WALLED CITY OF LAHORE
Pakistan preserves the past while embracing future
Officials juggle conserving the diverse heritage with building modern infrastructure in Pakistan’s chaotic second city, writes Khurram Shahzad
Perched on scaffolding, restoration experts chip away at decades of grime and repair broken mosaic tiles in a bid to save the colossal murals depicting historic battles and regal ceremonies on the walls of Lahore fort.
The painstaking work is part of efforts to preserve Lahore’s crumbling architectural history as officials juggle conserving its diverse heritage with building modern infrastructure in Pakistan’s chaotic second city.
The metropolis once served as the capital of the Mughal Empire, which stretched across much of the subcontinent. It has been subsumed into myriad civilisations across the centuries. This rich past is most visible in the milieu of architecture salted across the Walled City of Lahore, from Hindu temples and Mughal forts to Sikh gurdwaras and an administrative office built during the Raj.
"You get a history of a thousand years, 500-year-old houses and monuments and mosques, shrines and a very peaceful atmosphere," says Kamran Lashari, director-general of the Walled City of Lahore Authority.
Prime among them, and dating back to the 11th century, the Lahore fort was first built of mud and was then later reinforced with stone over the centuries by a long cast of Mughal emperors who oversaw its expansion and the accompanying artwork. But periods of conflict along with searing heat, monsoon rains and years of neglect have taken a toll on the fort. Despite the onset of decay, experts suggest the city’s vast Islamic architectural heritage could make it a contender to rival more established Silk Road travel destinations.
"Lahore can easily compete with Samarkand. It nearly matches Isfahan," says Sophie Makariou, president of the Parisian-based National Museum of Asian Arts.
Makariou says that its failure to shine is more to do with the safety concerns that have plagued the nation after multiple attacks.
"Due to the bad reputation of Pakistan, it remains unknown."
But as security across Pakistan continues to improve, officials are hoping to revive Lahore’s lost glory.
More than 40 conservationists with the authority — including engineers, architects and ceramists from across the globe — are working on restoring the mosaic mural on the fort’s exterior.
"It’s one of the largest murals in the world.
"It contains over 600 tile mosaic panels and frescos," says Emaan Sheikh from the Agha Khan Trust for Culture.
Restoration of the mural is just part of a larger project to refurbish the fort.
Similar work has already been done to revamp the artwork at the historic Wazir Khan mosque and the Shahi Hammam, which at about 400 years old is one of the only surviving Turkish baths in the subcontinent.
The city’s famed Delhi Gate, which once hosted Mughal processions arriving in Lahore from the east, has also been restored along with dozens of homes in the Walled City.
Many of those involved in the project are optimistic.
"The cities which are most famous for tourism … all the prerequisites … are available in Lahore," says Ahmer Malik, head of Punjab’s tourism corporation, referring to Lahore’s cultural and architectural attractions.
But not all are convinced.
Kamil Khan Mumtaz, president of Lahore Conservation Society, an advocacy group promoting preservation projects, says the efforts run the risk of transforming the old city into a Disneyland to attract tourists.
"This was a pedestrian’s city. A pre-Industrial Revolution modelled city. This should be conserved into that original state instead of remodelling buildings," says Mumtaz, who is pushing for the use of traditional construction materials in restorations. The calls run into fresh conflict with infrastructure plans aimed at easing the city’s traffic congestion as Lahore adds high-rise buildings, malls, flyovers and amusement parks to its cityscape. Lahore was the first Pakistani city to unveil a metro bus service and is now constructing a metro train that Mumtaz and fellow civil society groups say will diminish the architectural history. The city also faces fresh challenges from tourism. Canadian visitor Usama Bilal complains: "There are gorgeous old colonial buildings … but they are not well taken care of.
"There is no infrastructure built for tourists."