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Monuments Of Herat, Afghanistan's Ancient Cultural Capital, In Danger Of Destruction

  • Grant Podelco

The 15th-century minarets of Herat (photo by Grant Podelco)

The 15th-century minarets of Herat (photo by Grant Podelco)

HERAT, Afghanistan -- The Muslim call to prayer echoes across a dusty field in the western Afghan city of Herat, where five ancient minarets poke precariously into the sky.

Trucks, buses, cars, and motorcycles pass close by on a pockmarked road, their vibrations a constant danger to the delicate structures.

From a distance, the 15th century towers resemble crooked smokestacks from a forgotten factory. Closer inspection reveals that the five minarets -- each some 55 meters high -- were once covered with intricate patterns of tile in shades of turquoise, deep blue, mustard, black, and cream.

Hundreds of pieces of the tiles, broken off by centuries of wind and water, lay scattered at the base of each monument like colorful candies, crumbling into dust. One of the minarets appears to defy gravity, waiting only for a pigeon to land on the wrong brick before toppling into the street.

The Afghan government is now working with UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- in an effort to preserve these and other historical treasures in and around the ancient cultural capital.

Leaning Dangerously

Jim Williams, the senior program specialist for culture at UNESCO's Kabul office, spoke to RFE/RL about the current state of Herat's surviving minarets.

"The minarets are in very poor shape. Most of them have lost all of their tiles, or most of their tiles. The fifth minaret is leaning dangerously and has an enormous hole about three-quarters of the way up that is a result of a shell from a tank. The Soviets used this minaret as a target for aiming during the period of the early '80s."

The minarets were once part of a larger musalla complex -- or place of worship -- built under the direction of Queen Gawhar Shad in 1417. The complex included more minarets, a religious school, and other buildings. Most of the buildings were brought down by the British in the late 19th century.

What war has not destroyed, nature has. Three of the nine minarets that still stood at the turn of the 20th century collapsed in earthquakes in 1931 and 1951. A fourth minaret was toppled during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and is now only a sad-looking stub.

'Very Imminent Risk'

Today, the surviving minarets stand in a dusty enclosure, guarded by a few bored soldiers. There are no postcards for sale, and the occasional tourist is easily able to walk away with handfuls of colorful 600-year-old souvenirs.

Williams says experts have examined the minarets using the latest technology, including satellite positioning systems. Saving the minarets, he says, is going to cost a lot of money.

"To [save] anything is going to require enormous sums of funding. What we're trying to do now is to stabilize the fifth minaret so it doesn't collapse, which is actually a very imminent risk. The mortar has just been analyzed and very exact measurements of the lean have been taken. The scientists who were there are now consulting to put together a kind of rehabilitation plan for this minaret."

Williams says UNESCO is closely collaborating with Afghanistan's Ministry of Information and Culture to preserve the minarets of Herat, as well as the spectacular 65-meter minaret of Jam, the second-highest in the world and a day's drive from Herat.

The minaret of Jam is also in danger of toppling. A flood earlier this year raised the level of two rivers that pass beside it, causing water to infiltrate its delicate foundation.

Williams says four specialist missions have been sent to the province already this year, including consultants who helped stabilize the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.

'Strong Steps' Taken

Abdul Hadi Fayeq is director of the provincial Department of Information and Culture in Herat. In an interview with RFE/RL, Fayeq said that -- despite the lack of supervision at the musalla complex -- "strong steps" have been taken to reconstruct and rehabilitate the historic city, especially its monuments, since the fall of the Taliban last year.

He said teams from UNESCO have visited the city, but that no work has yet begun.

"Regarding the minarets, a delegation from UNESCO came to Herat, and they made some promises, but no action has yet been taken by them. Also, we reported the issue of the leaning minaret to Kabul, and from there the director of historical monuments of Afghanistan came to Herat. He himself visited the minaret and made some promises, but no effective measures have been taken in this regard yet."

Fayeq says that while the provincial government is interested in preserving its antiquities, it lacks both the money and the expertise to accomplish the most major tasks.

"We don't have any experts, engineers, or any equipment to save the minaret from leaning and destruction. For example, the minaret of Jam needs a large amount of money, so some organizations like UNESCO or NGOs who have the capacity -- both in terms of funding and also in terms of expertise -- need to take steps."

UNESCO's Williams says one of the goals of his agency in Herat is "capacity building," in other words teaching local Afghans the skills necessary to take over the restoration and care of the city's monuments. His agency would also like to establish a workshop in Herat that would make replacement tiles for the minarets once they are stabilized.

In addition to the minarets, Williams says UNESCO is focusing on preserving other monuments in the city, including its imposing 14th century citadel. He says the Taliban was "particularly unthoughtful" about preserving the city's treasures.

"There's so much to do," Williams says.
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