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Building in Stone in the Hunza Valley

March 26, 2012

The northern regions of Pakistan were always remote and inaccessible. Yet two thousand years ago a side road along the ancient silk route cut through this region, dropping south from Sinkjang in western China, past the massive Pamir mountains and through the precipitous valleys of the KaraKoram and the Hindu Kush ranges, linking the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia, the Han Dynasty, Parthian Persia and ultimately the Roman Empire. It is a perilous path to travel, even to this day. The first time I traveled this route, my bus was stopped by armed bandits. During my second and third trips, the roadway was repeatedly blocked by massive landslides as Spring rains melted the snows on the surrounding 20,000 foot peaks, halting traffic along the circuitous Karakorum Highway for hours or even days while crews with bulldozers and shovels cleared the path which snakes through the upper Indus River Valley.
Settlements within this region cling to the steep alluvial plains, pressed between the rising slopes of the massive mountains and the precipitous river gorges. In many villages and towns, level ground is scarce, attained only through terracing of the landscape. For centuries and even millennium, residents laboriously cut into the slopes and raised walls to hold back the alluvium, creating platforms for houses and plots for agriculture. It is a terrain that affords a constant sense of vertigo, as every narrow street or dirt path drops abruptly on one side, overlooking the rooftops and providing dramatic views of the torrential glacial waters below and the snow capped peaks beyond.

Hunza Valley, Northern Pakistan

In the town of Karimabad in the Hunza Valley, along one of these narrow hillside terraces, I encountered a man bent over as he cut away at the bedrock with a short handled pick. Around him were piles of broken and ragged stone fragments, sorted by size and shape; the results of his arduous labors. Behind him were a few low walls in which his quarried stone had already been put to use. Under his brown felt cap his hair was gray and his face was weathered and creased in a thousand places. He appeared to be as old as the rock he was working.
When he noticed that I had stopped to watch he greeted me in perfect English, informing me that he was building his house at this place. He explained how he cut the foundation into the bedrock, to provide a secure footing for his home against landslides and earthquakes. He would keep the walls low and make the windows and doors small and few to keep out the cold winter winds and to further stabilize the structure. He showed me he where he would embed wooden posts within the masonry to provide support for the roof, as protection in case the masonry walls were to collapse in this seismic region.
“I could build this house with mud,” he informed me, “but a house built of stone will last for a hundred years.”
“But you nor I will be around a hundred years from now,” I candidly replied.
Undaunted, he simply pointed up towards the hillside, to Baltit Fort, a fortress which sat high on the ridge above the town, and in more recent times served as the palace for the local amir. Fortified structures such as these were once found throughout these rugged valleys, until the late nineteenth century when the English blew up most of them to ensure colonial control over the region. Designed for defense, they often utilized the high ground and were built with multiple stories to provide an elevated platform from which to gain defensive advantage, serving as places of retreat in time of attack. Yet to build these multi-story structures in such a seismically active region, accommodations needed to be made in the construction. Baltit fort was built on a base of heavy stones without mortar, so that the foundation could shift and settle rather than crumple once the ground began to move. Horizontal wooden beams were laid on either side of the walls to provide a flexible framework to hold the masonry in place and prevent collapse. At the corners, these overlapping beams created a space which formed a continuous column which when filled with rubble stone, further strengthened these points of greatest weakness and creating an effective indigenous structural system which developed throughout the Karakoram and Himalayan region. Because of these innovations Baltit fort has stood for centuries, with its original construction dating to a thousand years ago.

Baltit Fort, Karimabad, Northern Pakistan 

“Like that fortress,” he eventually replied, “my family will know me as long as these walls are standing.”
His words made me think about many of the less permanent dwellings I had experienced in other parts of the world: a Tamil house built of cardboard in Sri Lanka, a Newar hut made with mud in a Himalayan valley in Nepal, a Giriama dwelling constructed from grass in Kenya. I thought of ancestral shrines common to the Sahel of West Africa, built of mounded earth which continually erode with the seasonal rains, slowly fading away like the memory of a once important family member who has long past. But here, in a land of constantly shifting terrain, even simple architectural forms are designed to endure, reminding us of those who had come before; gone now yet somehow still remain. Surrounded by the severity of such imposing stone mountains, I could feel the transitory nature of my being and the impermanence of my own flesh and bones, and I craved the intransience of stone. For the first time I looked at the houses that filled the sloping valley around me not as simply shelter, providing places of comfort, privacy and protection, but as something much more durable and significant. And I realized how the striving for a legacy through building is the same, whether one is a simple farmer or an amir.
With that he went back to work, seemingly losing interest in my presence for his more pressing work at hand. I guessed that he felt the limits of time pressing upon him and the daunting task he was compelled to complete. As I continued along that narrow street in the mountains, I could hear the sound of his pick on the hard bedrock, echoing throughout the valley. And when I think back to this moment, I can still hear the echoing to this day; and knowing that his house will still be there, I realize how right he was.

One Comment leave one →
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