two synagogues have been reconverted into a mosque and a school; one remains in ruins and another, its inside painted shiny blue, is being repaired.
The hamman, or bath, is again functioning for a male clientele.
“It is not a very expensive programme,” says Agha Khan urban planner Anna Soave, and there is support from a number of European nongovernment organisations.
The Commission for the Development of the Old City of Herat was created in 2005 but is handicapped by poor coordination between its members who include government and local groups.
The result: an acceleration of the demolition of the old and construction of illegal villas.
“All the illegal construction must be destroyed,” provincial governor Hossein Anwari said.