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Uzbekistan: Sloppy Work Risk in Bukhara Facelift

Builders cut corners to restore architectural treasures.
By IWPR staff
As the ancient city of Bukhara undergoes another bout of restoration, there are fears that irreparable damage could be done by the squads of builders hired to do the work instead of conservation experts.

Major works began towards the end of 2008, as part of a 500,000 US dollar project run by the culture ministry of Uzbekistan.

Bukhara has around 2,000 items of Islamic architecture dating from the ninth to the 19th centuries and listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The government of post-Soviet Uzbekistan has seized on the city’s history as a centre of learning, religion and political power in the Middle Ages. Not only do the authorities recognise Bukhara’s tourist potential, they also want to harness symbols from a glorious past to underpin the current regime’s legitimacy.

Experts fear that the rush to recreate the past rather than conserve architectural heritage may do more harm than good to unique and fragile sites.

According to one local human rights activist and historian, it may already be too late for the Kalon minaret, a 50-metre tower built in 1127 and perhaps the defining symbol of Bukhara.

“Much of this architectural complex acquired concrete foundations and a distorted external appearance,” he said, recalling work done on the minaret in the late Nineties to knock it into shape in time for the city’s 2,500th anniversary.

Their fears are based on what happened in Samarkand in the mid-Nineties, where medieval Islamic monuments were restored as a way of identifying Amir Timur – the warrior king known in the west as Tamerlane – with the modern Uzbek system of strong, top-down government.

Since the overriding desire was to create an attractive impression rather than achieve historical authenticity, short-cuts were taken with materials, techniques and finish. Modern building methods including the use of concrete structures were used in restoring unique sites like Afrosiab, a ruined pre-Islamic fortress city, and Shah-i Zinda, a medieval shrine and mausoleum complex.

Bakhtior Bobomurodov, who comes from a family of generations of restoration experts, says Bukhara only has around 30 professional restorers, when three times that number would be needed to cope with the work.

Konstantinos Politis of the Restorers Without Borders group, which is active in Uzbekistan, said lack of experience and skills was a problem, and led to poorly-planned, intrusive restorations that used the wrong materials and were liable to put greater strain on the original structure.

Officials leading reconstruction projects acknowledge the shortage of experts, but say they are getting round the problem.

Tuyghun Boboev, heading a project to restore Bukhara’s old city walls, said he had about 100 builders on the job, but they had sought advice from the experts beforehand and were only using traditional materials like clay and timber.

“Bukhara’s ancient wall is being restored according to all the rules, and UNESCO experts have acknowledged this,” Boboev said.

Politis was less pessimistic about the future than some local exports, arguing that the Uzbek authorities were taking steps such as a new Centre for Restoration which will produce guidelines on how conservation work should be done.

However, he acknowledged that this would take some time to feed through. “The results will come only after four or five years.”

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