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Digging up Kabul’s
historic city

Kabul’s old city is surrounded by Soviet-era concrete, blocky new construction, psychedelically-lit wedding halls for hire, choking traffic, and a blanket of smog. The neighborhood of Murad Khani is the only thing left of the city’s historic center, with foundations dating back at least to the 18th century, when the seat of the Durrani empire moved from Kandahar to Kabul.

Neighborhoods like Murad Khani fell into disrepair during the 1940s and 50s as wealthy families moved to newer urban zones and the city rapidly expanded. Layers of garbage piled up and the old buildings decayed or were buried beneath the grime. Afghanistan’s successive conflicts prevented most preservation or restoration work.

But in 2006, a British NGO called Turquoise Mountain arrived with the goal of reclaiming some of the historic beauty long lost from Kabul’s old city. The group employed hundreds of laborers—mostly from the neighborhood itself—as well as Afghan architects and designers to dig ancient houses and streets out of the dump and rebuild them using traditional Afghan materials and styles.

A decade later, more than 140 buildings have been restored or rebuilt, including parts of a thriving artisan market, a primary school, and small clinic that serves the local population.

Turquoise Mountain has expanded its remit to establish artisanal workshops where more than 100 Afghan students train in the heart of the old city learning calligraphy, ceramics, carpentry, mosaic-making, and gemstone-cutting.

Beyond this neighborhood, the organization strives to preserve Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage in the face of an unending conflict that threatens to destroy it.

Ashley Hamer
Ashley Hamer is a journalist and photographer based in East Africa. She writes and photographs for many outlets, among them Al Jazeera, IRIN News, Geographical Magazine and Vice. She tweets at @AshleyHamer.

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