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Undaunted

First Rory Stewart walked the breadth of Afghanistan. Then he took up a real challenge: restoring traditional architecture in Kabul

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In the mud and dust of late-winter Kabul, Rory Stewart leads me through a seedy bazaar along the north bank of the Kabul River. I follow as the British adventurer turned historic preservationist ducks beneath an archway that connects two sagging, earthen-walled houses. Instantly, we've entered the narrow passages of a once-grand neighborhood, constructed in the early 1700s by an Afghan warlord, Murad Khan, and his Iranian-Shia foot soldiers, the Kizilbash. Today, the area—known as Murad Khane—shows the devastation wrought by decades of war and neglect. For the past ten months, Stewart and an international team of architects and engineers, working in concert with a number of Afghans, have been trying to resurrect—house by house—this moribund heart of their capital.

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At the edge of a field littered with half-collapsed, mud-walled homes, Stewart gets down on all fours and guides me into a crawl space between the foundation and ground floor of a traditional earthen-walled, timber-framed Afghan villa he calls Peacock House; to protect it from floods, they have raised the villa some three feet above its stone foundation with wooden blocks. "This building was ready to collapse when we got here," Stewart tells me, lying flat on his back. "The stone was crumbling, most of the beams were either missing or rotting. We were worried the whole thing would cave in, but we've succeeded in stabilizing it."

Stewart and I wriggle out from under the building, slap dirt off our clothing and climb a muddy ramp that used to be a flight of stairs. The second floor, once the main reception room of this wealthy merchant's home, reveals faint traces of its former glory. Stewart gestures to elegant, Mogul-style niches carved into a back wall: "We've been scraping gently; this is all recently exposed," he says, running his hand over a richly detailed latticework screen that has been minutely reconstructed. Then his eye catches something that makes him grimace: a piece of plasterwork over a doorway, newly embellished with a curlicue painted bright orange. "I object to this completely," he says. "You don't need to restore every missing piece. You have to accept there are certain bits missing."

Architectural preservation is not a subject in which Stewart would have claimed expertise as recently as a year ago. But the 34-year-old diplomat and author is a quick study, who in the dozen years since his graduation from Oxford University, has embarked on a succession of extraordinary enterprises. He walked 600 miles across rural Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban's fall, most of it alone, and described the experience in The Places in Between, a best-selling work of travel literature. He served as deputy governor of Maysan Province in southern Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion, where he settled tribal feuds and attempted to curb the rising power of Shia extremists. (That produced a second widely acclaimed book, The Prince of the Marshes, written while Stewart was a fellow at Harvard in 2004-5.)

In 2006, Stewart shifted from nation building to development. With his book royalties and seed money from the Prince of Wales, a longtime friend and mentor, Stewart founded the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul. Located in a renovated fortress on the decrepit outskirts of the city, the foundation (named after an Afghan capital destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1222) has established workshops for the revival of traditional Afghan crafts—calligraphy, woodworking and pottery. Most ambitiously, Turquoise Mountain has begun to transform the face of Kabul's ruined Old City. Workers have shoveled thousands of tons of garbage from the quarter's fetid streets and dug sewers and drainage ditches; architects have inspected the 60 buildings still standing, designated 20 as architecturally significant and begun to restore a handful. Stewart envisions a riverside commercial hub in the city center, clustered around a school for the arts that showcases traditional Afghan building techniques.

The project is by no means assured of success, as a glance around the quarter—a monochromatic wasteland of sagging houses and vacant lots—attests. Stewart is up against severe weather, bureaucratic inertia and the opposition of local developers who want to raze what's left of Murad Khane and erect concrete high rises. (In fact, the Afghan government had earmarked the entire neighborhood for demolition until Afghan president Hamid Karzai intervened last year.) There's also the difficulty of accomplishing much of anything in a country that remains one of the poorest and most unstable in the world. A resurgence of fighting beginning in early 2006 has unsettled much of the country and killed more than 3,000. Several suicide bombers have struck in Kabul during the past year. "Many people won't give me money to invest in Afghanistan, because they believe the Taliban are going to sweep back in," Stewart says. "I don't believe that's going to happen."

When Stewart is not overseeing his foundation, he is on the road—a recent trip included stops in Washington, D.C., London, Kuwait, Dubai and Bahrain—wooing skeptics. At a time when many international lenders are scaling down support of Afghan-related projects, Stewart has raised several million dollars, enough to sustain the foundation and its projects at least through the end of this year; he hopes to raise funding for three additional years. "People like to criticize Rory for having these grand visions," says Jemima Montagu, a former curator at the Tate Gallery in London, who arrived in Kabul last winter to help Stewart run the foundation. "But of all those I know who talk grand, he delivers."

One bright morning this past March, I took a taxi to the headquarters of Turquoise Mountain, located in a southwest Kabul neighborhood, Kartai Parwan. The barren hills that surround the city were dusted with snow and ice; the Hindu Kush range, 20 miles north, dazzled white over a mud-brown landscape. As dust from construction sites mingled with car exhaust, the taxi bounced through cratered streets, past pools of stagnant water. At every intersection, the vehicle was set upon by blind and crippled beggars; thin young men selling mobile-phone cards; and ragged boys armed with dirty cloths.

Before long, I arrived at what could have been a wayside inn on the ancient Silk Road, complete with a cedarwood watchman's kiosk, now purely decorative, with finely wrought panels and latticework screens. I passed through a security check at the gate, crossed a dirt courtyard and entered a small stucco administration wing, where Stewart sat behind a desk in his office beneath a window framing one of the best views in Kabul. He looked a bit bleary-eyed; as it turned out, he had been up most of the night completing his second article of the week—on the futility of using military force to pacify violent Pashtun areas of Afghanistan—as a guest columnist for the New York Times.

The foundation, which sprawls across several walled-off acres, is dominated by the qal'a, a towered mud-wall fortress built by a royal Tajik family in the 1880s. Turquoise Mountain leased the structure from an Afghan widow last year and has since reconstructed two of its ruined portions, landscaped the interior garden and turned the surrounding rooms into art galleries and living quarters for an expanding staff—now up to 200.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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