Taliban plan to develop tourism in Bamiyan Valley raises alarm over endangered World Heritage site

In 1960, the last king of Afghanistan, Muhammad Zahir Shah, had a vision to turn the central Bamiyan Valley into a tourist destination. His plans included building a hotel in front of two gigantic 6th and 7th century Buddhas carved into the cliff face. But it was dissuaded after consulting Italian architect Andrea Bruno, who later became a UNESCO expert in Afghanistan, and the project was abandoned.

More than 60 years later, plans to develop a tourism site resurfaced under the Taliban. At a ceremony in the Bamiyan Valley last month, local Taliban officials announced the rebuilding of a historic market that was located not far from Buddha’s cliff. The scheme aims to revive the region’s crippled economy with shops, restaurants and hotels that attract 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 can be seen about 70 meters from the mihrab carved into the cliff that houses the 55-meter-high Buddha statue before the towering statues were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

The cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley, which include the site of the ancient bazaar, were placed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger in 2003. The site is a protected area with strict rules prohibiting construction. But this time, no development is deterred. A year after the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, there is little technical expertise or central authority left 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 risks. “UNESCO has neither requested nor participated in this project, which is located in the heart of the archaeological area and could pose a problem for the proper conservation of the World Heritage site,” a statement read.

The head of the Ministry of Information and Culture in Bamiyan, Mawlawi Saif Rahman Mohammadi, who was present at the inauguration of the project, said, art newspaper: “We fully support the preservation and protection of cultural and heritage issues in Bamiyan.”

The opening ceremony of the project for the reconstruction of the historical bazaar was held in the Bamiyan Valley. © Art Newspaper

Mohammadi says the local authority has held multiple meetings with individuals who own land in the valley, and submitted a report on reconstruction plans to the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture in Kabul for approval. We hope that whatever is decided will be in the interest of the people and the country. We are waiting for guidance from our elders [senior Taliban officials in Kabul] They will follow what they decide.”

For more than a decade, local landowners have been frustrated in their efforts to develop the heritage site due to its amphitheater status. The previous government presented a plan to buy sukuk that fell on protected land, but the process was not completed, and the Taliban has now inherited the development dispute.

According to the former mayor of Bamiyan, Aman Muhammad Aman, who now resides outside Afghanistan, people have sought for years to develop listed lands and some have taken advantage of the lack of heritage expertise in local and central governments to obtain the relevant permits. . He says that the local authorities have held many workshops and events to educate the public about the importance of preserving heritage sites.

In 2007, the Afghan authorities developed a cultural master plan for the city of Bamiyan under the guidance of UNESCO, detailing the listed lands and prohibiting activities including construction and trade on them. Aman suggests that some senior Taliban officials may have agreed to rebuild the bazaar “due to a lack of knowledge” of the master plan, but says “people who claim to be landowners in these locations are clearly aware” of the limitations. Any development on the site would require it to be submitted to UNESCO for approval, which Aman fears is now impossible given that many Afghan heritage professionals have fled the country after the US withdrawal.

He also expressed concern that there is no one to implement the Bamyan Strategic Master Plan, developed in 2018 by the University of Florence, the Afghan Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, Bamyan Province, Bamyan Municipality and Bamiyan University. The document aims to guide urban development in the region in a way that promotes economic growth while preserving heritage sites.

Bricks and stones were moved to the site of the old bazaar at the opening ceremony which announced plans to rebuild an ancient market in the Bamiyan Valley and develop it as a tourist destination. The remains of the historical bazaar can be seen in the background. © Art Newspaper

“The strategic master plan was very concerned with supporting the prospects of Bamiyan becoming an interesting tourist destination – they need it because they need economic development,” says Mirella Lauda, ​​a professor of geography at the University of Florence who coordinated the project. Some of the solutions suggested by the plan included a hotel area that would provide clear views of the Bamiyan Valley but would be far enough away to prevent damage, and a detour to divert traffic away while linking important sites.

My impression is that we Westerners, and UNESCO as 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 in mind,” Lauda says.

There were already proposals to rebuild the old bazaar when a master strategic plan was in the works, she said, but the team did not support the idea due to the risk of damaging the heritage site. “It is not a good idea to make this tourist infrastructure so close to Buddha [niche]. If you build new infrastructure there, where the archaeological path is now, you create a point where people have to reach, by means of goods, and this will be an urban area,” says Luda. “This contrasts with the need to protect agricultural soils because this is an important part of the landscape cultural.”

Unfortunately, the Strategic Master Plan is currently only available in English. Efforts to translate the document into Dari came to a sudden halt when the Taliban took control of the country.

The Taliban now have the daunting task of dealing with disaffected locals who own land in heritage sites without the help of experts.

Although the United States and its Western allies negotiated with the group for years before it seized power on August 15, 2023 - with the former Afghan government excluded from the talks - they refused to formally recognize the Taliban government. Afghanistan’s access to funds abroad is blocked, and it suffers from one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The Taliban’s lack of international recognition means that 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 it.” [development] Activities on protected sites,” Aman argues. You can see that all UN aid is distributed through non-governmental entities; [Unesco] can do the same. They can work with organizations not associated with [Taliban] Government and direct access to people to stop further damage to heritage sites in Bamiyan.”

Luda says she is working tirelessly to find competent people in Afghanistan who can support the implementation of the master strategic plan in Bamiyan.

It remains to be seen if the Taliban will succeed as the previous government failed to purchase listed land from the local population. But Mohammadi says all options are on the table and they will do everything they can to protect the heritage sites in Bamiyan.

“When the land is owned by individuals and the government has plans for that land, it is necessary to obtain their consent. [People] They must be allowed to work, provide them with other lands, or value and purchase their lands. Whatever the case, the consent of the people must be obtained. “We hope to find a good solution that takes into account the interests of the people, the interests of the government and the interests of UNESCO.”