Preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage in the face of conflict.

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.

Sawad’s family have lived in the neighbourhood for 30 years. “Before we had no water or electricity. Now we have built wells and a school and a clinic … Building with the traditional materials reminds me of our history.”
1. Left: Children of Murad Khani play outside the front door of their home, which has been restored by Turquoise Mountain, along with residents of the neighborhood. 2: Shukrula, 31, is an expert bricklayer who began working on the restoration of Murad Khani in 2007. He knew nothing about construction when he started but gradually gained knowledge of rebuilding using traditional methods and now leads Turquoise Mountain’s local construction team.
The ornate cedar-wood panel frontage of a restored building in Murad Khani. The wood is logged in Afghanistan’s east and cured and carved by carpenters in the Murad Khani workshops.

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.

1. One of the busiest student workshops at Turquoise Mountain with young people learning traditional carpentry, wood-carving, and furniture design using cedar-wood. 2: “There is so much illegal mining of Afghanistan’s gems and so much waste and damage,” says gemstone master Abdul Azim Haqaq Zada. “The damage to the stones means they are poor quality and the value goes down. So what is exported from Afghanistan is often illegal and bad quality.”
“Afghanistan is a traditional country and we should preserve our cultural heritage,” says Masoud Rahmani. “You see objects in museums now and we don’t know how it is made anymore because the skill has been lost. We need to keep our art alive.”
A restored building in Murad Khani with its traditional cedar-wood panelling and lush enclosed courtyard.