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Attention Turns to Preservation of Afghan Monuments - 2002-05-20

The quarter-century of war in Afghanistan has devastated more than its roads, infrastructure and economy. It has seriously damaged some of the country's most famous ancient monuments. As experts work to rebuild the country, a group of dedicated professionals is also seeking to restore and preserve important Afghan monuments.

Standing in a broad valley with its azure minarets reaching for the sky like the fingers of a hand, the blue Mosque of Herat is a monument to the Ghorid culture that flourished in western Afghanistan nearly 1,000 years ago. The mosque, larger than several football fields, is covered with mosaic made from turquoise, indigo and maroon ceramic.

The mosque was built in the 12th century, on the site of an ancient Zoroastrian temple, and is one of the most imposing of its kind in central Asia. Yet parts of the structure have been weakened by time and entire walls of mosaic inlay have been wiped away by the wind and rain.

In a workshop in a corner of the complex, a dozen workers chip with small hammers at colored tiles. They are making ceramic pieces to restore the mosaic. One of the craftsmen, 12-year-old Jalil Ahmad chips a dark blue tile into the shape of a bird. He then chips holes into the carving and fixes inside them small pieces of tile shaped like a wing, an eye, a heart. The multi-colored bird will decorate a tower or archway of the mosque.

Next door, several artists are painting Koranic verses onto tile, using elaborate Arabic calligraphy. These will grace the walls of the sanctuary. In another room, wood fires crackle beneath mud-brick ovens. The tiles bake in the kilns for five hours at 400 degrees centigrade, until the ceramic is hard and glossy.

The man who oversees this cottage industry is the director of the Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments, Mazhar Wahidi. Under the Taliban, Mr. Wahidi said the mosque and other ancient monuments here were allowed to deteriorate. "In the past, there were a lot of people working on that project," he explains, "but when the Taliban came they sacked a lot of people and just six people were left."

Mr. Wahidi says after the fall of the Taliban, the new provincial government revived the restoration office and it now employs 100 people.

The governor's office is funding the work on the blue Mosque, but it does not have enough money to restore other important monuments in the region.

On the outskirts of Herat, five giant minarets, 20 stories (52 meters) high, tower over the town. Built 650 years ago, they have lost all their bright blue mosaic facing and now are the brown color of the surrounding mountains. Several of the minarets have gaping holes showing the mud-brick insides of their walls. They were damaged by rocket attacks during the 1980's. One of the minarets is tilting alarmingly to one side. Its foundations are eroding beneath it.

The engineer who has cared for these monuments for 40 years, Haji Abdul Ahad, says he hopes UNESCO - the U.N.'s cultural organization - will help rescue the minarets of Herat. "There is one minaret which is badly damaged, and if UNESCO helps us I am sure we can rebuild it and save it from destruction," he says.

Several hundred kilometers east of Herat, in the village of Jam, stands a lone minaret 65 meters high, the second highest in the world after the Qutob Minaret in New Delhi, India. Mr. Ahad says the Minaret of Jam is in a very precarious state and earlier reinforcements to its weakening foundations were recently washed away by heavy rains.

Engineer Ahad says these monuments must be saved. "It's a sign we have inherited from our grandfathers," he says, "and it shows the art that existed at the time."

UNESCO has sent a team to study restoration of the minarets. Mr. Ahad says he is still waiting for a response.

A spokesman for the Paris-based organization told VOA by telephone that UNESCO is to consider adopting the Minaret of Jam as a world historical site in June, making it eligible for emergency funds. However, the official said the minarets of Herat are a more complicated project and as a result, immediate funding for these monuments will depend on a donors conference to be held in Kabul at the end of May.