What I’m hoping to achieve [with restoration of historic sites] is the notion that these historic sites are potential economic and social dynamos. They are not frozen, paralysed, historic assets. They are assets that can actually contribute to the quality of life of the people who live in those contexts.

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Interviewer: Unknown in Kuala Lumpur

The Islamic world probably has the highest concentration of historic cities of any world culture…. And you’re asking can this concentration of assets become a trampoline for economic and social development? And the answer is very clearly yes. (1)

… Throughout the Muslim world, landmarks of cultural identity were giving way to poor imitations of Western styles.

At the time what worried me was first of all the lack of cultural continuity. We carried out a number of surveys. One of them was particularly articulate in what we found which was that there wasn’t one single educator in any school of architecture in the Islamic world who had been educated in the Islamic world. Not one.

… In Cairo, this meant coupling the creation of Al Azhar Park to the development of an entire district: Darb Al-Ahmar. This historic neighbourhood had been in free fall. Garbage was piled shoulder high in the streets, drug dealers prowled its ruins, migrant families were crowded together in decrepit housing and landmark buildings were going to ruin.

It was one of the poorest areas of Cairo. An area where social development had no horizons whatsoever therefore, you had more and more people coming in because these historic cities are transit areas very often for newly urbanised populations so you get more and more degradation … (2)

… But conservation by itself was never the aim. From the outset means had to be found to create a dynamic for broad social and economic development.

By rehabilitating these environments you create an indigenous economic process. It’s not driven by tourism. It’s simply driven by improvements in quality of life. People actually trade — they do their own thing in a sense. You find new enterprises coming up. If you can add in micro-credit, then you add in economic support to that process. It’s true that tourism was one of the factors, but I think our experience up to now is that it’s more important to create that economic dynamic of that community….

You can now measure changes in disposable incomes, in access to education, in longevity, in healthcare, so all this is measurable.

… Since 2000, the Historic Cities Programme [of AKTC] has implimented a range of measures to reverse Masyaf’s [(Syria)] decline. The work turned up a few surprises such as a secret entrance to an underground Byzantine tomb previously hidden by layers of compacted rubble. But the Historic Cities Programme is about more than conserving the past — it’s also designed to improve the present. So at Masyaf the restoration work has been coupled to the development of a market for local communities. And at Aleppo infrastructure improvements have been carried out well beyond the citadel’s walls. The stimulus provided by all the projects, from training, restoration and related activities, has helped revitalise communities as effectively as any economic development scheme.

We’re looking at how to develop economic results in restoration of historic buildings. So what we’re doing is trying to bring out new knowledge, or create new knowledge, which then can be used by communities to change and to change positively….

What I’m hoping to achieve is the notion that these historic sites are potential economic and social dynamos. They are not frozen, paralysed, historic assets. They are assets that can actually contribute to the quality of life of people who live in those contexts.

… Outside the Hunza valley, Shigar Fort has been transformed into an elegant hotel, bringing tourist income to the region. The works of restoration is complemented by the efforts of other Aga Khan Development Network agencies aimed at improving the lives of local communities. Water and sanitation projects have reduced common diseases in Shigar. Micro-finance has helped start businesses in town. Hundreds of other small infrastructure projects, ranging from irrigation canals to bridges have further improved prospects and at the same time helped protect the region’s fragile agricultural landscape. New buildings were taking up precious arable land but with the addition of modern amenities, such as sanitation to traditional housing, people have been able to return to their ancestral homes and the pressure on this unique environment has been eased.

I’m a deep believer in the fact that if the environment is good, people live a better quality of life. They’re more stable. Their children grow up in a better environment. Their horizons are more stable. It’s not a one generation exercise.

Working in war-torn Afghanistan, presented new challenges for the programme.

[In] Kabul, what we have is a different situation. We have an extraordinary historical site and we have something of the order of 60,000 people living around that site who have no economic rights. They live in buildings they don’t own, on land that they don’t own, in an environment where the city has no obligation to provide infrastructure.

… Historic buildings are concrete evidence of the existence of other cultures and of the connections between them. As such they are an important resource in an age when some would seek to drive a wedge between Islam and the West.

There’s been this famous statement of a ‘conflict of civilisations’ and I don’t share that view. To me it’s a conflict of ignorance. In fact the history of the Muslim Ummah is significantly absent from general knowledge in the industrialised world. That to me is one of the major contributors to the difficulties we are facing today.

… Museums are not just repositories of culture. Like landmark buildings they speak of other histories and other influences beyond the ones we might have learned or perceived. They illustrate the pluralistic reality of the world’s interconnected cultures. This idea, of cultural and social pluralism, lies at the heart of His Highness’ own philosophy.

I think the pluralism of societies is an absolutely critical issue and if pluralism is not valued, as I think it has to be, we’ll continue to find situations in the developing world which are going to be very, very bitter indeed and I’m very worried about that, frankly….

Most of the conflicts we’ve seen in recent decades all have had a component of conflict amongst either religions or tribes or ethnic backgrounds or linguistic backgrounds — people who don’t value the fact that they live in pluralistic societies. And I don’t think people are born into valuing pluralism. I think you educate about pluralism. [Emphasis original]

… The many different activities of the Trust for Culture are all informed by Islam’s humanistic tradition of service, charity and knowledge building. Thirty years since creating the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, His Highness can look back on a legacy that has benefited both cultural heritage and the people who live among it, in equal measure.

It’s part of the ethic of Islam. It’s not philanthropy. It’s that you have a duty to share what you do not need yourself. If Allah has given you the wherewithal to share, you share. And you don’t share on the basis of handouts. The best of giving is what enables people to become independent. That is, you don’t give philanthropy on an ongoing basis, if you can give philanthropy, it’s to make people capable of managing their own destinies.

Heritage Heroes, BBC, DEV.TV

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Speaking in Heritage Heroes, the Aga Khan says:

What I’m hoping to achieve is the notion that these historic sites are potential economic and social dynamos. They are not frozen, paralysed, historic assets. They are assets that can actually contribute to the quality of life of people who live in those contexts.

BBC, Additional Content

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From the very poor to the very wealthy, the physical environment in which they live is central to the way they look at life and, therefore, we took it upon ourselves to try to impact all the areas where people live, which is the only three-dimensional art that we have. [Emphasis original]

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