KABUL: The United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, has accepted Afghanistan’s request to include the western city of Herat in its World Heritage Sites with a “formal announcement” to be made in a year, officials have said.
“We made the proposal to UNESCO in March last year, and UNESCO says that Herat fits the criteria to be added to its list of World Heritage Sites,” Haroon Hakimi, deputy minister of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Culture and Information, told Arab News.
To facilitate “data and research work that would take up to a year,” UNESCO has also allocated $30,000 to the Afghan government, Hakimi said. “After that, UNESCO will formally announce the inclusion of Herat in its World Heritage Sites.”
To be included on the list, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of 10 UNESCO criteria, which include: “To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius; to exhibit an important interchange of human values over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world; and to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.”
Some of the key sites that have added to the “prominence of Herat as an ancient city” include the citadel of Herat, built in 330 BC and also called the citadel of Alexander the Great; the blue-tiled Jami Masjid constructed in 1,200 AD; and five minarets that house an Islamic learning center dating back to the 15th century.
While the three sites have suffered damage due to various wars and natural disasters and the minarets are crumbling, the citadel and the mosque have been restored over the years.
Located near the border with Iran and Turkmenistan, Herat is Afghanistan’s third-largest city with an estimated population of 574,276 and is the capital of Herat province.
It has long served as a center of Islamic learning and is the birthplace of several renowned Afghan scholars such as Khawaja Abdullah Ansar and Abdul Rahman Jami.
Compared to other regions of the war-torn country, Herat has enjoyed relative stability since the Taliban’s ouster in a US-led invasion in 2001.
“This is great news that UNESCO has accepted Afghanistan’s request to add Herat to its world heritage sites. It adds to the fame of Afghanistan abroad,” said Abdul Ahad Abaasi, head of maintenance and repair at the Department of Historical Monuments.
He said that the Kabul government was “looking at including two more sites” on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
One is the Noh Gonbad Mosque, a “little known masterpiece” built in 794 AD in northern Afghanistan’s Balkh province, “long seen as a cradle of culture and civilisation,” according to Abaasi.
The mosque, one of the oldest monuments of early Islamic architecture in Central Asia, derives its name from its nine domes, most of which have collapsed during the fighting or due to negligence.
The other site is Bagh-e Babur, or the Babur Garden, in the capital, Kabul, created by Babur, the first emperor of the Mughal dynasty in the early 16th century.
At 11 hectares, the space is designed in a classic charbagh (four garden) pattern, with a series of rising terraces split by a central watercourse.
It is the largest public garden in the city. It was largely destroyed in the 1990s but “spectacularly restored” with the help of the Aga Khan Foundation in 2008.
“Other historical sites on offer are the Minaret of Jam and the legendary Bamiyan valley, home to two giant Buddha statues which were named as UNESCO’s cultural heritage sites in 2002 and 2003,” Abaasi said.
In early 2001, the Taliban decreed that the statues in the valley were un-Islamic and had them destroyed, prompting a huge public outcry.
As the Taliban claim control of nearly a third of Afghanistan’s rural districts and have captured several provincial capitals in recent weeks — taking advantage of a vacuum created by departing foreign troops from the country — ordinary Afghans hope the UNESCO mention would work in the nation’s favour.
“The world has for years heard about the unending conflict in Afghanistan. Now, when UNESCO adds Herat to its World Heritage list, the world will realize that Afghanistan has a rich history, has been an important country, but the war has devastated it,” said Sharfuddin Faqiryar, a heritage activist from Herat.