In 1960, the last King of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, had a vision of turning the central Bamiyan Valley into a tourist destination. His plans included building a hotel facing the two giant 6th- and 7th-century Buddha statues carved into the cliff face. But he was dissuaded after consulting Italian conservationist architect Andrea Bruno, who would later become a UNESCO expert on Afghanistan, and the project was abandoned.
More than 60 years later, plans to develop the site for tourism have resurfaced under the Taliban. At a ceremony in the Bamiyan Valley last month, local Taliban officials announced the reconstruction of a historic bazaar that once stood very close to the Buda cliff. The scheme aims to revive the area’s crippled economy with shops, restaurants and hotels that draw tourists to the valley.
The original bazaar, built in the late 19th or early 20th century, was destroyed in the civil war of the 1990s. The ruins are visible about 70 meters away from the niche carved into the cliff that housed the largest Buddha, 55 meters high, before the Taliban blew up the imposing statues in 2001.
The cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley, including the location of the old bazaar, were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list in 2003. The site is a protected area with strict rules prohibiting construction. But this time, there is no one to prevent development. A year after the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, little technical expertise or central authority remains in the country to prevent damage to protected heritage sites.
According to a Taliban press release, the reconstruction of the bazaar will be carried out in coordination with the Ministry of Information and Culture and under the supervision of UNESCO. But the UN agency was quick to deny any knowledge of the project and warned of its dangers. “Unesco has not requested or been associated with this project, which is located in the heart of the archaeological zone and could be problematic for the proper conservation of the world heritage site,” it says in a statement.
The head of the Ministry of Information and Culture of Bamiyan, Mawlawi Saifurrahman Mohammadi, who was present at the inauguration of the project, tells the art newspaper: “We fully support the preservation of Bamiyan’s cultural and heritage affairs and ensure that they are protected.”
Mohammadi says the local authority has held multiple meetings with individuals who own land in the valley and has submitted a report on reconstruction plans to the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture in Kabul for approval. “We hope that what is decided is in the interest of the people and the country. We are waiting for the guidance of our elders. [senior Taliban officials in Kabul] and they will follow what they decide,” he says.
For more than a decade, local property owners have been frustrated in their efforts to develop the heritage site due to its listed status. The previous government introduced a plan to buy deeds falling on protected land, but the process was not completed and the Taliban now inherited the development row.
According to the former mayor of Bamiyan, Aman Mohammad Aman, who now resides outside Afghanistan, people have sought for years to develop the listed lands and some have even exploited the lack of heritage expertise in local and central governments to get the land. relevant permissions. . He says that local authorities have held numerous workshops and events to raise public awareness of the importance of safeguarding heritage sites.
In 2007, the Afghan authorities drew up a cultural master plan for Bamiyan with the guidance of UNESCO, detailing the lands included in the list and prohibiting activities such as construction and trading on them. Aman suggests that some senior Taliban officials may have approved the bazaar’s reconstruction “due to lack of knowledge” of the master plan, but says that “the people who claim to own these sites are clearly aware” of the restrictions. Any development on the site requires a UNESCO submission for approval, which Aman fears is now impossible as so many Afghan heritage specialists have fled the country following the US withdrawal.
It is also concerned that there is no one left to implement the Bamiyan Strategic Master Plan, developed in 2018 by the University of Florence, the Afghan Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, the Bamiyan Governorate, the Bamiyan Municipality and the University of Bamiyan. The document aims to guide urban development in the area in a way that encourages economic growth while safeguarding heritage sites.
“The strategic master plan was very interested in supporting Bamiyan’s chances of becoming an interesting tourist destination: they need it because they need economic development,” says Mirella Loda, a geography professor at the University of Florence who coordinated the project. Some of the solutions proposed by the plan included a hotel zone that would offer unobstructed views of the Bamiyan Valley but be located far enough away to avoid damage, and a bypass road to divert traffic and connect important sites.
“My impression is that we Westerners, and UNESCO as a representative of our views, do not take this point [the need to balance the protection of cultural heritage with the need for economic development] enough into consideration,” says Loda.
There were already proposals to rebuild the old bazaar when the strategic master plan was being drawn up, he says, but the team did not support the idea because of the risk of damaging the heritage site. “It is not a good idea to bring this tourist infrastructure so close to the Buddha [niche]. If you build a new infrastructure there, where the archaeological road is now, you create a point where people, goods must arrive, and this will be an urbanized area,” says Loda. “This is at odds with the need to safeguard agricultural land because it is a crucial part of the cultural landscape.”
Unfortunately, the strategic master plan is currently only available in English. Efforts to translate the document into Dari came to an abrupt halt when the Taliban took over the country.
The Taliban now have the daunting task of dealing with disgruntled locals who own land in heritage sites without access to expert assistance.
Although the US and its Western allies negotiated with the group for years before its seizure of power on August 15, 2021, while excluding the previous Afghan government from the talks, they have refused to officially recognize the Taliban government. Afghanistan’s access to funds abroad is blocked and it is experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The Taliban’s lack of international recognition means organizations affiliated with Western governments are struggling to establish a relationship with the new Afghan government.
“The short-term solution is for UNESCO to step in and prevent these [development] activities in protected sites”, argues Aman. “You can see that all the UN aid is being distributed through non-governmental entities; [Unesco] can do the same. They can work with organizations that are not connected to the [Taliban] government and reach out directly to the people to stop further damage to Bamiyan’s heritage sites.”
Loda says that he is working tirelessly to find competent people in Afghanistan who can support the implementation of the strategic master plan for Bamiyan.
It remains to be seen whether the Taliban will succeed where the previous government failed by buying the listed land from locals. But Mohammadi says all options are on the table and they will do their best to protect Bamiyan’s heritage sites.
“When land is owned by individuals and the government has plans for that land, it is essential that their consent is obtained. [People] they must be allowed to work, or they must be provided with other land, or their land must be appraised and purchased. In any case, you have to get people’s consent,” he says. “We hope to find a good solution that takes into account the interest of the people, the interest of the government and the interests of UNESCO.”