Afghans work to rebuild 15th century Women's Garden
Tuesday February 20, 9:23 AM
HERAT, Afghanistan, Feb 20 (AFP) - In the western Afghan city of Herat, an ancient Silk Road oasis at the crossroads between Persia, India and China, history has always been something to be endured rather than preserved.
In one part of the city, shopkeepers set up stalls against a wall built in Alexander the Great's time, while in another, horse-drawn carts and four-wheel-drives jostle for space on a pot-holed road between 600-year-old minarets.
Few people in this impoverished but bustling city have the time, knowledge or least of all the money to preserve Herat's monuments, which are crumbling after centuries of neglect and at times abuse.
Take for instance the Sultan Hussain-i-Baiqara Madrassa, an Islamic school dating back to the 15th century, which was shelled by the British in the late 19th century to clear a line of fire against a feared Russian invasion.
The madrassa itself is now a dirt road, but its four minarets miraculously survived, only to be caught in the crossfire between Soviet troops and Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s.
Now they lean dangerously, their supportive cores broken by rockets and shells, their brilliant mosaics of blue, green and orange tiles all but gone.
Next door to the Women's Garden -- a sanctuary surrounding the 15th century tomb of Queen Gawhar Shad -- is a field of mud.
In its heyday, the six hectare (15 acre) garden was a cool retreat for the women of Herat from the often violent world outside. For certain days every week, no men were allowed to enjoy the shade around the mausoleum of Afghanistan's only female ruler.
Herat's modern history has been no less violent, but the status of women has changed dramatically.
The city's latest rulers, the all-male Taliban Islamic militia, have banned women from most work and denied them access to education. But efforts are underway, with the help of the Taliban, to give women back their sanctuary and restore Queen Gawhar Shad's tomb.
"Queen Gawhar Shad is still a hero, but unfortunately, due to our religion and culture, we respect women but we do not give them leadership anymore," said Afghan engineer Jawed Syed, who is overseeing the restoration work.
"She ruled after her husband died because her two children had not come to a legal age to take over. During that time we had a lot of problems from the Uzbeks, Turkmens and from Iran."
Syed is the director and force behind the non-governmental Helping Afghan Farmers Organisation (HAFO), which, despite its name, is managing the preservation and restoration of the tomb and nearby minarets.
Backed by the United Nations and the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage, he leads local Afghan tradesmen and labourers in the task of rebuilding this important part of the country's history.
"Women used to come here a lot, but because of the last 20 years of war the garden was badly damaged and it is now a desert," he said.
"We hope that we can again make something for the women."
Herat Governor Mullah Kairuolah Khair Khowa said the Taliban authorities had not yet decided whether to allow women exclusive access to the new garden on certain days of the week, as was the tradition in the past.
"Once we rebuild the garden we will decide about that. We will look to the policies of headquarters," he said.
"But you can see that women are free to move around the city so there are no hurdles against them."
Syed estimated it would cost only 9,000 dollars to retile the dome over the tomb of the Timurid royal family, whose engraved marble sarcophagi lie among piles of broken tiles.
But with millions of dollars worth of international assistance poured into war-torn Afghanistan every year just to feed the population, there is little to spare to ensure the survival of the country's cultural heritage.
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