50th anniversary of ICOMOS, London


Your Royal Highness, the Duke of Gloucester
Mr David Thackray, President, ICOMOS-UK
Mr Gregory Hodkinson, Chairman, Arup
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

What a pleasure it is for me to be marking with you the 50th anniversary of ICOMOS – happy birthday!

Yours is an organisation for which I have long had enormous respect. And I have noted with interest the impressive, recent development of your Cultural Heritage Manifesto.

The creation of ICOMOS 50 years ago came during my first decade as Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community, and from the start many of my interests have closely resembled yours.

All Muslims are called upon to improve the physical condition of our world, and honouring our cultural heritage is vital to that calling. Our response in simple terms is that not a day goes by where my institution – the Ismaili Imamat – is not building or rebuilding something somewhere: a historic site perhaps, but also a hospital, a university, an industry.

Our central objective is to improve the quality of life for people in the developing world, and it is from this perspective that I will speak to you today.

Our work extends to 35 countries in fields such as education and medical care, job creation and energy production, media and tourism, the fine arts and micro-finance. We believe that by improving the largest numbers of variables in the shortest possible time, we can obtain stable, long-term improvement in the quality of human life.

Cultural heritage, of course, plays a central role in this endeavour. This focus was sharply intensified for me some 40 years ago when I came to realise that the proud architectural heritage of the Islamic world was progressively vanishing. The physical legacy of great Muslim empires was collapsing, and the response in the Islamic world seemed to be oblivion. What was in fashion, what was prized and taught throughout the Islamic architectural world, increasingly reflected Western preoccupations. Quality was viewed as occidentalisation. We searched throughout the Muslim world for any serious mention of Islamic architectural history and found none. There were no processes for revival, just the occasional misplaced dome or minaret.

Our time-honoured cultural heritage had been buried – obscured not only by the shifting sands of time, but also by an all-consuming occidentalisation. As one observer commented, the physical identity of the Islamic world had been reduced to coffee table books.

It was out of these concerns that the Aga Khan Award for Architecture was established in 1977, followed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and its Historic Cities Programme.

As our agenda grew over time – and most excitingly – we also came to another critical understanding. We began to see the added potential of heritage projects for advancing an economic and a social agenda, for fighting poverty and driving development. To be sure, this potential was often ignored as culture was too easily miss-labelled as a luxury amid pressing social and economic needs.

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.

Some who share this view refer to cultural investments as a springboard for development. Similarly, I like to say that cultural heritage can be a trampoline, propelling dramatic improvements in the quality of human life.

I have seen this trampoline in action again and again. One of my early such experiences came three decades ago at a conference on urban growth in Cairo, a city founded by my own ancestors 1,000 years ago.

As we looked out over medieval Cairo that week, one glaring anomaly stood out: a stretch of barren land, some 30 hectares, covered largely in heaps of debris.

What an amazing surprise – in a city that was 1,046 years old and as densely populated as Cairo – to find a site in its oldest area on which no building had ever been built! Even the famous Ayyubid walls, which once ran alongside this site were covered by 5 to 6 metres of waste.

This rubble dump was a repellent deformity, but it was also a stirring opportunity. And the result was that on this forsaken site there was created a state-of-the-art green space: Al-Azhar Park.

Opened ten years ago, the Park has since attracted some 17 million visitors. Their access fees produce a re-investable annual surplus of some $800,000 US dollars.

But there is more to this story.

Adjoining the park was one of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods – Darb al-Ahmar – its ancient ruins sheltering some 200,000 poor, marginalised inhabitants. Out of those ruins there grew a great archaeological adventure – uncovering and restoring ancient ramparts and gates, six historic mosques and dozens of houses and palaces.

From the start, the local residents were deeply involved in this adventure. They were trained in restoration skills, and some 200 are still employed in this initiative. Others were trained to support the site and to accommodate the flow of visitors.

The restoration project also included major improvements in local education and health services, in neighbourhood infrastructure, in vocational training, and microcredit initiatives.

The result: 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.

Similar stories can be told about other places in the developing world, where historic cities can be among the poorest, often serving as makeshift transition spaces from rural poor populations to becoming city dwellers.

Our Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme was created to address these needs. It has now completed 20 major projects in ten countries, with a capital investment of over $190 million.

One compelling example is the restoration in Delhi of the 16th century tomb of the first Mughal emperor Humayun, and its surrounding gardens and monuments. A grand urban space has been created there covering over 150 hectares, hosting over 2 million visitors annually.

In Afghanistan, comparable restoration efforts in Kabul involve thirty buildings and public spaces, including the historic Babur gardens and the Mausoleum of Timur Shah. And nearby in Northern Pakistan, we have worked to restore and repurpose a series of historic buildings – forts and palaces – along the ancient Silk Route.

Another interesting initiative has been in the high mountain areas of Central Asia, to restore and enhance traditional water systems. Some 3,000 projects to date have rehabilitated old irrigation canals and related systems for bringing water from melting glaciers and snowfields to over a million people. And they have also improved water management structures through local water-user associations. The impact has been impressive, not only on human health and agriculture, but also in reducing conflict over scarce resources.

A continent away, in Mali, the restoration of ancient mud mosques in Mopti, Djenne and Timbuktu also involved close collaboration with government officials and local craftspeople, some employing age-old mud building skills. And I could cite other instructive examples – from Kenya, Syria or Tajikistan, from Mostar to Samarkand.

All across these highly diversified situations moreover, social inputs have been critical – including innovations in water and land management, new educational and medical facilities, vocational training, and nascent micro-tourism and micro finance projects.

But let me conclude by mentioning a different sort of example, one that demonstrates how the work of protecting cultural heritage in the developing world can resonate powerfully in the developed world – and sometimes in surprising ways!

I learned this at first hand. After decades when our energies had extended over dozens of international frontiers, I was reminded ten years ago that a classic preservation challenge was growing right under our own noses, in the heart of the French countryside.

I refer to the Domaine de Chantilly – home since the Middle Ages of leading French families: rivals, allies and even members of the Royal House. The Domaine includes its beautiful Chateau, its famous Grand Stables, and its superb gardens – the oldest of which were originally designed by Le Notre, reportedly the artist’s own favourite work.

And all of this – can you imagine! – lies just down the road from my personal residence, a short walk away!

Like so many familiar challenges, Chantilly was a noble, honoured but fading asset, with plunging visitation levels and a backlog of deferred maintenance. There was no collaboration amongst the key stakeholders, and not even an attempt to share a vision of the future.

One person who appreciated the importance of cultural heritage was the Duke of Aumale, son of the last French king. He inherited the Domaine in 1830, and rebuilt it to house his many treasures, including an antique painting collection that is second in size only to that of the Louvre. And he bequeathed it to the Institut de France in 1884.

And he did that on purpose! He didn’t want to give it to the French Government – that’s true! He wanted to give it to the Institut de France.

However, it was not until a century later that the Institut made it a priority to revitalise the Domaine. And I was invited to become a part of the response.

The Institut and I quickly agreed that a short-range burst of attention was not the answer. We needed a long-term plan. And we also agreed to build on the principle of public-private partnership.

Increasingly, 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.”

And so it was, at Chantilly in December of 2005, that a partnership agreement was signed between the Institut de France and a new private foundation – one that includes both governmental and private contributors. Operating under my presidency, the foundation was assigned the responsibility over affixed period of 20 years to preserve and promote the entire cultural area of Chantilly as an international model of heritage management.

That 20-year period is half over, but already the foundation has overseen extensive physical renovations, while also improving reception and visitation facilities. We have expanded publicity and we have created a rich programme of cultural events. And we also re-established a unique Horse Museum (surprise, surprise!) within the Grand Stables, reinforcing the historic place of Chantilly as one of Europe’s great equestrian centres.

Meanwhile, the flow of visitors to Chantilly has increased by 50 percent. By next year, we expect to welcome half a million visitors, making the whole initiative financially self-sustaining for the first time.

From this base we intend now to involve even more stakeholders and supporters, building an ever-stronger base of broad local support. As we do so, I know we can learn from many of you who have faced similar challenges.

Planning ahead for long-term sustainability is critical. At Chantilly and elsewhere, our plans have included permanent service facilities – a museum perhaps, or a scholarly research centre, a children’s library, or a training workshop – so that their eventual income streams, along with public access fees, can provide re-investable income.

But the real requirement – the sine qua non – is building a constituency for sustainability, including an engaged local community.

Let me conclude by underscoring my conviction that the work of cultural heritage is more critical today than ever before. In the developing and the developed worlds alike, societies are plunging into an increasingly bewildering future at an ever-accelerating pace.

At such a time – and on occasions such as this – 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.

Thank you.