The integrated character of this innovative cultural development endeavour [the restored Shigar fort] has been underpinned and complemented by the work of other institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), such as the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), which has a long record of supporting rural communities in the Northern Areas. When the AKDN institutions first began working in northern Pakistan more than twenty years ago, it was one of the poorest areas on earth.

Since that time, nearly four thousand village-based organisations in such fields as women’s initiatives, water use and savings and credit have been established. The quality of life of 1.3 million people living in the rural environment — which in many ways was representative of the majority of the population of Asia and Africa — has been dramatically improved. Per capita income has increased by three hundred per cent, savings have soared, infant and maternal mortality rates have declined by more than eighty per cent, and there have been marked improvements in male and female education, overall life expectancy, primary health, housing and sanitation, and cultural awareness….

What has been achieved in the Northern Areas contains many lessons and can serve as a model for other mountain regions in Central Asia.

This publication, prompted by the opening ceremony for the restored Shigar fort in May 2005, provides an introduction to the Northern Areas of Pakistan and to the projects implemented there by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) over the past twelve years. The event marks a significant moment in the ongoing cultural development efforts of the AKTC in the Northern Areas, as initiated with the restoration of Baltit fort in 1992. Ever since, the AKTC’s activities have greatly expanded in scope, including restoration and adaptive reuse of other major landmark buildings, as well as ambitious rehabilitation programmes for historic villages in Hunza and Baltistan.

From the beginning it was clear to us that restoring monuments without improving living conditions in the historic settlements and giving new perspectives to their inhabitants would have been meaningless, or even counterproductive. Physical rehabilitation therefore went hand in hand with housing improvement, sanitation, local capacity building, the reviving of traditional arts and crafts, and creating new employment opportunities.

In a time of dramatic change, these projects demonstrate that renewal and modernisation can and must be achieved on the basis of a region’s cultural heritage and that tradition and progress are not incompatible.

In a time of dramatic change, these projects demonstrate that renewal and modernisation can and must be achieved on the basis of a region’s cultural heritage and that tradition and progress are not incompatible. Through their implementation, an extensive patrimony has been saved and made viable again. New income-generating activities that draw on existing natural and cultural assets have been developed with residents, and local communities were enabled to think more pro-actively about how to manage development pressures and how to protect essential natural resources for future generations. Meanwhile, the emerging cultural tourism along the ancient Silk Route presents the Northern Areas with an exciting new and diversified economic opportunity, which has to be mastered adequately.

The integrated character of this innovative cultural development endeavour has been underpinned and complemented by the work of other institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), such as the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), which has a long record of supporting rural communities in the Northern Areas. When the AKDN institutions first began working in northern Pakistan more than twenty years ago, it was one of the poorest areas on earth.

Since that time, nearly four thousand village-based organisations in such fields as women’s initiatives, water use and savings and credit have been established. The quality of life of 1.3 million people living in the rural environment — which in many ways was representative of the majority of the population of Asia and Africa — has been dramatically improved. Per capita income has increased by three hundred per cent, savings have soared, infant and maternal mortality rates have declined by more than eighty per cent, and there have been marked improvements in male and female education, overall life expectancy, primary health, housing and sanitation, and cultural awareness. Continued close cooperation with the Government of Pakistan has enabled these efforts to bear fruit, with the result that now the Northern Areas count among the most progressive provinces in Pakistan in terms of the increased well being of rural populations.

What has been achieved in the Northern Areas contains many lessons and can serve as a model for other mountain regions in Central Asia. With the end of conflict and the introduction of reforms in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, challenging new opportunities have arisen, which the AKDN is pursuing through an area development approach. In various regions and sites in Afghanistan, for example, projects include the rehabilitation of important components of the Old City of Kabul, such as the Timur Shah mausoleum and Bagh-i Babur gardens, as well as a variety of social programmes including rural development initiatives and micro-credit schemes. The integrated development approach also applies to the establishment of the University of Central Asia, which has campuses in the mountainous areas of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic.

It is my hope that the political divisions between the isolated mountain regions of Central Asia, all of which are quite recent, can be transcended in the coming years, that the sources of their shared regional heritage can be revived through new channels of mutual exchange …

It is my hope that the political divisions between the isolated mountain regions of Central Asia, all of which are quite recent, can be transcended in the coming years, that the sources of their shared regional heritage can be revived through new channels of mutual exchange and that societies which have been deprived of access to international know-how can develop their own versions of progress and modernity — in harmony with their traditions of the past and carefully drawing on their precious natural and cultural resources. One of the world’s most fascinating areas bridging East and West will thus find a new way to prosperity and reclaim its historically rooted cultural identity.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

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