Down the muddy monsoon-soaked path and through the towering red brick Delhi Gate of Lahore’s fabled walled city, there is an ambitious project to turn back decades of neglect and unchecked commercialization and save the city’s remaining treasures.
The area is abuzz with labourers digging up the roads. Already, workers for the conservation project have demolished a cloth market and a line of shops that was built against a 17th-century mosque, damaging its facade and structure.
For a city more than 1,000 years old, a powerful conservation effort of this kind – backed by political will, money and restoration expertise is critical.
Still, commerce is the walled city’s beating heart, and for residents and merchants, history is getting in the way of immediate need.
Haji Abdul Aziz, president of the Delhi Gate merchants association, says the restoration work has clogged market areas. “There has been lots of damage to business. The roads are closed. Where are the customers going to come from?” said Mr. Aziz, who runs a fabric shop.
The first phase of the $7-million Pakistani-led conservation project will restore a 1.6-kilometre section of the Royal Trail beginning at Delhi Gate. Once used by royalty and their courtiers as they entered the capital of the Mughal empire, the road is a muddy jumble of tea and food stalls, electrical cables, and zigzagging motorcycles. Rows of shops line the road, selling children’s clothing, dyes, tobacco and raw fabric.
If the heritage project is to succeed, the walled city’s traders will have to give up dreams of expanding their businesses. Unplanned – and often illegal – commercial activity means that half of the walled city is now used by businesses and markets compared to 25 per cent in 1987.
“Every day for one reason or the other, because of either age and decay or because of commercial reasons, those [heritage] buildings are getting less in number,” said Kamran Lashari, head of the Walled City of Lahore Authority, which was created by the Punjab government last year to run the 2.6-square-kilometre area and restore it.
With the help of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the Authority has identified about 2,000 structures as having historical significance.
Masood Khan, senior architect and planner with the Aga Khan Trust, said residents of Lahore, a city of 10 million, experience a “cultural amnesia” when it comes to the old city – forgetting that it was once the centre of power and culture until the 19th century when British colonial rule established institutions outside the walled city.
While most of the culture of the walled city has disappeared, not all is lost, he said.
“Despite all the spoilage, the defacement and dismemberment of the physical artifact that was the walled city, the intangible aspects of our culture continue to survive with vigour actually – some aspects like cuisine,” said Mr. Khan. “You have 16 different kinds of breakfast you can have in the walled city.”
Trying to assess which of the walled city’s buildings have architectural merit has led to some surprises. It is important not judge a building by its facade alone, Mr. Khan said.
One building that initially did not make the list was, in fact, a treasure. “It is only when you enter the building, you enter the courtyard … that you find that there’s this wonderful late 18th-century haveli [mansion].”