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Three Afghani Masterpieces Face Same Threats, Different Futures

The Victory Towers, painted by James Atkinson around 1839 (image via Wikimedia)
The Victory Towers, painted by James Atkinson around 1839 (image via Wikimedia)

Three architectural wonders from 12th century Afghanistan are currently in danger of collapse: the minaret of Jam in Ghur province and the two “Victory Towers” in Ghazni. But while the former seems doomed to ruin, a project by the US State Department to digitally document the latter offers a model by which such monuments — threatened by the elements and continued war in the region — might be saved for posterity.

The minaret of Jam (image via Wikimedia)
The minaret of Jam (image via Wikimedia)

The 213-foot-high minaret of Jam in western Afghanistan is believed to be the world’s second-tallest brick minaret, according to the BBC. Built out of bricks in 1194 CE, its exterior is emblazoned with geometric patterns and calligraphic verses from the Qur-an. Aside from a supporting wall and some light stabilization work, the now-leaning tower has never been restored. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lack of funding has made it difficult to protect against rising floodwaters from the nearby Hari-Rud river and looting, so that 20–30% of its exterior has already been lost.

The 75-foot-high Victory Towers were built in central eastern Afghanistan by Sultans Masud III and Bahram Shah — the last of the Ghaznavids, a Turko-Persian Muslim dynasty that ruled the Silk Road empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Ganges Delta from the 10–12th centuries. Today, threats posed by water erosion, earthquakes (an early 20th century rumble shortened them significantly), looting and vibrations made by trucks driving on a nearby road have replaced those of invading armies.

Detail of the minaret of Jam (image via Wikimedia)
Detail of the minaret of Jam (image via Wikimedia)

Yet even if they crumble, the Victory Towers won’t be completely lost, as a fascinating virtual exhibition on the U.S. State Department’s website reveals. It documents how, in July 2011, its Cultural Heritage Center sent architects from the National Park Service’s Historic American Building Survey to digitally record the structures.

Over the course of two summer days, architects Dana Lockett and Paul Davidson worked in extreme heat while wearing body armor, scanning each tower with a high definition laser from six different positions. Because of safety issues, the work had to be quick, which meant the architects didn’t have time to follow up on the scans with hand measurements ensuring accuracy.

(screengrab via Youtube)
(screengrab via Youtube)

As a result, their team spent the following two years back in Washington D.C. meticulously flattening the data for the final line drawings. Two Afghan architects also contributed their historical expertise. On the State Department’s website, it describes the project as “an effort to help cultural heritage professionals in Afghanistan preserve the towers by providing baseline documentation that will underpin future conservation and preservation activities.” The drawings will be archived at Kabul University’s Department of Architecture and the US National Park Service’s Heritage Documentation Programs.

Detail of the intricate brickwork on the Mas'ud III tower alongside a flattened image of the same  brickwork overlaid by "point cloud" data from the laser scanner (images courtesy of HABS)
Detail of the intricate brickwork on the Mas’ud III tower alongside a flattened image of the same brickwork overlaid by “point cloud” data from the laser scanner (images courtesy of HABS)

Might the US step in with a similar effort to document the minaret at Jam? According to the BBC, cultural activists in Ghor want their next president to save it — though that might be easier with the help of a project like the Victory Towers one. It seems to be in the US’s interests, considering it has also collaborated with Afghanistan on many other cultural patrimony projects, including working toward preserving and expanding the National Museum in Kabul, helping to restore the Herat Citadel, and even funding billboard campaigns highlighting important Afghan monuments. What’s one more minaret?

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