June 13, 2005
By Marcus Binney, Architecture Correspondent Aga Khan repairs the lairs of the Silk Road's bandit barons
The renovated Baltit fort
THE rescue of great houses from decay has been one of the enduring romantic causes of the last half-century. Rarely has it been done amid grander scenery or with a keener sense of social purpose than in northern Pakistan, where the Aga Khan is engaged in the repair and re-use of a series of remarkable palace-forts high in the western Himalayas.
This was the stalking ground of the Great Game, when spies posing as geographers were sent to explore the high passes down which, it was feared, the Russians would sweep into India. The forts were built by feuding robber barons who preyed on travellers along the Silk Road to China in the north, murdering and selling their captives into slavery.
When the British made homes here they paid stipends to the local rulers, the mirs and the rajas, who were invited to durbars and filled their homes with the latest fashions from Delhi and Paris. But in recent years the forts have become expensive to maintain and, once left empty, their mud mortar and earth roofs decay rapidly.
The Aga Khan Development Network has been working in these areas since the 1980s. The Aga Khan said: “This was one of the poorest, most marginalised areas in the world. We were looking for ways to improve income. First we brought 33,000 hectares of land back into production with irrigation projects, improving livestock and productivity. We decided to make an inventory of all the assets of the area and to decide how they could be used.”
Karimabad, named in his honour, is an oriental Fiesole set amid majestic, snow-capped mountains with lush green terraces ascending the hillside, and lines of tall, slender poplars providing the same vertical accents as cypresses in the Tuscan hills.
Here the initial programmes provided clean water, drainage and electricity to the village, before tackling Baltit fort, which towers above it. This has been restored with furnished interiors. Within, a heavily fortified entrance leads to a delightful series of pillared rooms and small courtyards with rich woodcarving and stained glass. There is a summer throne pavilion on the roof where you look down to the neighbouring Altit fort — older still — with a high tower dated to 1548.
Altit’s interiors are badly decayed, so it will be left with bare, unrendered walls inside and out, showing off the construction, and its rooms made available for community use. Improvements have also been carried out in the village contained within the outer bailey wall, a maze of winding alleys where houses are now served by the latest in ecological waste disposal.
Barely 80 miles away is Shigar Fort. Substantial parts of it have collapsed, so it was decided to reconstruct it as a hotel with 13 bedrooms in the fort, with a further seven in outbuildings. The result is a Relais-Château, run by the Aga Khan’s Serena Group. It is the ultimate place for romantic honeymoons — though with the caveat that no alcohol is served.
All restoration work is preceded by meticulous examination to identify appropriate building materials. Richard Hughes, an archaeologist at Arup, explains: “The palace is built on a platform of cyclopean masonry. The stonework of the upper walls is interspersed with timbers which provide lateral strength in earthquakes. The whole palace is anchored to a giant mother-stone visible both within and without.”
The extensive garden has been replanted under Benedict Bull, who has an unquenchable enthusiasm for authentic detail — from pretty basket-weave tree guards and bed edgings to earth walls with a capping of prickly sea buckthorne and lines of roses. The Baradari (Persian for a pavilion with 12 openings) has been reconstructed on an island surrounded by beds of irises. Near by, the handsome wooden Friday mosque or Khanqah, which had almost slid off its foundations, has been stabilised and is still used for worship.
The next fort to be tackled is Khaplu — close to the line of control between Pakistan and India. The Raja’s palace, built in the middle of the 18th century, is set against the mountainside and has the distinct feel of a villa at Frascati.
The enchantment of these forts is due not just to their majestic surroundings, with 12 of the world’s top 30 peaks. Here you can also see superb husbandry, with stone-walled terraces brimming with wheat and wild flowers. The Aga Khan Development Network is a remarkable enterprise, and this is one of the better thought-out aid initiatives. A new society is being fostered and, as the locals proudly point out, you do not see beggars here.