Pakistan aims to revive glory of ancient Mughal city Lahore

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A worker cleans a golf cart for tourists to visit the historic Mughal-era Lahore Fort in the Pakistani city of Lahore. (AFP)
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A Pakistani conservationist works on the 1,450-foot long and 50-foot high picture wall at the historic Mughal-era Lahore Fort. (AFP)
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Above, the historic Mughal-era Lahore Fort in the Pakistani city of Lahore. (AFP)
Updated 01 March 2018
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Pakistan aims to revive glory of ancient Mughal city Lahore

LAHORE, Pakistan: Perched on scaffolding, restoration experts chip away at decades of grime and repair broken mosaic tiles in a bid to save the colossal murals depicting historic battles and regal ceremonies on the walls of Lahore fort.
The painstaking work is part of efforts to preserve Lahore’s crumbling architectural history as officials juggle conserving its diverse heritage with building modern infrastructure in Pakistan’s chaotic second city.
The metropolis, which once served as the capital of the Mughal empire that stretched across much of the subcontinent, has been subsumed into a myriad of civilizations across the centuries.
This rich past is most visible in the milieu of architecture salted across the Walled City of Lahore — from Hindu temples and Mughal forts to Sikh gurdwaras and administrative office built during the Raj.
“You get a history of a thousand years, 500 year-old houses and monuments and mosques, shrines and a very peaceful atmosphere,” says Kamran Lashari, director general of the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA).
Prime among them, and dating back to the 11th century, the Lahore fort was first built of mud and was then later reinforced with stone over the centuries by a long cast of Mughal emperors who oversaw its expansion and the accompanying artwork.
But periods of conflict along with searing heat, monsoon rains and years of neglect have taken a toll on the fort.
Despite the onset of decay, experts suggest the city’s vast Islamic architectural heritage could make it a contender to rival more established Silk Road travel destinations.
“Lahore can easily compete with Samarkand. It nearly matches Ispahan,” says Sophie Makariou, president of the Parisian-based National Museum of Asian Arts.
Makariou adds that its failure to shine is more to do with safety concerns that have plagued the nation after multiple attacks.
“Due to the bad reputation of Pakistan, it remains unknown,” she explains.
But as security across Pakistan continues to improve, officials are hoping to revive Lahore’s lost glory.
More than 40 conservationists with the WCLA — including engineers, architects and ceramists from across the globe — are currently working on restoring the mosaic mural on the fort’s exterior.
“It’s one of the largest murals in the world. It contains over 600 tile mosaic panels and frescos,” says Emaan Sheikh from the Agha Khan Trust for Culture.
Restoration of the mural is just part of a larger project to refurbish the fort, which includes conservation projects in the royal kitchen, the summer palace and a basement, according to WCLA’s director general Kamran Lashari.
Similar work by the WCLA has already been done to revamp the artwork at the historic Wazir Khan mosque and the Shahi Hammam — one of the only surviving Turkish Baths in the subcontinent that is approximately 400 years old.
The city’s famed Delhi Gate, which once hosted extravagant Mughal processions arriving in Lahore from the east, has also been fully restored along with dozens of homes in the Walled City.
Many of those involved in the project are optimistic.
“The cities which are most famous for tourism, you can take London, Madrid, Istanbul, Rome, all the prerequisites which are available in those cities, are available in Lahore,” claims Ahmer Malik, head of Punjab’s tourism corporation, referring to Lahore’s architectural and cultural attractions.
But not all are convinced.
Kamil Khan Mumtaz, President of Lahore Conservation Society (LCS), an advocacy organization promoting preservation projects, says the efforts run the risk of transforming the old city into a “Disneyland” to attract tourists.
“This was a pedestrian’s city. A pre-Industrial revolution modelled city. This should be conserved into that original state instead of remodeling buildings,” said Mumtaz, who is pushing for the use of traditional construction materials in restoration projects.
The calls run into fresh conflict with infrastructure plans aimed at easing the city’s traffic congestion as Lahore adds high-rise buildings, malls, flyovers and amusement parks to its cityscape.
Lahore was the first Pakistani city to unveil a metro bus service, and is now constructing an inaugural metro train that Mumtaz and fellow civil society groups say will diminish the architectural history.
The city also faces fresh challenges as it opens up to tourism.
Canadian visitor Usama Bilal complains: “There are gorgeous old colonial buildings, British era buildings but they are not well taken care of. There is no infrastructure built for tourists.”


Seeking tourists, Israel promotes a different sun and sand

Updated 06 June 2018
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Seeking tourists, Israel promotes a different sun and sand

MITZPE RAMON, Israel: Israel has already been credited with making the desert bloom. Now it hopes to make it boom — with tourists.
Seeking to bolster tourism to its vast and largely undeveloped Negev desert region, Israel is promoting luxury camping trips, Bedouin hospitality and challenging outdoor activities like dune surfing.
In addition, a new international airport is rising from the desert floor 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat and the neighboring Jordanian port of Aqaba.
Tourism in Israel is big business, bringing in $5.8 billion in 2017.
Arrivals to the country of about eight million citizens hit a record 3.6 million last year, the Israeli tourism ministry said.
The United States, Russia, France, Germany and Britain accounted for most of the visitors.
The ministry says that it now seeks to grow the Negev’s share of total Israeli tourist revenue from the present five percent to 20 percent within two to three years.
It also aims to increase the number of Negev hotel rooms from 2,000 to about 5,000 within six to seven years.
Israel is marketing the desert as a unique destination on Europe’s doorstep.
“When it’s very cold in Europe, let’s say in December, January and February, we have very mild temperatures in the Negev,” the tourism ministry’s Uri Sharon told journalists on a tour of the sparsely populated region.
Activities include hiking, biking, rock climbing, abseiling and dune surfing — akin to snowboarding on sand.
The Negev is also home to a geological marvel: the Ramon Crater, the world’s largest erosion crater.
Salaam El Wadj has opened up the encampment where he lives with his wife, children and goats to visitors, who can stay in one of the tents and listen to his stories of Bedouin life.
“I was born here in the Negev hills,” he tells his visitors over strong, sweet tea.
Wadj relates how the arrival a century ago of British and French administrators and, in 1948, officials of the new state of Israel, brought a drive for modernization that disrupted and threatened the nomadic Bedouin way of life.
Hosting tourists, he said, enables him to preserve his heritage.
“They don’t want to just sleep in a Bedouin camp but also to learn,” he said.
Hikers can walk along part of the Negev Highland Trail, covering about 12 km a day between Bedouin camps while their luggage is transported by vehicle.
Near Wadj’s site, Hannah and Eyal Izrael have planted vineyards on terraces where Nabatean farmers cultivated vines 2,000 years ago.
Their Carmey Avdat winery produces just 5,000 bottles a year of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other wines.
Eyal supplements his income by offering tourist accommodation in cabins and group tours to surrounding sites of interest rather than industrializing his winemaking.
Visitors can help run the production line and bottle, cork and label their choice of wine personally.
“All the time there are tourists from all over the world coming to the Israeli desert to explore, trek, taste our wine, go to other farms to taste goat cheese,” he said.
“The Negev is a very safe and accessible desert and it’s warm here.”
The vines grow in a natural basin, watered in winter by runoff from the surrounding hills and augmented with a modern irrigation system fed by desalinated sea water piped from the Mediterranean coast.
Not far from Carmey Avdat is the town of Mitzpe Ramon, which stands at the edge of the Ramon Crater.
There, travelers after tranquility with a luxurious twist can go “glamping” — glamor camping — in luxury tents with hot showers and a personal chef.
When inky night falls over the crater’s floor, there is the option of gazing through high-powered telescopes at the stars shining brightly in the unpolluted sky.
The Negev’s heart is only about a two-hour drive from Israel’s main international airport near Tel Aviv.
The new Ramon Airport will bring jumbo jets from around the globe to the desert itself.
Its website says that it will be able to initially handle up to two million passengers annually, but will be able to expand to a capacity of 4.2 million by 2030.
Low-cost and charter airlines currently flying to Ovda airport, about 60 km away from Eilat, will move to Ramon, it says.
They include Ryanair, Wizz Air, easyJet, SAS, Finnair and Ural Airlines.
Construction began in May 2013.
Israeli media say that the airport is expected to start operations this autumn, in time for the November-May winter tourist season, but the Israel Airports Authority (IAA) is making no official forecasts.
The IAA says the original specifications for the project were revised in light of lessons learned during the 2014 Gaza war.
After a rocket fired by Hamas militants in Gaza hit near the perimeter of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, international carriers suspended flights.
IAA spokesman Ofer Lefler said that the revised plans for the Ramon airport will allow it to serve as a backup in addition to boosting tourism.
“In an emergency, not only will Israel’s entire passenger air fleet be able to land and park there, but also additional aircraft,” he said.