March 23, 2014

Global Charity Improves Life for the Poor as It Restores Historic Muslim Sites

Photo by Zheng Huansong/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Here, a boy enjoys dipping his feet into a fountain on the grounds of the restored Humayun’s Tomb.

Four hundred years ago, the widow of the second Mughal emperor of India built her husband a grand mausoleum in what is now Delhi. Recognized as one of the world’s heritage sites by Unesco, Humayun’s Tomb—an architectural precursor of the Taj Mahal—and its surrounding gardens gradually fell into disrepair.

Today its marble dome shines brightly, lush grass grows alongside its walkways, and its pools and fountains are repaired. The painstaking restoration by local master craftsmen helped attract 300,000 people last year, more than 300 times the number of visitors before the makeover.

The building’s physical transformation, as well as myriad improvements to the surrounding community, was made possible by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a nonprofit organization that focuses on revitalizing communities in the Muslim world through physical and social improvements and other efforts. The group restores landmark buildings and parks in urban areas while also working to meet the needs of local residents, who are surveyed to determine what projects should be undertaken in areas such as education, health, and employment.

“We want to improve the quality of life,” says Jurjen van der Tas, a Trust for Culture official who oversees social and economic projects. “Often people in historic cities move to the outskirts and buildings become dilapidated. People of lower income then move to the inner core. Our efforts are to breathe new life into the center of a city without gentrifying it.”

Creating or restoring parks and open spaces in cities for public use is a key element of that process. Green spaces do more than offer a place of rest and recreation for urban dwellers, says Ratish Nanda, who spearheads the Humayun’s Tomb project for the Trust. “People of all classes come to parks and linger,” he says. “It leads to communal harmony.”

To finance upkeep and security, visitors to the tomb pay a small entrance fee.

In each project, the Trust works with partner organizations not only beautifying and restoring physical spaces but also improving conditions for local people through such efforts as job training, increased access to health and education, and upgrading of sanitation.

“These are all objectives that any city in the world seeks to achieve,” says Mr. Nanda.

The Trust for Culture is part of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of organizations dedicated to helping people in the developing world that is represented in the United States by the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. Led by His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, the network works in 30 countries and operates with an annual budget of about $625-million. Support comes from governments around the world, international-development nonprofits, and corporations.