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AGA KHAN ON CULTURAL REVIVAL-1997-03-15

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Event - 1997-03-15
Date: 
Saturday, 1997, March 15
Location: 
Source: 
The Nation
Author: 
Nation Corresponcant

"Investment in historic cities can be a productive development investment, meeting practical needs, releasing creative energies and providing sources of social cohesion - not an unproductive investment in stagnating, barren environments."

Speaking at the inauguration of a 100-year old building, newly restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the Aga Khan drew attention to "the emerging understanding of the importance of culture as a critical element in development strategies in general, and for efforts to revitalise the historic cores of the world's towns and cities in particular."

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is a non-profit institution involved in recognition of architectural excellence, architectural education for the Islamic world and the revitalisation and restoration of historic cities.

Zanzibar's Stone Town has been selected by UNESCO as one of the world's 100 most important historic urban concentrations.

The Stone Town Cultural Centre was inaugurated by President Amour of Zanzibar in the presence of Tanzania's President Benjamin Mkapa, diplomats, representatives of international cultural and development agencies and civic authorities. The landmark building on the Zanzibar seafront, known as the Old Dispensary, is an excellent example of the confluence of the many cultures Zanzibar represents: African, Arab, Indian and European. Originally conceived as a hospital in the late nineteenth century by Tharia Topan, a pioneer trader who later became Honorary Prime Minister, the building's construction was interrupted. It was subsequently purchased by the estate of another Zanzibari merchant, Nasser Nur Mohammed, whose trustees put the building to a mixed use, including a dispensary on the ground floor. After the political events of 1964, the dispensary was closed. Today, it re-emerges as a combined cultural, retail and service centre that neither conflicts with the construction aims of the restoration project nor compromises the social and economic self-sustainability of the building.

President Amour conveyed the gratitude of the Government and people of Zanzibar to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for the "commendable effort in returning the values of this building to its former glory" and expressed the hope that the building would "act as a beacon of cultural revitalisation of Zanzibar."

Deploring the fact that "far too long, culture has been seen as something unproductive, something worthy of attention and support only after pressing social and economic needs are addressed," the Aga Khan explained why preservation and revitalisation of historic environments were important, given the powerful political and economic forces of change that have emerged in the last 20 years.

"Change means opportunity for those who are well-prepared to manage it. But change can also be disorienting, particularly when it is the erosion of "structures, values and symbols that have provided shape and meaning in a given society and culture." "It can be particularly destructive," said the Aga Khan, "among the less well-off in any society, the very people often found in urban centres, the growing squatter settlements on the edge of cities and in much of the countryside."

Citing the example of the historic city of Mostar in Bosnia and its richly symbolic bridge until it was recently destroyed, the Aga Khan emphasised how, for historic cities, "attention to their preservation and revitalisation can contribute to stability, provide real economic opportunities, and increase the overall quality of life."

"But," the Aga Khan continued, "supporting historic cities is no simple business." The revitalisation initiatives of the Historic Cities Support Programme of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture involve a broad approach encompassed the reform of regulations and policies, mobilising public support and the development of a comprehensive plan.

"A comprehensive approach such as this," said the Aga Khan, "is necessary to produce lasting change, but it will not be sufficient. Such interventions must reach a critical mass to be self-sustaining.

"Until other sources - public, charitable, and most importantly private - are stimulated to emulate what has been modelled, the impact on the culture and the economy will be circumscribed."

Noting that it was precisely such a broad approach that the Aga Khan Development Network had taken in its interventions in Zanzibar, the Aga Khan referred to the historically creative renovation of the two decaying turn-of-the-century buildings inaugurated at the weekend as the Zanzibar Serena Inn and Kelete Square, the open space on which it lies, both at the opposite end of the seafront wall defining Forodhani Park, which is overlooked by the House of Wonders, the Sultan's Palace and the Old Fort. The buildings forming the Zanzibar Serena Inn included one that served the under-sea telegraph network that circled the globe in the early years of this century and an adjourning old Arab house in which Dr. David Livingstone once stayed.

In his earlier remarks at the inauguration of the Serena Inn, which constitutes the final phase of the US$40 million investment in the Tanzanian Tourism industries by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), the Aga Khan said: "We are inaugurating today, not just a small hotel, but in fact something more important for the Stone Town, a most crafted mini-urban redevelopment."

The Aga Khan described how an unusual urban revitalisation project and part of one of the largest tourism investments in the region would reinvigorate both the Islands' economy and their unique cultural heritage.

"The Zanzibar Serena Inn," said the Aga Khan, "is, I believe, a real-life demonstration of how two minor yet interesting and not insignificant architectural examples, that risked falling into costly disrepair and disuse, can be given new life and made to play a vital part in the reawakening economic and social mainstream of the urban area they dominate."

President Mkapa, speaking to an audience which include President Salmin Amour, diplomats and representatives of international agencies and local leaders, commented on the impact of tourism, saying that "the fear that tourism is a social-cultural destabiliser in Africa is increasingly waning." Stressing that "we cannot, however, be blind to the fact that tourism does interact with the natural and the human environment," he acknowledged that "if uncontrolled, it can destroy the attractions on which its success depends."

Expressing the appreciation of the government of Zanzibar and Tanzania for this latest investment, President Mkapa acknowledged its significance for the people of the Islands and the country at large.

Prince Amyn Aga Khan, brother of the Aga Khan and chairman of Tourism Promotion Services, noted that, besides creating nearly one hundred new jobs for local people, the Serena Inn would stimulate commerce by encouraging local fishermen and farmers to provide it with the highest quality produce.

The opening of the Inn marks the fifth Serena property to begin operations in Tanzania within the past 12 months, making for a total investment of US$40 million in the country. Taken together with five units in Kenya which have been operating since the Group started there over 25 years ago, these new investments bring Serena's facilities in East Africa to 900 rooms.

Prince Amyn described the extensive studies, architectural, environmental, historical and cultural, that were undertaken, before the adaptive restoration of the building. He explained how original or noteworthy features of interior decor and architecture had been carefully researched so that they could be recreated with the help of local artisans.

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