Committing to cultural heritage is more critical than ever before, says Hazar Imam

London, 22 October 2015 — Cultural heritage is a powerful tool that can be harnessed towards improving the quality of human life, says Mawlana Hazar Imam, which is a central objective of the Ismaili Imamat. He was speaking at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of ICOMOS — the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

Speaking at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of ICOMOS — the International Council on Monuments and Sites — he noted an alignment between the goals of the Imamat and the global non-governmental organisation, which works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage places.

“All Muslims are called upon to improve the physical condition of our world,” said Hazar Imam, “and honouring our cultural heritage is vital to that calling.”

Mawlana Hazar Imam was introduced at the conference by His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who was unable to attend in person, sent her greetings in a recorded message.

“UNESCO and ICOMOS are driven by the same powerful conviction that humanity’s cultural heritage carries outstanding universal significance,” she said. “This heritage is a wellspring of identity, a force for dialogue and peace.”

Mawlana Hazar Imam delivers the keynote address at the ICOMOS 50th anniversary conference in London.
AKDN / Anya Campbell

Hazar Imam recalled that his involvement in cultural heritage deepened some 40 years ago as he observed the progressive vanishing of Islamic architectural heritage. Western notions of architecture were displacing the entire history and physical legacy of Muslim civilisations — even in educational settings. This led him to establish the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1977, and later the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and its Historic Cities Programme. As the work of these institutions broadened over the decades, the potential for cultural heritage to advance social and economic development became increasingly apparent. “This potential was often ignored as culture was too easily miss-labelled as a luxury amid pressing social and economic needs,” said Mawlana Hazar Imam. “But my colleagues and I became convinced that cultural heritage projects are not a diversion from development priorities.”

“Culture is in and of itself a development resource of immense potential value,” he said, describing cultural heritage as a “trampoline” that can propel “dramatic improvements in the quality of human life.”

Hazar Imam went on to cite numerous examples that attest to this, starting with Al-Azhar Park in Cairo. The former rubble dump now draws 17 million visitors and generates an $800,000 annual surplus that can be reinvested.

Darb al-Ahmar, a neighbourhood of 200,000 people situated next to the park was considered one the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. The development of Al-Azhar uncovered ancient architectural treasures and created training and employment in restoration, site support and tourism. The economic spillover led to improvements in education and health, as well as training and microcredit initiatives.

The result, said Mawlana Hazar Imam, is that “family earnings there have increased one-third faster than in the whole of Old Cairo, literacy rates have climbed by one-fourth and today the whole area – once one of the most impoverished urban agglomerations on the planet – has become a remarkable residential, recreational and cultural site.”

His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, Patron of ICOMOS-UK receives Mawlana Hazar Imam for the organisation's 50th anniversary conference.
AKDN / Anya Campbell

Afghanistan, India and Mali — among ten countries in which the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme has completed some 20 major projects with cumulative capital investments of $190 million — furnish further examples of how cultural revitalisation contributes to development. Hazar Imam also noted the impact of some 3,000 projects to restore traditional water systems in mountainous regions of Central Asia, improving human health, agriculture and reducing conflict over scarce resources. But the trampoline effect of cultural heritage is not limited to the developing world. Mawlana Hazar Imam discussed his involvement in the revitalisation of the Domaine de Chantilly in France, a cultural jewel whose history is closely connected with the French nobility.

The area, which includes the famous Chateau de Chantilly, its gardens, horse stables, and extensive collection of antique paintings, was bequeathed to the Institut de France in 1884 by the Duke d’Aumale — son of the last French king. A century later, it had faded into disrepair.

“We realised the success of cultural projects in the developed world and the developing world alike requires a variety of actors animated by a robust spirit of cooperation and an overriding ‘ethic of partnership.’” said Mawlana Hazar Imam. Working through a 20-year partnership agreement with the Institut that was signed in 2005, Hazar Imam is bringing to bear knowledge and experience gained from the Imamat’s heritage work in the developing world to “preserve and promote the entire cultural area of Chantilly as an international model of heritage management.”

He also noted the importance of ensuring long-term sustainability — “the sine qua non” of cultural development, which includes “an engaged local community.”

“It is important that we commit ourselves ever more ardently to the essential work of cultural heritage as a powerful contributor to improving the quality of life for the entire human community.”