Four deadly 6.3 magnitude earthquakes and dozens of powerful aftershocks struck Afghanistan’s western region between 7 and 15 October, devastating much of its rural areas.
The territory around Zinda Jan, in the Herat province and around 40km north-west of the provincial capital, was the epicentre of the initial two quakes, which took place on the same day. Ancient villages, primarily built of mud bricks and mud straws, were destroyed, killing at least 1,500 people, mostly women and children, and injuring thousands, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). At least 11 villages have been completely destroyed and 114,000 people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
Jalil Rayan, a project manager at the Afghan Cultural Heritage Consulting Organisation (ACHCO), had been busy reinforcing a deteriorated 20th-century synagogue in Herat when the disaster struck. Luckily no one was hurt at the site, and the new reinforcement that was put in place this year as part of the conservation project saved the historic building from serious damage.
When the extent of the destruction in the villages was understood, Rayan and 70 of his staff rushed to assist in the rescue efforts at the request of the Taliban government.
“We were digging graves, that was our responsibility, and they were quickly filled,” Rayan tells The Art Newspaper. “In one village there were only about 20 survivors, ten of them had been in Iran when the quake happened and the other ten had been working outdoors,” Rayan says. “The entire culture, tradition and history of these villages is gone.”
Vernacular structures destroyed
The Zinda Jan and Injil districts sustained the worst of the damage. Arash Boostani, a project manager for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in Afghanistan, who had visited some of the villages in those districts over the years, says many of them contained ancient vernacular architecture structures that dated back to the Safavid dynasty (16th to 18th century), with even a few surviving elements from the Ilkhanate dynasty (13th and 14th century). The populations had unique traditions of silk harvesting and building methods that had been passed from generation to generation.
“There were windmills in this area that were around 600 years old … they are vertical windmills, which are truly one of a kind,” Boostani says.
“I think the economy of this area will be significantly affected. We will have to see if future generations will be willing to start from zero again,” he adds.
In recent months, Rayan’s organisation had been trying to secure international funding to restore some of these fragile historic windmills, which would have helped the locals save on fuel costs. But given the country’s complex political situation, the organisation had not been able to find a donor. Another proposal to preserve a vulnerable Timurid-era bridge in the Khorasan district, which was also badly affected by the quakes, could not attract funding either.
“They have been affected by the quakes but we don’t know the extent at this time. In all likelihood, the windmills have been destroyed,” Rayan says.
The city of Herat, which has been on Unesco’s Tentative List since 2004, was also severely shaken with each quake, and the city’s key monuments suffered significant damage.
The Ikhtyaruddin Citadel complex in the heart of the old city, first built in 330BC, has suffered cracks across its structures, including its towers, and one of its restored stairwells has completely collapsed.
At 250m long and 70m wide, the complex is thought to have been built when Alexander the Great captured Herat, known as Artacoana at the time, during his war against the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The fortress has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. It was demolished by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, rebuilt by the Kart dynasty two decades later only to be ruined again by Timur in the 14th century—and then rebuilt by his son. It was also a strategic location when the British assisted Afghan forces in 1837 against a joint Russian-Persian attack. The site was consolidated in the 1970s and restored again by AKTC in 2011.
Cracks in 13th-century mosque
Meanwhile, Masjid-i Jami, a 13th-century Ghurid mosque, which was extended over the centuries under different rulers, now has numerous cracks and parts of its blue-tiled minarets have collapsed.
Jolyon Leslie, an adviser to ACHCO, says the majority of the structure’s tilework is not original and damage to the decorative elements does not harm the Timurid-Ghurid heart of the mosque. However, he says, the structural integrity of the mosque is now in need of assessment.
“The great mosque has been restored throughout its history, quite a lot of what is visible now are well-intentioned 20th-century restorations. But as a symbol for Herat it is an incredibly important structure,” Leslie says.
The Musalla complex, built by Queen Gawharshad in the early 15th century and the largest surviving architectural ensemble in the region, has also been impacted. The only surviving minaret of Hussein Bayqara’s madrasa, known as the fifth minaret, has seen some of its tiles and brickwork damaged. But the reinforcement structure, which was installed recently by AKTC as part of a conservation project to rescue the dilapidated leaning tower, appears to have saved it from serious damage.
Ajmal Maiwandi, the chief executive of Afghanistan AKTC, says the project team was on the giant scaffolding when the quake happened. No one was hurt, but the site has been shut down until it is deemed safe.
“A very minor bright spot is that at least this minaret, which attests to the Timurid history of Afghans, still stands. That’s a very, very small gain in the wider picture of this catastrophe,” Maiwandi says. He confirmed that one of the other minarets had partially collapsed.
Over the past two decades AKTC has carried out conservation work on around 50 projects in Herat which, Maiwandi says, have been instrumental in saving the sites from serious damage. “Restoration work will be necessary [on the historic sites], the scale of which remains to be seen,” Maiwandi says.
AKTC plans to work closely with the technical staff at the department of Historic Monuments and the Ministry of Information and Culture to carry out assessments of Herat’s sites to determine the extent of the damage and whether emergency work has to be carried out before winter sets in.
The scale of the catastrophe has been beyond the capabilities of the Taliban government and the assistance it has received has been primarily from neighbouring countries such as Iran, Turkey and the UAE.
The information and culture director of Herat, Ahmadullah Muttaqi, tells The Art Newspaper his government is overwhelmed with the scale of the disaster and needs international support to assist the victims and to help restore historic buildings.
These cultural areas are not just Afghanistan’s—they belong to the worldAhmadullah Muttaqi, Herat official
“Many of our monuments have been damaged. Unfortunately, our government does not have the budget for the restoration of these sites,” Muttaqi says. “These cultural areas are not just Afghanistan’s—they belong to the world. We ask the foreign organisations and the NGOs to work with to us restore and preserve our heritage sites. This is a shared responsibility for us and for them,” Muttaqi pleaded.
Rayan, however, is not optimistic about the prospect of foreign collaborations. “Unfortunately, because of the political situation, there aren’t many donors who are willing to work with us in Afghanistan.”
He adds: “We work very hard and under very difficult conditions to save these heritage sites but then either there is no budget to maintain them or if there is damage, like there is now, there is no budget to help restore it. This really breaks our heart.”