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Project Profile

 

2007 Award of Distinction

Altit Settlement

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Project TitleAltit Settlement

LocationAltit, Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan

Size14,481 square metres

CostUS$ 342, 528

Responsible PartyTown of Altit

Heritage ArchitectWajahat Ali (Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan)

ContractorAga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan

Date of Completion2004


Context

Altit, located in Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas) in Pakistan, was the first capital of the princely state of Hunza and is one of the oldest settlements in the Valley of Hunza in the Karakoram mountain range. Its foundation has been traced to the fifteenth century. The administrative seat of Hunza Valley later moved to nearby Baltit, now Karimabad, but the fort at Altit remained one of a network of royal residences in the isolated and mountainous state.

The people of Hunza are predominantly adherents of the Nizari Ismaili Shia branch of Islam. Until the completion of the Karakoram Highway in 1986, linking Gilgit-Baltistan with the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, the region was generally only accessible by foot. Altit itself, perched upon a steep rocky promontory 700 metres above the Hunza River, once equally remote, is now only three kilometres from the highway.  

With the improved access came improvements in government and services, as well as a rise in people’s expectations regarding their standard of living. As a consequence, out-migration began, with many people in Hunza leaving the cramped and unsanitary quarters of the historic settlements.

Building History

The origins of the khun (village or fortified settlement) of Altit are not precisely known. The town clusters at the base of the 900-year old Altit Fort, protecting its approaches. The fort occupies the summit of the promontory and consists of a walled residence centred on a square mud brick and timber tower. The town was originally surrounded by walls and eleven watchtowers known as shikaris, which have since disappeared. The small size of the settlement was for defensive purposes as well as to conserve the valuable farmland that is found in the form of terraced fields and orchards in the surrounding hillsides.

The town consists of 140 interconnected houses, built up against and on top of each other, following the contours of the site. The dwellings are constructed of stone bonded with mud mortar, with mud thatch roofs and mud plastered walls. Some may be as much as 300 years old. Streets are narrow and winding and many of the streets are covered by overhanging second stories or mud thatch roofs, offering protection from the elements. The physical proximity of the houses helped to retain heat during the harsh winter months and, less prosaically, also reinforced a spirit of mutual respect and interdependence among the villagers.

Community life was historically focused on the jamaat khana, the traditional Nizari place of prayer, the jataq (main square), with covered seating spaces known as baldis, and the pharee, a communal reservoir also used for swimming and skating by local children.

Project History

The khun of Altit was in extremely poor physical condition before the launch of the project. The village did not have a hygienic sanitation system and many residents lived in close quarters with their livestock. Streets were covered with animal and human waste, and became muddy mires in winter. Public spaces were dilapidated and uncongenial. Electricity was delivered through an outdated, unsafe and unsightly overhead system of wires.

The state of the old town was such that many residents had abandoned their traditional homes in favour of modern dwellings in the adjoining expanses of farmland. These were constructed of modern concrete breeze blocks and equipped with rudimentary sewerage and waste disposal that contributed to an increase in pollution. Not only did this unregulated new construction mar the beauty of the historic landscape, but the social cohesion of the old town was threatened by the gradual movement of the population away from the khun.

Implemented by the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP) and funded in large part by the Japanese Government, with in-kind contributions from the local residents, the renewal of Altit was conceived as a means to both enhance the value of the heritage settlement as well as demonstrate that its residents could both enjoy contemporary living standards and continue to embrace their traditional environment. It was undertaken in the hopes of encouraging those who had left the khun to return, and thus to revitalize not only the physical entity of Altit but its social well-being as well.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture and its subsidiary in Pakistan, the AKCSP, have been extremely active in conservation and development efforts in Gilgit-Baltistan through the Historic Cities Support Programme. As at Altit, projects undertaken by the AKCSP have often addressed heritage structures or settlements that have not been adequately recognized or protected by the Antiquities Act of 1975.

Project Scope and Framework

Through a series of consultations carried out at the outset of the project, the community members identified conservation of historic public places, the sewerage system, clean drinking water, pavement of pathways and underground electrification as their priorities.  Accordingly, the project took on two objectives: the conservation of heritage structures and the improvement of local infrastructure.   

The conservation efforts focused primarily on the historic public spaces, namely the streets and the jataq, as well as the biaks, or secondary public spaces consisting of smaller squares. The covered baldis located in the jataq and lining the streets of the town had rotted away or were missing entirely. The elders were particularly keen to resurrect the function of the communal reservoir. Once a valuable source of water during times of drought and a gathering place for the community, the pharee had become increasingly clogged and shallow over the years, becoming a breeding ground for insects. Houses in an extremely dilapidated condition that were judged to be of heritage value or were endangering adjoining houses were conserved as well.

The electrical system was rerouted underground, and piped potable water was introduced to each of the houses, along with an underground sewage system. Bathrooms and toilets were built in each house. Villagers were encouraged to relocate their livestock to pens outside the human settlement.

Conservation Methodology and Materials

A comprehensive survey and documentation process was undertaken at the beginning of the project, which was used to plan the conservation interventions and to monitor the state of the buildings.  This process involved training, over a period of 12 months, 15 women from Altit in technical documentation skills, from drawing building plans to using total surveying stations and design software. Four others were trained in how to conduct social surveys. Together, they were able to conduct a full mapping of the settlement. 

Stone, timber and mud are the principal building materials used throughout Hunza. At a time in which many Hunzakuts (as residents of the valley are known) were opting to either repair their traditional dwellings with cheap modern materials or to build entirely new homes using concrete blocks and cement, the AKCSP was active in encouraging the use of original methods, because of their heritage value as well as for their proven effectiveness and practicality in terms of thermal comfort and seismic performance. Traditional wooden bracings (cator), for instance, were promoted as an earthquake-proofing measure for both new construction and retrofitted buildings. 

Some changes to the traditional materials and methods were introduced. Poplar wood, which is locally-grown and fast-regenerating, was substituted for the now-scarce juniper wood, used prevalently in the past.  And while the traditional mud coating was used, rather than modern whitewash, the performance of the traditional plaster ingredients, soil and straw, was enhanced by the addition of a very small amount of cement. 

The infrastructure works were carefully phased, starting with the installation of sewerage pipes, which required heavy digging, followed by underground electrification and laying of water pipes. A water filtration plant was installed above the village, to clean silty water from the nearby glacier using a gravel filtering process. The resulting clean water, which was tested and certified by the World Health Organization, is delivered to the settlement through a gravity-fed system. The pipes and wiring were laboriously installed beneath the streets of the town, preserving the overall appearance of the settlement.  The street network was subsequently paved with local slate, creating an attractive, clean and durable road surface and preventing water from ponding or from percolating into the adjacent building foundations.

The jataq was similarly paved and additional sitting areas were added around its perimeter. The three covered wooden baldis that provide social areas in the jataq and at two other street locations in the town were considerably decayed. One was completely destroyed. These were rebuilt in the original style with simple carving along the roof-beams and columns.

The pharee was dredged to a depth of 10 feet (about three metres), removing the accumulated silt deposits.  Its retaining walls were stabilized and the drainage system was improved. With the paving of the surrounding walkways with stone and the addition of benches around the edge, the reservoir has once again become a year-round centre of community life.

Important Issues

The conservation project was focused on preserving the heritage environment while providing the residents of Altit with acceptable modern living conditions. Navigating between the two aims was a delicate task. Decisions such as introducing toilet facilities to houses and encouraging residents to remove their animals from their immediate living quarters led to changes in the local dwelling culture, yet were deemed necessary given the risks to the overall hygiene and well-being of the community.

Such measures were taken with a sensitive eye towards the overall heritage environment. Although electricity had already been introduced to the community, the AKCSP completely reinstalled the system as an underground grid, improving not only the safety but also the historic aspect of the settlement, which now has no visible power lines. 

Project Sustainability and Viability

During the project, the most important factor in ensuring its sustainability was to train local masons, carpenters and other artisans in the dying traditions of local crafts and building techniques. Through this and other AKCSP projects, a large number of residents have learned traditional techniques and are applying them in Altit and neighbouring villages, with the dual result of improving the economic situation of the workers while also ensuring the survival of these endangered craftsmanship traditions.

The sustainability of the project without the direct continuing involvement of AKCSP has been guaranteed by the creation of the Altit Town Management Society (ATMS), an elected body along traditional lines, composed of elders of the village. The ATMS can call upon the local expertise nurtured by the project as well as a strong local tradition of volunteer collective labour for the maintenance of the structures and services.

The ATMS also oversees the collection of revenue from the project beneficiaries – the settlement residents – for the maintenance of the improvements brought about by the project. Collected monthly, the revenue amounts to approximately $213 per month from the 159 households. The ATMS has been so successful in its management of the funds and the maintenance of the structures that it has managed to attract a significant amount of further sponsorship, including a large contribution from the Australian Government for the construction of a Mother and Child Health Centre in Altit. 

Project Impact

The project has made Altit a more attractive place to live for its residents. The vast improvements to the town’s infrastructure and viability have furthermore encouraged many former residents who had previously departed their traditional dwellings to return to their ancestral homes. The project has restored the critical mass of residents in the old town needed for democratic decision making and sustaining the vibrant character of Altit as a living heritage community. Once jeopardized by the decline in the physical condition of the old town, the social fabric of Altit has now been strengthened.

Broadly speaking, the project has attracted high-profile visibility to the town, notably with visits by His Highness the Aga Khan and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. At the local level, the project has engendered a large amount of community support for the preservation of the old town. The current Mir, Ghazanfar Ali Khan II and his family have donated the Altit Fort to the community, as they did with the Baltit Fort during its earlier renovation. The administrative, historical and aesthetic integrity of the conserved settlement has thus been retained under the aegis of the ATMS. The skills training, job creation and potential for tourism brought about by the project have been very positive for this extremely remote community. 

Quotations from the Project Team

“The physical structures of the settlement embody its history; unlike monuments such as the Altit Fort, they tell the story of the ordinary citizens of Altit. The project has succeeded in changing the attitudes of the people toward the settlement and he demolition of historic buildings.”