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This photograph taken on October 8, 2017, shows the historic Mughal-era Lahore Fort in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
Perched on scaffolding, restoration experts chip away at decades of grime and repair broken mosaic tiles that form collossal murals, depicting battles and regal ceremonies on the walls of the iconic Lahore fort. / AFP PHOTO / AAMIR QURESHI / To go with 'PAKISTAN-LIFESTYLE-TOURISM-LAHORE-DEVELOPMENT,FEATURE' by KHURRAM SHAHZAD — AFP or licensors

Can reviving Lahore's crumbling architectural glory boost its profile as a hub of tourism?

Despite onset of decay, Lahore's Islamic architectural heritage could rival established Silk Road travel destinations.
Updated Mar 01, 2018 02:33pm

Perched on scaffolding, restoration experts chip away at decades of grime and repair broken mosaic tiles in a bid to save the colossal murals depicting historic battles and regal ceremonies on the walls of Lahore Fort.

The painstaking work is part of efforts to preserve Lahore's crumbling architectural history as officials juggle conserving its diverse heritage with building modern infrastructure in the country's second-largest city.

The metropolis, which once served as the capital of the Mughal empire that stretched across much of the subcontinent, has been subsumed into a myriad of civilisations across the centuries.

This rich past is most visible in the milieu of architecture salted across the Walled City of Lahore ─ from Hindu temples and Mughal forts to Sikh gurudwaras and administrative offices built during the Raj.

In this photograph taken on October 7, 2017, a Pakistani conservationist works on the 440-metre-long, 15-metre-high picture wall at the historic Mughal-era Lahore Fort. ─ AFP
In this photograph taken on October 7, 2017, a Pakistani conservationist works on the 440-metre-long, 15-metre-high picture wall at the historic Mughal-era Lahore Fort. ─ AFP

"You get a history of a thousand years, 500-year-old houses and monuments and mosques, shrines and a very peaceful atmosphere," says Kamran Lashari, director general of the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA).

Prime among them, and dating back to the 11th century, the Lahore Fort was first built of mud and was then later reinforced with stone over the centuries by a long cast of Mughal emperors who oversaw its expansion and the accompanying artwork.

But periods of conflict along with searing heat, monsoon rains and years of neglect have taken a toll on the fort.

Despite the onset of decay, experts suggest the city's vast Islamic architectural heritage could make it a contender to rival more established Silk Road travel destinations.

Tourists visit the Lahore Fort. ─ AFP
Tourists visit the Lahore Fort. ─ AFP

"Lahore can easily compete with Samarkand. It nearly matches Ispahan," says Sophie Makariou, president of the Parisian-based National Museum of Asian Arts.

Makariou adds that its failure to shine is more to do with safety concerns that have plagued the nation after multiple attacks.

"Due to the bad reputation of Pakistan, it remains unknown," she explains.

Pearl of the Punjab

But as security across the country continues to improve, officials are hoping to revive Lahore's lost glory.

More than 40 conservationists with the the WCLA ─ including engineers, architects and ceramists from across the globe ─ are currently working on restoring the mosaic mural on the fort's exterior.

"It's one of the largest murals in the world. It contains over 600 tile mosaic panels and frescos," says Emaan Sheikh from the Agha Khan Trust for Culture.

This photograph taken on October 7, 2017, shows the Lahore fort. ─ AFP
This photograph taken on October 7, 2017, shows the Lahore fort. ─ AFP

Restoration of the mural is just part of a larger project to refurbish the fort, which includes conservation projects in the royal kitchen, the summer palace and a basement, according to WCLA's director general Kamran Lashari.

Similar work by the WCLA has already been done to revamp the artwork at the historic Wazir Khan Mosque and the Shahi Hammam ─ one of the only surviving Turkish Baths in the subcontinent that is approximately 400 years old.

In this photograph taken on October 7, 2017, guide Farhan Bell (L) talks to tourists on a colourful double decker bus during a ride in Lahore. ─ AFP
In this photograph taken on October 7, 2017, guide Farhan Bell (L) talks to tourists on a colourful double decker bus during a ride in Lahore. ─ AFP

The city's famed Delhi Gate, which once hosted extravagant Mughal processions arriving in Lahore from the east, has also been fully restored along with dozens of homes in the Walled City.

Many of those involved in the project are optimistic.

"The cities which are most famous for tourism, you can take London, Madrid, Istanbul, Rome, all the prerequisites which are available in those cities, are available in Lahore," claims Ahmer Malik, head of Punjab's tourism corporation, referring to Lahore's architectural and cultural attractions. But not all are convinced.

In this photograph taken on October 7, 2017, a worker cleans a golf cart for tourists to visit the Lahore Fort. ─ AFP
In this photograph taken on October 7, 2017, a worker cleans a golf cart for tourists to visit the Lahore Fort. ─ AFP

Kamil Khan Mumtaz, President of Lahore Conservation Society (LCS), an advocacy organisation promoting preservation projects, says the efforts run the risk of transforming the old city into a "Disneyland" to attract tourists.

"This was a pedestrian's city. A pre-Industrial revolution modelled city. This should be conserved into that original state instead of remodelling buildings," said Mumtaz, who is pushing for the use of traditional construction materials in restoration projects.

The calls runs into fresh conflict with infrastructure plans aimed at easing the city's traffic congestion as Lahore adds high-rise buildings, malls, flyovers and amusement parks to its cityscape.

Lahore was the first city in Pakistan to unveil a metro bus service, and is now constructing an inaugural metro train that Mumtaz and fellow civil society groups say will diminish the architectural history.

The city also faces fresh challenges as it it opens up to tourism.

Canadian visitor Usama Bilal complains: "There are gorgeous old colonial buildings, British era buildings but they are not well taken care of. There is no infrastructure built for tourists."

In this photograph taken on October 7, 2017, tourists prepare to board a colourful double decker bus before they start their tour of Lahore. ─ AFP
In this photograph taken on October 7, 2017, tourists prepare to board a colourful double decker bus before they start their tour of Lahore. ─ AFP

Tourists visit the historic Mughal-era Lahore Fort. ─ AFP
Tourists visit the historic Mughal-era Lahore Fort. ─ AFP

Vendors wait for customers in the colourful "food street" in Lahore. ─ AFP
Vendors wait for customers in the colourful "food street" in Lahore. ─ AFP

In this photograph taken on October 7, 2017, tourists sit visit the colourful "food street" in Lahore. ─ AFP
In this photograph taken on October 7, 2017, tourists sit visit the colourful "food street" in Lahore. ─ AFP

A chef prepares bbq for tourists at Lahore's colourful "food street". ─ AFP
A chef prepares bbq for tourists at Lahore's colourful "food street". ─ AFP

Tourists visit Lahore's colourful "food street". ─ AFP
Tourists visit Lahore's colourful "food street". ─ AFP

Tourists watch a colourful dancing fountain at Lahore's greater Iqbal Park. ─ AFP
Tourists watch a colourful dancing fountain at Lahore's greater Iqbal Park. ─ AFP