HALO partners with UNESCO in Afghanistan

HALO is working in partnership with UNESCO to preserve a historic site in Herat, Afghanistan’s westernmost city.

Most people know that Afghanistan’s most famous historic monuments, the Buddhas of Bamyan, were destroyed during the Taliban’s rule. Few people know much about the hundreds of other historic sites across the country that are also in danger of being lost forever due to conflict.

Herat’s madrasa of Husain Baiqara, built by Sultan Baiqara in the fifteenth century, is now marked only by four minarets. Once richly decorated in bright mosaic tiles and towering over 100 feet above the city, the minarets were added to the huge complex constructed by Empress Gawhar Shad in the fourteenth century. Decades of war have taken a serious toll on the site, and today only the minarets are still standing.

During the occupation of Afghanistan, Soviet troops used the site as a base. Mujahedeen fighters launched many attacks against the troops stationed there, and to protect themselves the Soviet forces laid anti-personnel mines around the base of the minarets.

Violence in Afghanistan and the landmines around the minarets stopped archaeologists from working here until HALO started work to clear the site in 2015. Only a few mosaic tiles cling to some of the minarets, while the marks of mortar strikes can be seen on others. Worse still, years of traffic passing through the unprotected site have shaken the minarets’ foundations: one of them tilts precariously to one side, and archaeologists worry that it could collapse completely.

Masanori Nagaoka, head of UNESCO's Kabul office said:

For many years, UNESCO has been working to preserve Herat’s cultural heritage. We’ve focused on the Gawhar Shad complex and the Hussain Baiqara Madrasa buildings because they required urgent conservation work to keep them safe, and they are very important representations of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. The Afghan authorities asked for the site to be included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but first, we need to secure the site through the removal of all unexploded ordnance and landmines.

In March 2015, as he was playing football at the minaret site, a young man stepped on an anti-personnel landmine and lost his foot. After the accident, the United Nations Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan (UNMACA) held meetings with HALO and the Ministry of Information and Culture to discuss how to clear the site without damaging the minarets. There was a problem: the ground was very hard and manual demining would be painfully slow, but mechanical demining using large vehicles risked destabilising the minarets even further.

UNESCO experts met with HALO staff and representatives from the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA) in September 2015. Together, HALO, DAFA, and UNESCO drew up a plan of the areas where mechanical demining was safe and where HALO teams would have to clear the ground manually. Finally, in October 2015, clearance of the minarets began. HALO teams soon found and destroyed two pieces of unexploded ordnance, working painstakingly by hand in the most sensitive parts of the site. 

Mr Nagaoka said:

The demining team did an excellent job. They took care not to damage the historic sites or the minarets during the work, which was supervised by UNESCO and the Ministry of Information and Culture.

Once HALO teams had finished working, the Ministry of Information and Culture built a protective wall and entrance gate between the minarets and the busy main road, blocking traffic from damaging the minarets.

Dr Farid Homayoun, HALO Afghinstan Programme Manager said:

The minarets are precariously balanced, so there are parts of the area that can’t be cleared until more archaeological work takes place. We have marked the dangerous areas and once they are fully investigated, our teams will return to work. In the meantime, the safe area of the site is used more than ever. Local children once again play football here during the day. In the evening, friends and families stroll around the minarets together. Perhaps in the future tourists and students of Afghanistan’s fascinating heritage will join them.

We are delighted to have contributed the minarets to The Million Image Database.

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