Herat’s citadel restored

I hate to just repost entries from The History Blog here, but this one’s going in my archives too: Ancient citadel in Herat, Afghanistan, restored. The photos alone are worth the visit.

I’m ambivalent about these projects: part of me loves them and wants to fill the world with reconstructive playgrounds for inspiring historical feelings. Then there’s the very real value of reconstruction for advancing scholarship and public understanding. And then there’s the various political uses of such projects, for nationalism (which can have a positive side, if you look closely and from the right angle), identity-building, attracting tourist money, all of which – good and/or bad – is interesting.

But then there’s the cost to the site and its value as evidence of the past, rather than of our present interpretation. Archaeology is inherently destructive, but rebuilding atop your archaeological site is kind of a definitive statement that you don’t intend to learn anything further from the ground itself. And I’ve never met a reconstruction project that I approved of fully – it doesn’t have to be as dodgy as Parthian Nissa to go badly wrong: there’s the celebrated examples of Khiva and Bukhara, which lost much of their urban fabric as their monuments were restored, because the restorers had made an aesthetic and practical, financial decision that the monuments were important but the houses weren’t (a decision that, incidentally, fundamentally changes how the monuments themselves are read*).

So we see a high walled citadel, an interestingly complex array of windows and archways, and a strikingly clean, modern-looking urban precinct. And it looks very respectable. Greek, almost. And my first thought is “so this is what we’ve come to think ancient cities should look like.” How else should it look? Like a David Roberts painting? Hardly. Like it has people living in it, in costume, even? No, I don’t think so. But I think what we have says more about UNESCO and the 21st century heritage trade than it does about the Citadel at Herat.

* Kenneth D. B. Carruthers: “Architecture Is Space: The Space-Positive Tradition,” Journal of Architectural Education,Vol. 39, No. 3 (Spring, 1986), pp. 17-23.


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