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Hunza hope.

Restoration of a splendid fort high in the Hindu Kush and provision of sanitary facilities in its associated village give hope that a community maybe saved and enabled to deal with life in the twenty-first century while retaining essential parts of its ancient ethos.


Karimabad is the biggest village in the Hunza Valley, an amazingly remote outpost of humanity high in northern Pakistan(1) where the Hindu Kush, Little Pamir and Karakoram ranges collide (AR December 1996, p 11). Before the ancestors of the present inhabitants emigrated to the place from the south over 1000 years ago, the wide valley must have been like the others in the upper Indus complex: an arid and barren desert where a few cowering jade-coloured shrubs give no shelter from almost constant sandstorms.

With immense determination, generation after generation terraced the valley into fields and made artificial watercourses (nullahs - up to 10 kilometres long) that bring water to the terraces from the base of the glaciers which snake down the surrounding mountains. The result is miraculous. You reach the Hunza through the horrendous chasms of the upper Indus and its tributaries, to find the valley floor a tapestry of fertile greens, with tall thin poplar trees in counterpoint to the horizontal lines of the terraces. The valley is surrounded by huge triangular washes of dun-coloured scree fallen from the dry lower mountains. In ancient times, these slopes were covered with stabilising forests, long since felled for firewood and building materials. Crazy paths wind up the precipitous inclines, showing where people take their flocks to summer pastures by the glaciers; presumably the voracious animals are another reason why the forests do not grow again.

Vastly above these brownish lower mountains (which are high in themselves but merely an overture to the great symphony) float the snow-covered Karakoram giants. Guarding the valley to the south is the awesome mass of Rakaposhi, one of the world's highest peaks (over 25 500 ft and reputedly unclimbed). To the north, the passes to China are hidden among range after range of white mountains. This is where the Indian sub-continent is inexorably crashing into the great land-mass of Central Asia, and as the tectonic plates grind against each other, the whole area rises by at least a centimetre a year, and is shaken by numerous earthquakes.


Baltit village is a natural amphitheatre formed into narrow terraces, dominated by the 700 year old fort. traditional seat of the Mirs, the rulers of the valley.(3) Looming above and behind the amphitheatre are the cliffs of 24 000 ft ice-clad Ultar.(4) The fort was carefully sited. It commands the nullah from the glacial torrent(5) and is perched on the edge of the precipice that forms the wall of the gorge down which the stream pours.

The site is a moraine on which the fort gradually evolved over 600 years. More than 70 construction phases have been identified, built since the fort began as a pair of one- or two-storey houses, similar to the ones that huddle below on the terraces today. Towers were erected and truncated; the fort grew in area. The present appearance is not very old. Peace came to the valley when the British added it to the Indian Empire in the 1890s.(6) In the early twentieth century, the Mir converted the upper floor of the fort into a palace and added the unwarlike sun room and balcony on the west side above the village. In the 1930s, his descendant moved out to a modern bungalow palace a short distance away. The fort was abandoned and fell into disrepair.

In 1985, the heir to the Mir applied to the Aga Khan for help in improving the village and restoring the fort (the major cultural landmark of the vallley). The village was beginning to decay both socially and physically as the inhabitants used the modest increase in wealth brought by the Great Karakoram Highway(7) to escape from what they now perceived to be the squalor of their traditional existence. They started to build houses on the terraces, agricultural potential was lost and parts of the village fell into disrepair.

A programme of remedial work was organised by the Historic Cities Support Programme of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in collaboration with various other agencies.(8) The Trust appointed British engineer Richard Hughes and French architect Didier Lefort to mastermind the restoration of the fort.


Hughes found that the ancient constructional techniques used from the origin of the fort to the 1890s were admirably adapted to a region with many earthquakes." But additions had not always (or even often) been structuraly coherent with earlier phases. This was particularly true of early twentieth-century work. To make the bigger rooms that the Mir wanted on the top floor so that he could compare himself to the other princely rulers down in the Punjab, new walls were not aligned with lower ones, causing structural deformations. And the building had been left empty to the elements for tire best part of a half century. Rot and lack of maintenance had taken their toll; the place was very fragile.

Hughes found that the major structural problems were derived from relationships of the building to the ground. The earliest phases of the building were on the hard top of the moraine. But subsequent additions caused the building to extend over much less stable soils. The best foundations were made of rubble strapped together with cators (long cedar or poplar beams) fixed back into the hillside by short struts at right angles. Hughes says that these structures were 'not particularly well put together'(10) and lacked continuity between the timbers. Some of the later peripheral additions lacked any kind of proper foundation.

Above this structural chaos, the fort itself is a much more robust affair. Its main structure is cribbage (wooden framed boxes which are filled in with rubble consolidated with mud mortar). Hughes explains that 'the cribbage system ingeniously channels forces away from weak spots to areas where foundations could be more firmly sited, and provides corner rigidity. Along with the square pegs reinforcing the cribbage system, distortion of the square form into a trapezium is made difficult and provides far greater strength than quoin systems in rubble walls. The cribbage work, with its system of well-pegged joints, may also have some capacity to act in tension, thereby helping resist up-lift forces during earthquakes.'(11) Originally, the timbers were cedar, but when the original forests were exhausted, poplar was used. The system gives the main fort a natural resonant frequency of about 2Hz, in harmony with a typical earthquake. It was extremely important to ensure that new work neither stiffened the structure, nor made it too flexible.

Repairs proceeded in stages at 13 different work stations that divided the fort into structurally independent units (in fact, 60 different structures can be identified in the fort). The first necessity in each work station was to stabilise the foundations; the next step was conservation (and where necessary replacement) of the wooden elements of the walls, followed by renewal of the stone and mud infill, after which finishes were restored. The original state of the structure was carefully recorded in every case and, where parts had to be taken down for repair, each timber member was carefully marked so that it could be returned to its original position. Local weaknesses in ground conditions were overcome by inserting new stepped strip footings to reduce bearing pressures, or by using cators to beam over soft spots. Under the south facade, two vertical columns of cribbage work were sunk to hard moraine while the fort above was supported by giant needle beams on hydraulic jacks.

Work started at the north and south ends of the fort, partly to get experience before tackling the highly unstable west front (it was bowing and had an outward tilt from the foundations of 1.3m). The wall was only 400mm thick and had to be restrained from its tendency to topple outwards by holding it with temporary Parafil ropes which connected it to the north side. The base of the wall was exposed to lateral pressure from loose infill. This was excavated and re-established with Geo-mesh, a product normally used in forming road embankments that helps transfer the horizontal thrusts of the fill to vertical ones. With the base stabilised, the whole wall could be made secure by rebuilding parts of the cribbage work, gently pushing parts back and tying the whole to existing cross-walls behind. The soft internal and external renders were restored after movements had settled down in 1995.

The roofs play little part in stabilising the structure as a whole (in modern construction a single roof would probably be made into a shear plate to resist torsional movements in earthquakes). Traditional roof construction in the fort, as in the houses that surround it, consists of planks over beams, followed by a layer of bark over which is a layer of beaten earth. During the years of the fort's neglect, rot had set in to the planks and beams, but rather less extensively than was expected. The roofs were dismantled, carefully rebuilt with rotten timber replaced, and the whole was chemically protected against rot. Local earth contains no clay at all, so constant maintenance will be needed to ensure that the soil does not blow off, and to repair leaks after the infrequent rains. (The mud render of the walls has been stabilised by the addition of a small amount of cement, but this was not used on the roof because it would make cracks too difficult to repair, and it was never used structurally: Hughes says 'we're very wary of it'(12) because it could make construction too stiff.)

The restored fort is to be museum, study centre and community focus. Most of the rooms on the first level are restored to what they were probably like towards the end of the nineteenth century, Lefort has designed electric display lighting and the arrangement of objects. Here, it is easy to see how the fort evolved from a cluster of houses, for the major spaces in the warren are versions of the ha, the traditional living room of the Hunza house, which has a square opening to the sky over a central fire. The roof is typically supported by four columns that prop the main rafters which form the opening, and as Ron Lewcock remarked,(13) the structure acted as 'a bedstead' with four posts supporting a reinforced platform which could flex and survive in an earthquake while the masonry walls fell outwards.

Storerooms to the south end of this floor have been converted for the study centre, with provision for a climate-controlled library and research facilities. Throughout, there has been scrupulous attention to ensuring that the old work is as far as possible old, and the new, new. William Morris and the founders of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings would have been proud of the scheme: for instance, the new levels in the south-west tower and the thin passage that runs between the parallel outer west walls are floored in steel grid, so that you can look down between your feet to see how the building has been made and repaired. A few new openings have been created to allow visitors to circulate freely, and an escape stair has been constructed through former storerooms in the north-east corner.

Rooms in the upper floor, the ones created by the posh turn-of-the-century Mir, are largely returned to what he wanted, including the wallpapers and fireplaces. Some of these rooms can be used for temporary exhibitions. Others contain what remains of the Mirs' private collections: ancient weapons, photographs from the time of the Raj and so on. The Rani's summer courtyard on the upper floor and a large room in the middle of the lower one are available for village meetings and ceremonies.

The fort is now owned by a trust which is committed to promoting all three of its roles: community focus, scholarship and tourism. The Aga Khan suggests that the tourism will be a pump-primer of cash to help initiate other industries, and that the trade will not destroy the valley and its culture.(14) Clearly this is a gamble, but without it, the village would probably have collapsed in every sense.

While the project was largely led by experts from outside, the whole community was involved in the execution of the work. Almost everyone was involved in one way or another. Skills were re-awakened or imparted (the master carpenter came up from the Punjab). There is a hope that the experiences will be exportable to neighbouring areas.


One of the major aims of the Aga's Historic Cities Support Programme was to re-create a sense of community in the village. Both social and physical measures were needed. A Town Management Society (TMS) was formed early in the project to focus and influence local opinion. It is representative without perhaps being democratic and includes delegates from the Ismaili religious institutions and those of the five local tribes, the Mir, the local delegate to the Northern Areas Council and so on, Under the aegis of the TMS, the Karimabad Planning Support Service has been set up. A team of architects, engineers and social organisers, it has made a plan for the whole area.

Land-use strategies have been suggested. Proposed roads have now been re-routed to avoid the historic core, which has been designated a conservation area. Approaches have been evolved to generating new housing areas which will complement the existing interlocked settlements, and to find forms of construction and design of new work that can learn from the wisdom of old buildings.

Some of the latter have been restored in exemplary fashion by the Historic Cities Support Programme and its co-sponsors, using the immense experience gained from working on the fort. But little could have been done in social or physical terms without the installation of an earthquake-proof main sewer down the newly-paved main street of the historic area leading to an anaerobic disposal system (all funded by Norad). This has suddenly made traditional house-types possible to live in by people with modern sensibilities. Traditionally each house was entered through a midden with a cow or two and the family loo. Dislike for this arrangement made people move to new houses on the agricultural terraces, where they could make individual sewage disposal systems into cesspits. These have leaked and polluted surrounding areas. Now the cows are mostly confuted on the terraces and the lavatories in the houses are flush wcs. Little hotels further down the slopes that were beginning to be serious polluting agencies are to be drawn into the sewage scheme.

The community that was breaking up is beginning to come together again, as people return to their old houses. The main street up to the fort has been paved in stone and in its lower parts is a bazaar, with little shops, some largely serving visitors. This year, there is hope that dean water will be available from a new mains system provided by the government to all the houses served by the sewers. Both mains and sewer systems are to be gradually expanded to areas round the historic centre (though these in themselves on the whole follow the age-old morphology of habitations in the valley and are in effect as important as the parts below the fort). New high-density housing areas have been designated on the fringes of the existing settlements, and some work has started on the first units, which take some themes from tradition like the ha and the flat roof.

There is real hope that all these initiatives will sustain a very special and fragile community (and the fabric within which it exists) so that the multifarious structures (both cultural and physical) it has inherited can inform the future in ways that we cannot now imagine.

1 The state of Hunza was incorporated into the Northern Areas of Pakistan in 1974. Its inhabitants still cannot vote in national elections, though many of the young men join the Pakistani army (at the Age Khan's suggestion) to get training and experience of the wider world.

2 Baltit is the old name of Karimabad, which chose to retitle itself when the present Aga Khan (Prince Karim) came into the leadership of the Ismailis. The whole area on both sides of the great mountains is largely Ismaili.

3 Details of the fort are taken from Hughes, Richard, 'History and Conservation of the Baltit Fort' in Karimabad and Baltit Project Development, The Age Khan Trust For Culture, Geneva, 1996.

4 Climbed for the first time in 1995.

5 Control of water is key to the civilisation of the valley. There are many ancient rules for its organisation.

6 Up to then, the Mits had traditionally added to subsistence incomes by taking the tribesman over the passes to the north to raid the caravans on the Great Silk Road between China and Persia. This tended to create a rather belligerent attitude in the valley.

7 A heroic two-lane road which links Islamabad to Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, built with primitive engineering and human suffering on a traditional Chinese scale.

8 Among the most important of these are the Getty Grant Program which aided the restoration of the fort, and Norad (the Norwegian bilateral aid agency) which helped in the fort restoration and paid for the provision of the paving of the main street, the village sewage system and other urban renewal projects in Karimabad.

9 And defence. The British brought up a mountain battery when they invaded the valley, but the fort just flexed when hit by the most up-to-date nineteenth-century ordnance. The building was used to putting up with regular fierce blows of another kind from behind: avalanches on Ultar hurl air down the gulch with terrifying piston effect.

10 Hughes op cit, p17.

11 Ibid, p18.

12 Seminar in the Hunza, 30 September 1996.

13 Ibid.

14 AR December 1996, p13.
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Title Annotation:Hunza Valley, northern Pakistan
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Feb 1, 1997
Previous Article:Carthusian complexity.
Next Article:Literary device.

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