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Project Profile


2004 Award of Excellence

Baltit Fort

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Project Title: Baltit Fort

Date of Completion: October 1996

Location: Hunza, Pakistan

Size: 5000 square metres

Cost: Approximately US$1,034,482

Client: Baltit Heritage Trust (BHT)

Heritage Architect: Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP)

Contractor: Aga Khan Housing Board for Pakistan (AKHBP)


Baltit Fort is situated in Hunza, one of the high valleys between China and Indian subcontinent.  Facing Rakaposhi Peak, one of the highest mountain peaks in the world, Baltit Fort is poised majestically above Karimabad, the present day capital of Hunza (Baltit was the capital of the old state of Hunza, and is now included in the Karimabad settlement area).  Located on the rocky upper level of the Hunza hill and surrounded by Ulter Bar to the east, the Hyderabad Har to the west, Mount Ulter and its subsidiary range to the north, the Fort offers breathtaking views of the magnificent high mountains as well as a bird’s eye view of the villages in the valley.

Baltit Fort has great historical, cultural and symbolic value to the local community. Historically, it was the seat of the Mirs of Hunza, a family that ruled the region for centuries.  Culturally, with some buildings dating back to 12th century, it is a record of the architectural evolution of the area.  The main building is an impressive stone structure with intricately detailed timber features.  Its architecture is a significant example of Pakistan’s diverse heritage, reflecting distinct Tibetan influence as seen by the presence of a Tibetan ‘sky-light’ in the roof.

Socially, the fort and the surrounding settlements are valuable symbols and reminders of man’s creativity and persistence in overcoming an unfavorable and hostile natural environment for the purpose of survival.

The conservation and re-use works were carried out by the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP) whose objective was to provide economic benefits to the community, by capitalizing on historic and cultural resources.  This objective was in recognition of the relationship between the preservation of cultural, built and natural heritage and community development, whereby the preservation of the cultural heritage of the region promotes the community’s well-being.  

Building History

The exact history of the Fort is not precisely known and it was only at the turn of the 20th century that occupying British forces compiled written descriptions and some photographic records. 

However, according to local accounts, confirmed by recent carbon testing, the Fort was built some 700 years ago and became part of a royal dowry when a princess of Baltistan married the reigning prince of Hunza.  It remained the residence of the reigning Mir of Hunza until 65 years ago, when the former Mir and his family abandoned it in favour of modern premises constructed lower in the valley.

In 1989, the former Mir of Hunza donated the Fort to the Baltit Heritage Trust (BHT), established by the Government of Pakistan for the purpose of owning and operating the Fort. This donation to a public entity in turn enabled the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to sponsor the restoration work.

Project History

Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP) is the operating arm of Historic Cities Support Programme (HCSP) of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in the northern Pakistan. AKTC is a non-profit body established in 1988 by His Highness the Aga Khan with the mandate to promote cultural conservation and heritage development. Over the years, the Trust has been focusing its activities on the improvement of built environment in countries with predominantly Muslim populations, where societies are feeling increasing pressure of change and urbanization. By acknowledging architecture as an important instrument of cultural identity, the Trust seeks to encourage architecture and urban renewal process.

The Fort conservation project had to cope with extraordinary structural, geotechnical, and logistical problems, due to the precarious condition of the building, the steep slope, the lack of soil stability, and the remoteness of the project area.  Some of the early problems faced by the project were due to the hidden nature of most structural defects, which were difficult to assess prior to carrying out the actual works.   In addition, Hunza's remote location, and its distance from regional administrative and finance centers in Karachi, as well as from the Trust's headquarters in Geneva, added operational complications which had to be overcome by the team.

The site team restored the physical shell of the building to a satisfactory state of structural stability, including the strengthening of bearing walls, floors, and roofs.   The entire conservation work took about six years, and was completed in the spring of 1996.

Project Scope and Framework

The conservation of Baltit Fort was planned in stages. Work was undertaken to determine and then remedy the structural problems around the foundations and load bearing walls. This restoration then allowed for conservation of architectural fabric and finishes, followed by the insertion of new elements required for the new uses and safety of the existing structure.

The projects goals and objectives were to:

- Improve living standards of people of the Northern Areas, Pakistan by using cultural heritage as a tool to promote sustainable development.

- Conserve the cultural heritage of mountainous regions through restoration of historic monuments, traditional settlements and performing an inventory of cultural heritage in the Northern Areas.

- Introduce and promote internationally recommended conservation standards and practices in Pakistan.

- Revitalize the community life around the Fort, including local history and heritage, culture and architecture, and the economy facilitated by tourism.

- Create new income and enterprise opportunities for the local community based on proactive heritage management.

Conservation Methodology and Materials

The implementation of the project was based on a concept of 13 workstations that divided the Fort into structurally independent units. Each station comprised a portion of the main facade and the set of rooms located behind it. At each of the 13 stations, work followed successive steps in a similar agenda: survey, investigation, structural remedy, reinstatement, and documentation.

The key to consolidating the Fort's structure resided in strengthening the timber cages against weathering, age, and earthquakes.  Interventions followed a progressive sequence, beginning with temporary and preparatory works followed by treatment of the foundations. The conservation of wooden wall elements then led to structural strengthening, which was then followed by the replacement and/ or reinforcement of stone and mud mortar infill, and the treatment of surrounding retaining walls. Finally, the replacement and/or conservation of roofs and floors was undertaken followed by the restoration of the finishes.In practice the restoration phase was often amalgamated with the engineering repairs; for example, while a wall at the south end was still being underpinned with new foundations, the emergency stair at the north end was being patched and white washed. 

Aside from employing traditional local construction methodology, modem techniques were also used whenever interventions with traditional technology could not be achieved with appropriate levels of safety.  Following considerable research, experimentation, and design work, modem materials were deemed necessary for the tie ropes, soil-reinforcement and stabilisation, and for wood preservation. The utilization of "Parafil" tie ropes and "Geo-mesh" soil-reinforcement are the first application of these technologies in historic buildings anywhere in the world.  None of these conservation works involved alteration of the original structure system or its proven resistance to earthquakes.

One of the Trust's main objectives in this project was to introduce and promote internationally recommended conservation standards and practices in Pakistan.  Thus, whenever possible, original construction techniques and materials were used for repair, based on corresponding research and experiments.   Samples of the original materials from all walls, floors, and ceilings that were examined and repaired were taken and preserved for future study.  Using these samples, the restoration project was able to match and use materials similar into the original. 

Stone, mud and timber only were used for the construction of the Fort, because these materials were locally available, cheap, earthquake resistant, sustainable, long lasting and adequate for thermal comfort.

Where new elements were required, the additions, such as the metal grill floor and the emergency staircase, comprised features of the contemporary history of the building, and were inserted in ways sympathetic to the original structure.  All modern insertions were designed in such a fashion as to permit, if necessary, their removal or alteration in future, without damage to adjacent original fabric.

Minor functional adjustments were required for the conservation of the building into a museum and cultural center, such as the addition of basic electric and plumbing services, a small pantry, toilets, and an emergency exit. 

Important Issues

Mobilizing resources and people

The site workers, masons and other craftsmen were all drawn from the local community. These dedicated artisans were well versed in traditional construction technology and materials of Northern Pakistan, having learnt artisan skills from their ancestors passed down from generation to generation.   An artisan approach was adopted and this, coupled with great respect for the building, directed the four years of hard work.  

Determining appropriate reuse

Since the project’s completion, the Baltit Heritage Trust continues to implement the Trust's plans for the building’s re-use. Foremost on its agenda is the constitution of a museum collection illustrating the history or the region, and the establishment of a lively cultural center with associated facilities, including a library, a research/study room, and audio-visual equipment.  During the interior design process, great care was taken to ensure that the selected new activities, functions and exhibitions are compatible with the former use of the building and that the Baltit Fort Cultural Centre will reflect and strengthen Hunza's cultural identity and highlight the building's specific historic character.

In addition, five old houses in the immediate vicinity of the Fort have been acquired and are now being used, after conservation, to accommodate an exhibition of traditional ways of living, a coffee shop, and a small administrative office.

Lessons learned

Since this was the first conservation project undertaken in the Northern Area, the project was seen as a learning process for everyone involved.

From the inception of this project, it was recognized that the new economic forces associated with development and tourism, if not properly controlled, could spoil the beauty of the natural setting and the cultural heritage, which are the areas main resources. Economic progress and well-being are to a certain extent dependent on Karimabad's environmental qualities and therefore development must be guided in order to preserve these essential assets.

Project Sustainability and Viability

Baltit Heritage Trust (BHT), a community based public organization, established by the Government of Pakistan in 1989, owns and operates the Baltit Fort.  BHT has a team of professionals who looks after all aspects of operations and management including repair and maintenance.    A professional manager runs the operations of the Fort with a supporting staff that includes a curator, librarian, guides, receptionist and security personnel.

Additionally, under BHT a reserve fund has been created in order to address ongoing issues such as maintenance.  Facilities in the museum and library are continuously enhanced and improved in order to diversify income opportunities.

The agreed-upon reuse of the Fort as a museum cum cultural centre was mainly to enhance its sustainability.  The center generates enough revenue to sustain its operations.

Project Impact

As a result of the restoration, awareness about and respect for cultural heritage and its conservation has improved.  Consequently, demand for conservation and restoration of architecturally and historically significant buildings has increased in the region.   The architectural and historical values of traditional settlements have now regained a renewed respect and recognition particularly for their ecological friendly and efficient land use nature.  The local culture has been given a renewed legitimacy in the face of powerful factors of change introduced in Hunza over the past few decades.

With its reuse functions defined as a museum and cultural center, the Fort is expected to act as a focal point for research on local traditions, and as a center for exchange between international institutions interested in the Northern Areas who are in need of a base for their fieldwork.  In addition, the cultural site attracts thousands of tourists every year.  Restoration of the Fort has transformed Baltit into a focus of interest in the Northern Areas in Pakistan.

The restoration of the Fort was also seen as an opportunity for training young conservationists from Pakistan.  Architects, engineers, and local craftsmen have benefited from the training process on site, complemented by seminars, workshops, and special training courses outside the country, at York University and UNESCO’s International Centre for Conservation (ICCROM) in Rome. A reservoir of conservation expertise has thus been created which will benefit other projects in the Northern Areas and beyond.

Similarly, the revival of traditional crafts has been facilitated greatly by the training provided within this project.  Woodcarving tradition which had a long history in Northern Pakistan had in recent years died out, replaced with the introduction of concrete.  The restoration of the Baltit Fort provided an opportunity to revive this tradition through skill enhancement and training programmes.  This has encouraged a reversal of change, and traditional building techniques and skills are now in high demand.  In addition, rapid and unplanned urbanization, which was facilitated through modern construction techniques, has now been checked.

The restoration of the fort has also been a catalyst for positive change and revitalization throughout the valley.  The creation of associated projects, such as the Karakoram Handicrafts Development Project, was triggered by the enthusiasm following the fort’s restoration.  This development project focuses on providing income-generating opportunities for local craft-workers through promotion of the traditional handicrafts of the region.  Currently, the project provides additional income to more than 3000 women, direct employment to over 70 women, while its rehabilitation center provides work therapy to 60 disabled males.  Other income generating and restoration projects have been planned, contributing to revitalizing community life in the valley.  Increased tourism too has played a part, bringing with it direct and indirect income generating opportunities.

The most significant impact of the Fort’s conservation on mainstream development policy is that cultural heritage has now being recognized as an effective tool to achieve sustainable development.  The project demonstrated the ability to integrate conservation issues in the larger context of community and regional development showing that, not only is preserving significant cultural and environmental resources critical, but that a community-led conservation effort can be both workable and cost-effective.