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Project Profile


2008 Award of Excellence

Herat Old City

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Project TitleHerat Old City

LocationHerat, Afghanistan

Size2,659 square metres

CostUS$ 185,000

Responsible PartyAga Khan Trust for Culture

Heritage ArchitectArash Boostani, Daud Sadiq, Javad Khan Sadeq and Abdul Qani Rahmani Wafa

Date of Completion2006


Located in western Afghanistan, Herat Old City was once one of the most important trading points along the ancient Silk Route. The commercial and cultural exchanges that took place in Herat from the fifteenth century up until the early twentieth century are represented in the fine buildings of the city’s historic centre. The wealth generated by traders underwrote the construction of private houses, mosques and caravansaries, and gave form and purpose to market areas in Herat. As an important city in the Islamic world, Herat also became a model for other communities along the Silk Route, its buildings serving as templates for similar structures in other cities and towns in the region. With the decline of the Silk Route, Herat’s fortunes waned accordingly.

The project took place in the context of a city recovering from a long period of conflict and political turmoil. Apart from the direct damage inflicted on property in the western quarters of the old city, the social costs of the conflict and resulting displacement were high, and continue to affect the ability of families to recover and embark on the task of reconstruction. Large areas of the old city were de-populated during the worst of the fighting in the late 1980s, and a swathe of property along the western edge of the historic quarters was laid waste. Across the old city, abandoned traditional homes fell into disrepair or collapsed, while water supplies and drains were not maintained or became blocked by rubble.

Most of the city’s historic buildings had fallen into disrepair. Many others had been demolished. Poor maintenance and the persistent effects of moisture were key causes of the degradation. In addition, damage caused by earthquakes and floods led to several buildings becoming uninhabitable and being abandoned. New materials and styles had been introduced in the city, which detracted from its historic character. Most notable was the introduction of modern sheet metal to cover roofs once protected by tiles, and the use of concrete to construct new buildings. Streets and alleys also suffered from poor maintenance and poorly executed modern repairs.

The challenges facing families trying to return to their homes and re-establish themselves in the old city during the early 1990s were formidable. Added to this, structures of governance and systems of urban management were disrupted by the conflict. Many competent professionals fled into exile and local institutions continue to struggle in responding effectively to the challenge of reconstruction. In the absence of a coherent national strategy for urban development, and limited engagement from Kabul, local civil servants have had to resort to ad hoc responses, in order to keep pace with accelerating urban growth.

In order to address this policy vacuum, in early 2005 a Commission for the Safeguarding and Development of the Old City of Herat was formed. Bringing together the institutions involved in conservation and urban management, the primary objective of this body has been to ensure that the importance of the surviving historic fabric in the old city is addressed in development plans and construction projects. Comprising representatives of local institutions, it has met regularly since its inception, to discuss appropriate systems of planning, review building applications and to explore options for improvements in the urban environment. To date, nearly 200 building applications have been screened for their architectural characteristics, technical and environmental impact.

Building History

The restoration of Herat Old City focused on three complexes located in the Bar Durrani and Abdullah Mesri quarters of the city: the Malik Cistern and Mosque complex, Karbasi House and Abresham Bazaar. Supplied by a water channel from outside the city, the brick-domed Malik Cistern, built in the late twelfth century, had been badly damaged in an earthquake in 1485 and was not repaired until the seventeenth century, under the Safavids. The principal water source for the neighbourhood up until the 1970s, it later fell into disrepair and prior to the restoration project it was being used as a rubbish dump.

The “winter” and “summer” mosques adjoining Malik Cistern were built in the seventeenth century on the site of a Sufi religious building dating to as early as the mid-fifteenth century. The winter mosque consists of three semi-subterranean domed bays, lit from above and accessed from the courtyard through a domed brick iwan (rectangular space walled on three sides). The variable quality of the brickwork suggests that the mosque many have been built in various stages. The summer mosque is entered from the high iwan on the south side of the courtyard. By the early nineteenth century, both mosques had fallen into serious disrepair. In 1857 local leader Qorban Ali repaired the winter mosque and in 1865 Faramarz Khan did the same for the summer mosque. No major repairs were conducted over the next century, however.

Karbasi House, built by Haji Mohammed Osman in 1915, is situated in a dense residential neighbourhood in the Bar Durrani quarter of the city. Constructed on the foundations of a much earlier dwelling, the house contains 20 rooms, spread over two sprawling storeys. These are arranged around four courtyards, which would originally have provided an important focus for the domestic life of the occupants. Abresham Bazaar dates to around 1840, just prior to the brief British occupation of Herat, when the landmark dome of the nearby Chahar Suq intersection in the heart of the old city was demolished. Probably built on an earlier structure, this bazaar was built by Haji Musa, a rich merchant who also constructed a significant mosque in the northern Qutbe Chaq quarter, where he is buried.

Project History

Commencing in 2005, the Herat Old City rehabilitation project was part of a wider initiative sponsored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to provide guidance for the conservation and restoration of historic cities in Afghanistan and to return existing properties to a state of utility. The AKTC team selected the three complexes to represent a strategic range of building types, a mosque, a residential complex and a public commercial space, to demonstrate the viability of adaptive use in the context of the old city. The three complexes, each with separate though characteristic problems, also illustrate various restoration and rehabilitation approaches, thus providing a range of examples for future restoration projects in the region.   

Project Scope and Framework

Given the range in age, type of structure and condition of each of the complexes included in the Herat Old City project, the scope and framework differed significantly for each intervention. Work was undertaken from 2005 to 2007, beginning with the mosques and cistern. The project involved making repairs to each of the complexes, removal of later additions and the reconstruction of historically appropriate roofs, including the multiple domes of the historic bazaar. The project also addressed the uses and associated community values of each complex. Restoration and rehabilitation of the buildings were combined with improvements to the city’s infrastructure, including repaving street surfaces and alleyways and constructing gutters and underground drains, to uplift the living conditions of local inhabitants and to promote a sense of cultural continuity within the community.

Conservation Methodology and Materials

Afghanistan passed an important cultural heritage law in 2004. While this legislation includes general provisions for historic sites, it does not deal in detail with conservation practice. For its project at Herat Old City and projects elsewhere in Afghanistan, the AKTC team relied on relevant international charters and published material and records of appropriate “best practice” within the region.

Each of the interventions within Herat Old City was based on thorough documentation of the existing state of each building and investigation into the traditional techniques used in the original construction. Although some restoration projects had been introduced in Herat during the late 1970s, many of these had failed to utilize the traditional skills and techniques of local artisans or fully demonstrate an appreciation for the local building typology. The AKTC programme shifted attention to the community and to developing a permanent competency in the building trades. The projects thus provided the beginnings of a cadre of highly competent masons and carpenters that now form the backbone of the Afghanistan programme team. This change of emphasis was particularly evident in the work at Malik Cistern, which required the use of traditional techniques for applying lime plaster to exterior walls, and in the repairs to decorated brickwork in Karbasi House, where it proved necessary to train dedicated artisans to ensure work was in accordance with original methods and was of high quality.

In addition to supporting the use of traditional building techniques, the team took great care to employ traditional materials during the restoration and reconstruction work. For example, the moulded decorative bricks employed in Karbasi House followed custom specifications; the team commissioned kilns to produce bricks of the appropriate dimensions and strengths to match existing examples. Likewise, materials such as wood ash and plant fibres were used as additives for plaster, following traditional prescriptions. 

The first step in the restoration of the Malik Cistern and Mosque complex was the clearance of waste from the interior of the cistern and removal of a thick layer of accumulated earth from the dome. Following thorough inspections, repairs were carried out on the brick masonry vaults and squinches using traditional fired bricks laid in lime mortar. The roof surface was finished with brick pavers to provide a weatherproof finish. The waterproof plaster of the tank was then repaired, using a mix of lime, sand, wood, ash, coal, plant fibres and brick powder. During the course of repairs, traces were found of a plinth that was reconstructed to protect the building from traffic along the adjoining street. The team completed the bulk of the restoration work on Malik Cistern by the end of 2006. Meanwhile, restoration work had begun in early 2006 on the summer mosque, and soon afterwards on the semiunderground winter mosque. The brick iwan of the summer mosque, which had detached from the southern wall of the complex, was repaired using fired bricks and lime mortar. The concrete floor in the prayer room was removed and the substructure of the brick vaults repaired and repaved with fired bricks. Small prayer rooms on the upper level were restored and repaved, and the traditional wooden screens looking out over the courtyard were repaired. Missing parts of the carved marble inscription that runs as a frieze around the main prayer space were located and re-attached. Work on the summer mosque was completed in early 2007.

During this time, modern cement plaster and flooring were removed from the interior of the Malik winter mosque, which showed signs of extensive rising damp. The structure was left to dry out, before plaster on the east elevation was removed, revealing several sections of glazed brickwork around the modest brick-domed iwan. To restore the elevation, the central arch to the courtyard was reopened and traditional wooden screens installed on the upper floor of the opening. A row of small vaulted study rooms along the northern side of the courtyard, which had all but collapsed, were rebuilt using the original bricks. The public water supply in the courtyard was upgraded, drainage improved and a small ablution block and toilet added, to improve access to basic sanitation services for residents of the local area.

Work on Karbasi House began in mid-2006. The immediate aim was to provide a suitable location for a school of traditional music. The first stage of the work entailed repairs to the traditional roof, which was finished using a mixture of earth and straw, and improvements to rainwater drainage. Sections of the structural masonry that had settled due to poor drainage in the past were then stabilized. The project then extended to repairs and restoration of the original brick flooring and decorative brickwork, repairs to the orosi (wooden screens), and replacement of the traditional glass. The final stage of the restoration, undertaken in late 2006, included the removal of modern concrete paving from the courtyards and repaving, using traditional fired bricks, and landscaping.

The restoration of Abresham Bazaar aimed at safeguarding an important part of the urban fabric in the heart of the old city. Work included the removal of the sheet metal roof and the rebuilding of the collapsed roof domes on the north and south sides of the central vault. Along the principal spine of the bazaar, earth was removed from the domes, enabling repairs to the domes and to the supporting brick arches. Brick masonry lanterns were rebuilt over the six domes. The underside was then repointed with lime mortar, once access was negotiated with the various shopkeepers. Missing wooden screens on the upper levels were replaced. The concrete floor was removed, and repaved with brick, which also allowed for an underground drainage system to be installed. Never fully closed, even during the height of the restoration project, Abresham Bazaar was reopened in its improved state in late 2006.

Important Issues

As part of a wider range of historic buildings being restored under the programme, the buildings included in this project represent a cross–section of typical forms and functions within part of the old city of Herat. And at the same time many owners wish to capitalize on rising prices in the city-centre and sell traditional property for ‘redevelopment’. In this context the appropriate adaptation or use seems to be an unavoidable question, important for the cultural continuity and support of local inhabitants. The summer and winter mosques in the Malik complex have reverted to their original religious purpose and, in response to improved conditions, is now host to greater numbers of worshippers and religious students. Malik cistern will no longer serve its original function and its possible use is proceeding with the local authorities and community representatives. Ideas include a children’s reading space and library, an exhibition area or a small gymnasium. In the Karbasi complex a range of new functions has been housed, including a sizeable space for music recitals and a centre for traditional crafts. By bringing these functions together, this project has raised awareness both about traditional craft techniques and the potential for re-use of historic buildings.    The Abresham bazaar has largely reverted to its original wholesale/retail function. The repair of the ground-floor shop outlets has encouraged silk traders to return to the bazaar, and there have been several requests for use of the restored workshops on the first floor, which was largely abandoned when the project began. 

Project Sustainability and Viability 

The range of activities that now take place in the Karbasi house represent an attempt to demonstrate how the large merchant homes, many of which are now subdivided, can be converted for a range of alternative functions. The presence of the music school has elicited significant interest among old city communities, and may in time help to raise a wider awareness as to the value of classical music. The operation of two small income-generating workshops elsewhere in the complex has generated some local employment, and also serves to illustrate how such premises can be appropriately- re-used. There is clear evidence that the restoration of the Abresham bazaar has enhanced the businesses of those currently leasing shops and workshops in the complex, and there is potential for the bazaar in time to become a hub for local regeneration. A number of other sites in the old city are being considered for possible income-generation initiatives within the wider conservation programme.

Project Impact

The project managed to demonstrate the feasibility of restoring historic buildings for continued use as an alternative to the pressures to redevelop. Many owners wish to capitalize on rising prices in the city centre and sell their properties. In this context, demonstrating the possibility of accommodating modern-day functions in historic fabric is a key issue at the heart of the decision-making both for city officials and local owners.

The rehabilitation of the three properties in Herat Old City furthered community objectives in several ways. The project returned the summer and winter mosques in the Malik complex to their original religious purpose and, because of the improved conditions, the site is now host to greater numbers of worshippers and religious students. As Malik Cistern can no longer serve its original function, its use has been a subject of consideration among local authorities and community representatives. Ideas for reuse include a children’s reading space and library, an exhibition area or a small gymnasium.

Several new functions have been introduced in the Karbasi House complex. Among these are a sizeable space for music recitals and a centre for traditional crafts. By bringing these functions together, this project has raised the community’s awareness about the value of built heritage and the potential of historic places for new uses. Abresham Bazaar was distinctive in that it has largely retained its original wholesale and retail function. The repair of the ground-floor shop outlets has encouraged silk traders to return to the bazaar. Several vendors and artisans have particularly requested spaces on the first floor, an area that was largely abandoned when the project began.

Project Sustainability and Viability

The re-sanctification of the mosque complex ensures that it will be used and maintained as part of the daily life of the local residents for years to come. The symbolic value of this pilot project lights the way to the restoration of other mosques in the future, which will revive other spiritual and community hubs. The multiple functions housed within the Karbasi residential complex demonstrate how older properties can be appropriately reused and illustrate the viability of the city’s large merchant homes — many of which are now subdivided — as locations for new enterprises. The presence of the music school in the complex has elicited significant interest among many residents and is expected to help to increase appreciation for classical music. The operation of two small income-generating workshops within in the Karbasi House complex has been a source of local employment. There is clear evidence that the restoration of Abresham Bazaar has enhanced the businesses of those currently leasing shops and workshops in the complex. The bazaar has potential in time to also become a hub for local economic regeneration. Given the success of restoring the bazaar, a number of other sites in the old city are being considered for possible income-generating initiatives under the umbrella of the city’s conservation effort.

Project Impact

The three interventions in Herat Old City were significant steps in the safeguarding of historic urban fabric and have made a significant contribution to a broader understanding of the potential of urban conservation as a community development tool. These measures have also had an impact in terms of contributing towards the formulation of a national strategy for urban development, under the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. Although many factors contribute to policy decisions, there seems little doubt that AKTC’s ongoing urban conservation programme in the old cities of Herat and Kabul has shaped attitudes in official circles. In a context where processes of urban planning and management are at an early stage of development, the significance of urban interventions such as these is unquestionable.

Lessons gleaned from site activities have enabled conservation professionals and artisans working as part of the project to develop a substantial body of practical knowledge that continues to serve ongoing restoration and reconstruction initiatives. This experience has been shared with a national Working Group on Architectural Conservation, an organization that attempts to bring together those working in the field to coordinate approaches and pool technical information.

Quote from the Project Team

“The three complexes included in this project represent a cross-section of building forms and techniques that serve to demonstrate the richness of this tradition, while the functions of each restored building have relevance for the contemporary needs of the population of the old city.”