In war-torn Afghanistan, years of upheaval have taken a toll not only on the country's people but on its past, with many cultural relics being lost or destroyed there.
Museums have been looted, archaeological sites and artifacts have been damaged in targeted bombings or by natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, and there is a shortage of locals trained to manage important pieces of the country's history.
In an effort to help Afghanistan preserve its past, the University of Arizona is partnering with Kabul University to help build the college's cultural heritage conservation program so that it can educate a future generation of conservators for the country.
The project – a partnership between Kabul University's department of archaeology and anthropology and the UA's Drachman Institute – will bring three junior faculty members from Kabul to the UA later this summer to learn the latest techniques in preservation, conservation and documentation of artifacts and architectural materials, as well as strategies for research and disaster preparedness.
"Afghanistan continues to be on the threshold of change, and it has such an amazing heritage, people want to have the opportunity to learn more about it," said Suzanne Bott, program director with the Drachman Institute, which serves as the research-based outreach arm of the UA's College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture.
"The more current the faculty members are with the latest tools and techniques, the better job of preservation they'll be able to do," Bott said. "They'll be able to work with their government and decision-makers to impress upon them the importance of both celebrating their historic preservation and their national identity, and doing preservation and reconstruction for the future."
The pilot project, funded by the U.S. Department of State and overseen by the National Park Service, will bring three Kabul University faculty members to Tucson in August. They will work for three months with faculty from the UA College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture; the UA School of Anthropology; the Arizona State Museum and professionals from the National Park Service's Western Archaeological Conservation Center and parks throughout the American Southwest.
The project focuses on eight key areas: conservation theory, documentation and site assessment, artifact examination and care, architectural materials conservation, interpretation and public education, site management, disaster preparedness and heritage conservation law.
The goal is to build Kabul University's capacity to educate students on the latest techniques, while preparing them for careers in archaeology, conservation and museum work.
"They've lost a lot in Afghanistan, and there's a whole generation of young people who now are going to be thinking about what the future holds," said Bott, who is directing the project. "Part of that future is understanding where they have come from and what their identity is all about. Then they can proudly claim their heritage, and they can display it in their historic sites and their museums for their own citizens and for visitors."
Others instrumental in the project include R. Brooks Jeffery, professor and director of the Drachman Institute; Nancy Odegaard, professor and head of the preservation division at the Arizona State Museum; and UA librarian emeritus Atifa Rawan, an Afghan-American who also is spearheading the UA's ongoing work to aid in reconstruction of libraries in Afghanistan.
"Conservation as a whole is really important in Afghanistan because no one has really preserved anything in the past 30 to 35 years," said Rawan, who recently returned from a two-week visit to Afghanistan with Bott. "Time is taking its toll on places of cultural heritage, and with all of these years of war and upheaval, they've lost personnel. They don't have the technical people to work on these issues."
"This project is timely, and it's the politically right thing to do as U.S. forces are leaving," she added. "We need to set up their higher education institutions to support them."
If the project goes well, it could lay the groundwork for similar efforts in other countries, Rawan said.
Odegaard – who serves on the advisory board of the Iraqi Institute for Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, which focuses on cultural heritage preservation in Iraq – said the hands-on experience Kabul faculty members will receive at the UA will be invaluable in preparing them to educate students back home.
"Most of them have probably never been on an excavation and handled these kinds of objects," she said. "We want to make sure they know how to handle and lift objects and that they learn about labeling systems, how to pack things, how to clean, examine and test different objects and different material types, and why order and storage is really important."
Although a world apart, important similarities exist between Arizona and Afghanistan that make the partnership between the UA and Kabul University a good fit. Both are arid regions that share similar architectural traditions, with the earliest buildings in both areas being constructed with mud bricks, notes Jeffery, who coordinates the UA's multidisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Heritage Conservation.
Jeffery stressed that heritage conservation in Afghanistan is important not only culturally, but economically.
"When you think about rebuilding countries, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan, you often think of infrastructure – roads, petrol, water, schools, housing; you don't always think about the economic development," he said.
"In a place like Iraq, you immediately think of oil as being the savior in terms of economic development. In a place like Afghanistan, which is not as oil rich, you have to think about diversifying economic development, and heritage tourism has the potential of being huge once the area becomes stable," he said.
"What we're hoping to do is lay a foundation for economic development and conservation. This isn't just about the monuments needing help; it's about developing really a strong infrastructure of economic development that's based in heritage and heritage tourism."