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    Preserving Heritage Through Modern Partnerships in Remote Pakistan

    By thebacboston
    Dec 20, '23 12:54 PM EST

    In a remote region in Pakistan, flanked by some of the world’s highest peaks, sits an innovative university that is working with local students to preserve their region’s cultural heritage and advance scholarly research.

    Getting to the University of Baltistan, Skardu (UOBS) in the Gilgit-Baltistan region is a feat in and of itself, but it’s worth the trek.

    Students in the new UOBS Archaeology and Heritage Studies program with UOBS faculty and BAC partners at Buddha Rock, Skardu. Photo by David Hansen.

    “You hear things about how hard it is to get to but, the length, difficulty, and beauty of the journey doesn’t register until you experience it,” says Eleni Glekas, Director of Historic Preservation at The Boston Architectural College (BAC) and author and principal investigator of a three-year, federally funded partnership with the UOBS.

    The ambitious and focused grant, which was funded by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, was strategically built around three mutually reinforcing outcomes:

    1. Develop a Bachelor of Science program in Archaeology and Heritage Studies at UOBS
    2. Build the framework for digital archive capabilities that would support that new undergraduate curriculum
    3. Create a field school that would bolster the cultural heritage conservation of local sites and encourage economic development and tourism in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan.

    By September 2023, when the grant formally concluded, the partnership had accomplished all three.

    Beyond the concrete outcomes of creating a new academic program, establishing new technical capabilities, and identifying a significant cluster of archeological and heritage sites from which to conduct field research, the grant was also remarkable in its pacing.

    “The award began during lockdown, in 2020,” said Eleni Glekas. “We were unable to meet our colleagues in person for almost two years. The vast majority of our early work was done completely online…building those bonds from a distance is hard.”

    Eleni, an experienced international advisor on heritage-based development and restoration, had already served as a principal investigator and participant in a series of State Department grants on faculty training and civil society at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, Pakistan. Although these earlier experiences certainly helped them to build trust and offered a certain degree of cultural understanding, Eleni and her BAC colleagues, Don Hunsicker, Dean of the School of Design Studies, and Chala Hadimi, Director of First Year Experience, knew that this project demanded a unique approach.

    “We couldn’t just replicate our partnership with the National College of Arts,” she said. “They had different capabilities, different needs and aspirations for themselves.”

    There were obvious logistical differences, too.

    Lahore is a megacity teeming with more than 11 million people. Skardu, by contrast, is an outpost town. Situated at the intersection of the Himalayan, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram mountains, the area primarily attracts hardcore mountaineers willing to take on K2, the second-highest peak and the deadliest mountain in the world.

    Overlooking Shigar village from Bodi Shagaran, a field of ancient petroglyphs and one of the UOBS field school sites. Photo by David Hansen.

    Dr. Laura Tedesco, a cultural heritage program manager in the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs who handpicked the BAC for this partnership, kept all of these factors in mind when conducting a site visit of the Gilgit-Baltistan region in 2018.

    The faculty of a newly established university, UOBS, caught her attention when they said they wanted to start a four-year program in heritage preservation.

    “How do we create a partnership with an American university with the right background?” she asked herself initially. “I thought a natural fit would be the BAC.”

    In addition to the BAC’s pioneering online programs and sustained vision of exploration, Laura – who, since 2013, had entrusted the BAC to carry out a series of university partnership grants at NCA in Lahore – valued not only the expertise but also the professionalism of her colleagues in Boston.

    “The BAC could have been in Wichita,” said Laura when asked about whether location had anything to do with selecting the College as a representative for the United States. “I saw what Eleni and Don could do and the way they approached things. They had a high manner of professionalism and approached their Pakistani counterparts as partners and professional equals.”

    Eleni and Don’s technical expertise was a close second to their relational acumen; their combined experiences brought integral background knowledge and logistical best practices to the development of the new degree program.

    “Skardu gets about three hours of electricity per day,” said Eleni, “and everything runs on backup generators.” This meant online training courses were not a realistic option due to spotty internet connectivity, so they developed a series of monthly seminars that were more manageable.

    While building up the new degree program meant closely collaborating with faculty and administration on the development of courses, it also required training and equipping them with digital archive capabilities, including surveying and mapping tools like photogrammetry and graphics processing units with capacities for 3D modeling.

    These conservation and digital documentation tools were built into the grant’s objectives and will continue to play a part in the success of the new Bachelor of Science in Archaeology and Heritage Studies at UOBS and its corresponding field school. They are vital, not only as a way to visualize history but also as a method for incentivizing deeper research for building public interest and investment in heritage conservation.

    “With photogrammetry, we can create detailed 3D records that can be compared year-over-year to evaluate changes through time from natural and man-made environmental factors,” said David Hansen, Director of Academic Technology at the BAC and instructor of a three-day photogrammetry training workshop at the field school in nearby Shigar. “Measuring these changes and their effects can more efficiently guide resources for preservation and intervention.”

    Similarities Across Hemispheres

    Not unlike Pakistan in its architecture and climate, Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico (1100 A.D.), is the oldest continually-inhabited city in North America and the site of an impressive collection of adobe, flat-topped buildings perched on an isolated mesa.

    “You can see the Native American and (Spanish) colonial interplay with mud brick,” says Mark Davison, BAC faculty and urbanism expert who accompanied the BAC-Pakistani delegation on a cultural exchange to New Mexico in September. More generally, you can follow the lineage movement from Pakistan, the Middle East, North Africa, and– through the Moors–into Spain, all the way to the Americas.

    Residents of Acoma Pueblo incorporate modern interventions into traditional adobe houses. Photo by Chala Hadimi.

    Eleni, who over the years has designed numerous cultural exchanges between her American and Pakistani colleagues, deliberately selects a variety of sites to contrast sweeping parallels in human ingenuity with differences in tone and place.

    At Acoma Pueblo, for example, you can pick up on the similarities between adobe construction techniques that are prominent in Pakistan and date back 1,000 or 2,000 years, she said.

    For Sajjad Hussain, a lecturer in the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies at UOBS, seeing the contrasts and rich histories of the Pueblos and Indigenous Americans was like “time travel.”

    Even though the partnership has formally ended, the relationship between the two schools remains. Our colleagues at UOBS “can always come to us with questions about class or if they want our input on something,” said Eleni.

    Looking back on the partnership, which thrived despite numerous roadblocks–some as literal as avalanches– David reached a conclusion similar to Dr. Tedesco’s: “Eleni was the leader, the visionary... the person who made it all work and who held it all together. She dug us out of a bit of a morass and did it with kindness, skill, positivity, curiosity, and an infectious joy.”

    The two programs will continue to look externally, focusing on community engagement and using tools and experiences developed over the last three years.

    “Community engagement is one of the important aspects for any academic institution, to translate the actual research and academic findings to society for their well-being,” said Dr. Ghulam Raza, professor, and head of natural resources management at UOBS. We are “striving to involve the community through seminars, conferences, and workshops,” he said.

    Meanwhile, at the BAC, Mark is working on a new course on cultural landscapes. It has two variations: The first is developing a syllabus to support a new undergraduate course for the cultural heritage management students at UOBS. It will primarily be an introduction with an emphasis on cultural case studies. The second is for graduate students at the BAC. “This one will take a deep dive into distinct elements of the city: the city square, urban parks, places of worship, urban stadiums, and the role of the street. I’m working on them side-by-side,” says Mark.

    Interested BAC students can sign up for Mark’s course, which starts in January.

    View other BAC stories and learn more about the BAC here

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