Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Ghazni as Islamic Cultural Capital 2013 (updated)

Thalia Kennedy 6 min

Ghazni has been chosen as the City of Islamic Culture for the Asian region for 2013. The city south of Kabul boasts a number of important pre-Islamic and Islamic sites but, due to the security situation, cannot be reached by foreign tourists currently. Our frequent guest blogger Thalia Kennedy(*) comments on the conundrums of such a choice and introduces initiatives how to showcase the city’s importance to the Afghan population.

The designation of individual cities as centres of cultural heritage is an international development of recent decades. Since the 1970s, the European Commission, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), ASEAN (Association for Southeast Asian Nations) and ISESCO (Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) have all initiated programs that highlight particular urban sites for cultural celebration. Istanbul was designated by the European Commission as the European Capital of Culture for 2010/11. ASEAN chose Manila as cultural capital for the South Asian region in the same year. UNESCO has identified a number of sites in Asia as World Heritage Cities, to include Kathmandu and Lhasa.

These programs share the underlying principle of showcasing cities of heritage significance and raising cultural urban profiles within a broader regional and international context. Urban environments, layout and architecture, artistic excellence, historic sites and associated traditions and stories, are all celebrated as part of the cultural fabric of a city. Such designations present an opportunity not only to celebrate heritage through tourism, events and exhibitions, but also to invigorate and revitalize cultural activities and sites.

Afghan cities have similarly received such recognition. Each year, three cities from around the globe receive the accolade of City of Islamic Culture from ISESCO, supported by its 50 member-states drawn from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. ISESCO has nominated the southern city of Ghazni as its City of Islamic Culture for the Asian region in 2013, to be followed by Kabul in 2024. The Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture is currently working with international partners on its plans to celebrate Ghazni’s 2013 nomination.

Ghazni is notable for its historic sites and significant cultural heritage. The sitewas founded as a market town before the establishment of the ancient Persian empire, and was incorporated into Achaemenid territories during the reign of Cyrus II. Tepe Sardar, one of the largest Buddhist monastic complexes recorded in the country, was constructed to the east of the present city and included a reclining Buddha figure amongst its varied features. Although the Buddha statue itself was destroyed by insurgents in 2005, Tepe Sardar remains one of Afghanistan’s most significant archaeological sites of the pre-Islamic era.

Ghazni became an important trading portal to South Asia during the Islamic period, and experienced a time of considerable prosperity as the famed capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty. The dynasty reached its peak of influence following the aggressive military campaigns of its early sultans from the tenth century CE, who expanded their empire to the north and west, and continued raiding expeditions into South Asia under the banner of Islam into the twelfth century CE. A number of monuments were built at this time in the city, including shrines, tombs, mosques and minarets. 1960s photographs of the tenth-century tomb of Sultan Sebuktigin show its once-elaborate painted plasterwork interior and domed structure – whilst that of his son, Sultan Mahmud, was noted by the international traveler Ibn Battuta, who later passed through the city. The surrounding park in which Sultan Mahmud’s mausoleum once stood remains an attraction for local visitors. The minarets of Mas’ud III and Bahram Shah, located near to the archaeological site of Mas’ud III’s palace, with their flanged forms and geometric brickworkdecoration, are often cited as technicaland artistic masterpieces, and as the forerunners to the Qutb Minar in Delhi.

At its height, the Ghaznavid court was home to a number of important scholars and intellectuals, not least the poet Firdausi, compiler and author of the most famous version of the Shahnama, the historian al-Biruni, and Ibn Sina, author of medical treatises that were influential throughout Asia and Europe for over six hundred years. Artefacts from this period, including glazed bowls and carved marble piecesheld at the National Museum in Kabul – and now exhibited in two separate rooms – speak of a time of artistic achievement and elegance.

The fifteenth-centurybaked brick mausoleum of Ulugh Beg and ‘Abd al-Razzaq, recorded in photographs over the last one hundred years, shows a continued mastery of architectural form into the Timurid period. Ghazni also saw more recent cultural prosperity following the construction of the Kabul to Kandahar road in the 1920s. As a natural stopping point along the new route, Ghazni saw a rise in fortunes – new cultural economies attracted artisans and craftsmen who came to the city to make traditional pieces for passing tourists and visitors. From 1966, the Italian Archaeological Mission developed an Islamic period museum at the mausoleum of Ulugh Beg and ‘Abd al-Razzaq, and began construction of a partner museum for the pre-Islamic period. Despite conflict, many museum artifacts from the Islamic era survive intact today.

The ISESCO nomination for 2013 is an opportunity for Ghazni to showcase its cultural significance both to its local inhabitants and to a wider audience. However, given continued fighting and political instability, the usual activities associated with such celebrations may not be possible at Ghazni. The Ministry of Information and Culture has in recent years explored ambitious regeneration and restoration plans for the city and its monuments for completion by 2013, but has been curtailed in its plans by challenging security and political situations. The ISESCO designation often generates a rise in visitors to cities, also an unlikely aspiration for Ghazni. The presentation of the city’s cultural heritage will also be shaped by current social, political, religious and economic considerations. Whether, for example, Ghazni’s pre-Islamic heritage will be included in discourse under its nomination as a city of Islamic culture is a point of interest.

Celebratory activities held in other cities are instructive here in considering alternative projects for Ghazni under these constraining circumstances. Programs carried outinneighboring Istanbul and Dushanbe in 2010, to celebrate respective European Commission and ISESCO nominations, focused in part on smaller-scale projects that reached a wide audience and had a degree of longer-term local benefit – a useful model for Ghazni. In Istanbul, European Capital of Culture for 2010/11, a series of exhibitions, films, books and websites were produced that focused on the city’s heritage; activities were launched to revive local craftsmanship and artisanal traditions; and a schools’ competition established for young Istanbulites to design projects that celebrated the city’s designation. The nomination of Dushanbe as ISESCO’s City of Islamic Culture in 2010 saw special events in celebration of famous historic figures, distribution of books celebrating the city’s Islamic history and cultural heritage, and commemorative translations of the Qur’an into the Tajik language.These workable initiatives were achieved with careful planning and management, and within reasonable budgets.

For Ghazni, the Ministry of Information and Culture is now revealing an increased focus on projects that are not dependent on large-scale restoration, regeneration or tourism development. These alternative programs emphasize both tangible and intangible heritage (on the terminology, see an earlier blog of our author here) and promote cultural education to a local and national audience. Photographic records of buildings and artifacts are in reasonable supply, lending themselves well to planned travelling exhibits around the country. Such exhibitions often have demonstrable positive cultural and social impact, and are an excellent way to sidestep issues of accessibility.

The UNESCO office in Kabul is also working with the Ministry to develop educational materials across age-groups to both disseminate information on important cultural sites and associated intangible heritage, and to encourage the young generation to share responsibility for future stewardship. Internet and media coverage may also play a useful role to display aspects of the city’s cultural heritage to a wider audience – celebration of Ghazni’s nomination has already appeared on an independent Facebook page.

Despite operational challenges, cultural projects are underway in Ghazni itself that will contribute to the 2013 celebration, and benefit local audiences and communities. The Ministry is working to implement local training programs that focus on Ghazni’s crafts traditions. Although there are currently few local markets or visiting buyers for individual pieces, there are alternatives. Comparable initiatives elsewhere in the country – notably in Kabul and Herat – have been particularly successful where training programs developthe crafts skills needed for preservation of historic monuments, to the combined economic and cultural benefit of the local artisanal community. Parallel projects may be possible for Ghazni.

Furthermore, the Italian government is again supporting on-site redevelopment of the Islamic and pre-Islamic period museums, to include restoration, curatorial and management training, resupply of equipment, and provision of local employment. Improving local cultural knowledge, displays and skills will contribute to the sustainable support of Ghazni’s heritage.

The range and type of activities developing for 2013 demonstrate that issues of access and security need not prohibit celebration: a few high quality and well-managed projects, that reach a wide audience and bring local benefit, are likely to have a greater positive impact in celebration of the Ghazni’s ISESCO nomination than ambitious and challenging urban and tourism redevelopment. As 2013 approaches, these projects must continue to be carefully implemented to ensure that cultural heritage, and its protection and promotion, remains a priority within changing political, social and economic climates. If successful, Ghazni may highlight its nomination as Islamic city of culture both on a local and national stage, and has a clear opportunity to promote the diversity and richness of its great past.

Dr Thalia Kennedy has a research and teaching background in Islamic and South Asian art and architectural history. Thalia is the former Director of the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts & Architecture in Kabul, and now a member of the Institute’s Board. She is currently a Guest Conservation Scholar at the Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles. Contact: [email protected]


Ghanzi Islam