While post-Gaddafi Libya is looking to build a beacon of a newly free nation, war-torn Afghanistan has recently restored an architectural relic of its glorious past. After three years of painstaking renovation, the Citadel of Herat, a fifteenth-century fortress overlooking the western Afghan city of Herat, has returned to its original state and now houses a lively museum and cultural center looking to lift the spirits of a country beaten down by years of relentless warfare.
The Citadel is composed of two walled compounds, one rectangular and the other polygonal in plan, with nineteen defensive towers shared between the two. The impressive hilltop structures, built of fired and baked bricks and decorated with segments of Timurid glazed tile, were fortified and festooned enough to serve as royal residence, treasury, prison, arsenal and stronghold all at once. Yet the tumult of history took its toll: soldiers, prisoners, princes, marauders and thieves all shared these winding ramps, towering buttresses and cavernous vaults, and centuries of rigorous use and conflict left the bastion of Afghan might in ruin.
Saved from demolition once in the 1950s and excavated and briefly shored up by UNESCO in the 1970s, the Citadel crumbled once more under the strain of recent warfare. As the L.A. Times reports, the fortress was handed over to Afghanistan’s Culture Ministry in 2006 in a desolate state. Repurposed once again as a military encampment by Afghan security forces, the citadel had fallen into complete disrepair, piling up with fetid garbage and pooling with stagnant rainwater.
With support from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which pulled in $2.4 million from the United States and Germany, the Citadel was rushed into the hands of 300 skilled craftsmen who spent the next three years repairing delicate wood latticework and reconstructing damaged tiles. Last month, the Citadel was formally opened to the public, inviting locals and tourists to walk the same fortified grounds believed to span all the way back to the age of Alexander the Great.
Housing a museum with newly curated collections of manuscripts, metalwork, pottery and archaeological objects excavated during the Citadel’s reconstruction, the Citadel has spurred hope amidst a landscape of strife, as many expect the monument to help overcome the stigma of war and re-cast Afghanistan as a rich cultural destination.
According to the L.A. Times, there is concern that Afghan cultural authorities will be ill equipped to maintain the site on their own, a cumbersome task for such a volatile country. Nonetheless, the Citadel is an incontestable marvel, proudly rebuilt by Afghan hands. Its simple brick geometries, delicate detailing, and breathtaking scale are a testament to how great architecture has an indelible power to awaken and inspire.