FROM THE FIELD: Change of Time, An Interview with Abdul Wasay Najimi, Conservation Architect for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Professor at Kabul University

{credit}Jake Simkin{/credit}Abdul Wasay Najimi
Jake Simkin
Abdul Wasay Najimi

In the summertime, thousands of visitors flock to Bagh-e Babur, “Babur’s Garden”, an historic park in the heart of Kabul. Presiding over the garden is the entombed 16th-century Emperor Babur the Conqueror, founder of the Moghul Empire in India, for whom the garden is named. In the emperor’s memoir, the Baburnama, he praises the location for its scenery, gardens, orchards, and semi-arid climate. “Within a day’s ride it is possible to reach a place where snow never falls,” he observes. “But within two hours one can go where the snows never melt.”

Five centuries later, the public enjoys this same ambiance. Enclosed by perimeter walls, fertile rows of cypress, hawthorn, and cherry trees adorn the cascading terraces of the garden. Groups congregate on the pavilions. Couples stroll lazily along the water channels. Families picnic beneath the shade of the trees, eating kebabs, chatting, and resting in the dry heat.

Babur’s Garden did not always paint so splendid a picture. By the end of the Mujahideen civil war (1992-95) much of the garden was destroyed. It lingered in this state of disrepair through the Taliban regime (1996-2001).  And it was not until 2003 that restoration work was begun by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), joined by Dr. Abdul Wasay Najimi, a conservation architect. Most of the work was completed by 2007 with facilities for cultural and recreational activities, including a caravanserai (inn with large courtyard and area for caravans), garden pavilion, swimming-pool, and Queen’s Palace complex.

It was at the garden that we filmed an interview with Dr. Najimi about his work as a conservation architect as part of the series, Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage. The interview can be watched in the short video, Who is the Conservation Architect?, which showcases Dr. Najimi’s work for AKTC, including conservation of the eighteenth-century Timur Shah Mausoleum. Today, Dr. Najimi is instructing in the history of the architecture of Afghanistan full-time at Kabul University, teaching a younger generation to appreciate their cultural heritage, so that in time, more of Afghanistan’s remarkable architecture may be preserved.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your work experience with the Babur’s Garden project?

AWN: The first time I saw Babur’s Garden was in the Taliban’s time. It was in 2000. One of my former students was involved in the project. He had some funds from HABITAT to plant some trees that you can see at the lower part of Babur’s Garden. He also wanted to build a door for the garden.

Generally, the garden was completely destroyed. All its old trees were cut down. The place we are sitting at was destroyed. The structure was in place. The garden was ruined and there were no windows or doors or anything. All the surrounding houses were in ruins. I came with him to see what his plans were and what he was doing. For the second time, when I came in 2002, we started a deep survey and study of Babur’s Garden. Naturally, it was as I described before. Slowly we surveyed and developed a design and we implemented the plans. Now you see the results.

Q: When you were abroad (working towards your PhD), were you following the issues related to Afghanistan?

AWN: Since 1986, I have had direct working relations with Afghanistan. But not all my activities were related to historical sites and buildings. There were no such projects then, and also, there was no funding or budget for this kind of work. To earn a living, I worked with other organizations working in Afghanistan, organizations for development of cities and rural areas and such. But throughout this period, there were projects and missions once in a while from UNESCO or something organized by myself, where I traveled and studied historical sites closely, and wrote on them.

From 1991 or even 1990, I became more involved and I went to Bamiyan on behalf of UNESCO once or twice. Once, I went to Munar-e Jam. From ’93 onwards I was in Herat for two years with a Danish organization. We reconstructed some of the significant sites there. For a while after that, I was not very involved. But since 2002, after AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) opened an office in Kabul, we identified some sites/projects for reconstruction in Kabul. After 2005, I also got involved with Herat. Since then (2002), I have been directly involved in different projects.

Q: How many important projects did you work on at this time?

AWN: In Kabul, one of the most important projects was the revival and reconstruction of Bagh-e-Babur. Others were repairing, strengthening, and restoring the Timur Shah Mausoleum and garden, and reviving and repairing a residential area known as Ashiqan wa Arifan, in the old city of Kabul.

We further developed to include [restoring] a series of historical mosques, historical public baths, fixing roads and streams, and helping provide drinking water. Similarly in Herat, our important projects included reconstruction of an area in Herat, close to the center of the city; we reconstructed some of the houses as a sample.

Q: What role did Afghans have in reconstruction of the garden?

AWN: Generally, all we have done has been done through Afghans. To the extent possible, Afghans have also done the expert and technical work. AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) is an international organization and naturally wants to work with international standards. For this reason, we occasionally had international observers or experts whom we consulted with in case of need and asked for advice… Thus, it was both satisfactory and enjoyable. During these talks, my colleagues and I learned a lot academically and they (the international experts) also admired the restoration of old building material, the style, and the way of old work. They would see how to reuse the material that had been used before, again, and get a good result out of it.

Q: What are the plans for the future of Babur’s Garden?

AWN: Babur’s Garden, after its reconstruction was completed in 2006, I think towards the end of 2006, found a new administration. We tried to form a trust or administrative organization for the garden. It would be run by an executive board with help from the municipality, which used to run the garden, and the Ministry of Information and Culture, which is responsible for preservation of historical sites and buildings. The executive board members are representatives of AKF, the Kabul municipality, and the Ministry of Information and Culture.  The day to day management of the garden is conducted by the trust or organization called “Organization for Protection and Preservation of Babur’s Garden”.  The organization is registered with the Ministry of Economics and is run according to regulations of NGOs.

Q: And the idea is that the garden will be independent in future?

AWN: No. The idea is that in the past, many years ago, the garden was run by the municipality, and they sold tickets for entrance to the garden. Now, the garden is at the beginning of its reconstruction, and it has some expenses to be paid occasionally for its preservation and protection. The decision was made that the garden can have revenue from selling entrance tickets, from renting out for cultural events, and if there is a shortage of money/budget, it will ask for help from aid organizations so that it can manage its own expenses. According to government regulations, the municipality did the same thing. So it is permitted. The organization/trust is a non-profit. They need to manage all their expenses and income themselves. At the end of each year, their accounts are audited by auditors that have so far been international auditors and a report is made on their expenses.

Q: Was the team from Babur’s Garden involved in the restoration of Timur Shah Mausoleum as well?

AWN: Our team was really big. One team worked with Babur’s Garden. The other worked on Timur Shah Mausoleum and then on the walls and the gardens there. We had another team that was working in the old city. Some of the engineers, who gained work experience here, went and worked with other organizations, or made their own companies. Some of them went to Herat with me. We had the same program there regarding training of young people and such. For now, our work has decreased in Kabul, and we try to go and work in some other provinces where we didn’t have access before.

Q: How has the collaboration from local people been? How much do they know about historical sites?

AWN: Local people know about the value of historical sites and buildings… Unfortunately, during the war, there were many limitations. Poverty was increasing and roads were closed. Many people started to think that if they dig the historical sites, and find some historical or antique artifacts, and sell them, they can earn a living. Unfortunately, this led us to lose some of our important and historical artifacts.

When there is no specific responsible organization, the local people also slowly become careless, especially when it comes to buildings and such. In some places, historical buildings and locations have been misused, and that may have caused their destruction. In other places, lack of any preservation efforts and existence of snow and rain has led to destruction. Sometimes, it has been a case of military use or buildings being employed in some manner during the fighting. Or the government has used the structures for military purposes. The people have often used buildings as shelters. The important point is that there is little public knowledge about historical artifacts of our country. And the officials, even if they are responsible, they are not fully active and accountable on raising awareness. We still have the problem that on one front, we need to raise public awareness through radios and TVs and through schools and teaching, and on the other front we need to work to improve the organizations that are responsible for this job of preservation.

Q: What was the worst period for cultural heritage in Afghanistan?

AWN: It is now and it was in the past 30 years of war. The main reason is that it was hard to preserve historical sites, traveling was difficult, there were few professionals and experts of historical artifacts in the country, everyone was on the move, everyone was a migrant. But the problem still continues.

Q: What is the impact of security on preservation work?

AWN: Security impacts everything. If there is fear and worry somewhere, there is lack of certainty. Any work, from business to personal and governmental activities, will be harmed. Luckily, since we have so far worked in Kabul and Herat, and also, the way we worked, we had very close relations with the public. We also occasionally have consulted the government offices that were responsible for preservation. We have never had any (security) problems. If you are working in a place that is hard to access, and is not safe and secure, sending professional staff and required material and equipment would be difficult. I have to say this, that the history has proved that civilization will grow in a place where there is security. Where there is peace among a community or in an area, the civilization has grown, progress has happened and economy has grown. During the war, all decisions are quick decisions, and while taking quick decisions, one can’t make useful decisions for the future.

Q: How do you see the future in three or four years?

AWN: Well, God knows better about the future. We can’t predict. But, from a personal and professional commitment viewpoint, I can only say that for me, it has been proved that in implementing such projects, we need to educate the youth. So that, we can train architects that are interested in the profession, have an understanding of the profession, and can work for the future, so that we can offer these people to our society.

It is for this reason that since 2009 we have had a more serious collaboration with Kabul University. I have gone there regularly on behalf of AKF and have taught there in the section related to history of architecture for Afghanistan, specifically regarding conservation and preservation. Also, this year we will invite some people from abroad to hold short term, expert classes for students in Polytechnic University Kabul and Kabul University simultaneously to restore the motivation for professional work, the style of professional work.

This interview is part of a series, ‘Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage’, funded by a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. The series will be available on video, made in collaboration with Kabul at Work, and available on their website at: http://www.kabulatwork.tv/

Joanie Meharry is currently completing an MA in International and Comparative Legal Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a 2012 John F. Richards Fellow for the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies and is directing the project, Untold Stories: the Oral History of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, with a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. She also holds an MSc in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.

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