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A decade on, Iran's quake-hit Bam eyes new era
by Staff Writers
Bam, Iran (AFP) Dec 24, 2013


Iran citadel restored after quake will never regain past glory
Bam, Iran (AFP) Dec 25, 2013 - Experts who are painstakingly rebuilding the Bam citadel after an earthquake destroyed it a decade ago say Iran's architectural masterpiece will never return to its past glory but are hopeful they will restore some of it.

A thousand kilometres (600 miles) southeast of Tehran, the pre-Islamic desert citadel was the largest adobe monument in the world made of non-baked clay bricks.

But it was reduced to rubble on December 26, 2003, when it was hit by a major quake that killed 26,000-32,000 people, according to various estimates.

"Bam will never be rebuilt exactly the way it was," said Afshin Ebrahimi, the manager of the reconstruction project.

The citadel can be traced back to the sixth century BC but reached its apogee from the seventh to 11th centuries as it sat on the crossroads of the Silk Road and other trade routes.

A decade after the quake, only part of the massive site has been rebuilt, while wooden scaffoldings are propped up against most of it and gaping holes can be seen along the outer walls.

"We are not aiming at rebuilding the citadel as it was before the quake. We can never do that," Ebrahimi, who is carrying out the work for Iran's culture and heritage authorities, told AFP.

"The quake, like the local architecture, is part of our history," he said, adding that certain parts of the citadel would be rebuilt while others would merely be stabilised, to reflect the past disaster.

Two rows of arches located a hundred meters (yards) from the entrance give visitors a glimpse inside the work being done. On one side they can see the original architecture and on the other the renovation.

More than 100 people work on the site each day, alongside 20 Iranian experts and others who have come to lend a hand from France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

Japan contributed $500,000 (365,000 euros) through UNESCO, and provided equipment to clear the rubble and carry out restoration work.

"We are the best equipped team in the world," said Ebrahimi.

Dreams of a return of tourists

The Japanese experts are working on a 3D map of the site, while their French and Italian counterparts are focusing on making mud and cement bricks designed to endure future quakes.

"The work will never end," said Ebrahimi.

"We are trying to preserve the sites but, if it rains on an adobe wall, we must rebuild it all over again."

He says the reconstruction drive has had a positive impact on residents of the modern city of Bam, which lies at the foot of the citadel.

Survivors who lost family members in the quake are still haunted by memories of the tragedy, Ebrahimi said.

"To see the citadel being reborn has a soothing effect. This is a very special project, it is very emotional. It is not just a renovation workshop," he added.

Ebrahimi hopes that restoring the citadel will bolster tourism arrivals in Bam, which is also home to some 150 lesser-known archeological sites.

Bam Governor Hossein Zainol Salehi expressed satisfaction with the pace of the work, saying reconstruction must be done in a "prudent and appropriate" fashion.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation said there had been improvements in the site's management and conservation, and removed Bam from UNESCO's list of "World Heritage in Danger."

"This is a great honour for Bam," said the governor, because "it shows that the right steps have been taken to rebuild the citadel."

Akbar Panjalizadeh agrees, and has rebuilt his tourist hostel and created more room to be ready for the return of holidaymakers.

Panjalizadeh says he dreams of seeing 10 or even 15 tour buses parked outside the citadel. But for the time being he gets only 10 clients a week, half the number who came a decade ago.

There are few signs left of the killer earthquake that reduced to rubble the Iranian city of Bam and its celebrated citadel, but a decade later survivors are still haunted.

The 6.6 magnitude quake struck at dawn on December 26, 2003, devastating Bam, killing 26,000 people and leaving 75,000 homeless.

Nearly 80 percent of Bam's infrastructure was damaged, while the desert citadel, once considered the world's largest adobe building, crumbled.

The disaster was so severe that Iran agreed to open up its doors to international aid, even allowing US planes loaded with humanitarian supplies to land on its soil for the first time since the two countries severed relations in 1980.

Reconstruction experts rushed to rebuild Bam and UNESCO inscribed the citadel on its World Heritage List, marking it "in danger" following the quake.

A decade later the city has come back to life and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has removed the citadel from its danger list.

Japanese engineers have repaired the water distribution system, while French experts helped to build a hospital.

A new quake-proof bazaar also emerged from the ruins of the old one in the historic district, and new steel-structured homes were built replacing the mud brick ones of yore.

A ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of the quake is to be held Thursday at the Fajr (Dawn) sports complex which director Behzad Bahmanian calls "the symbol of our rebirth".

In his office, overlooking the 6,000-seat stadium, Governor Hossein Zainol Salehi said most of the reconstruction was completed four years after the quake struck.

"Bam is now the most quake-proof city in the country," he said, noting houses had been rebuilt with stronger construction material but that traditional architecture had been respected.

'Cracks with every jolt'

Salehi said the reconstruction drive cost nearly 20,000 billion rials, or about $667 million at the current exchange rate -- an astronomical amount in sanctions-hit Iran.

"But this is not enough to solve all the problems," he said, noting many residents were still in need of psychological support for trauma suffered from the quake.

Although Bam residents say they are grateful to "all the foreigners who helped" them rebuild their lives, some doubt the new infrastructure is truly quake-proof.

"We see new cracks with every jolt," said Yasser, a DVD merchant in the bazaar which was flattened in 2003 but completely rebuilt after four years.

Iran sits on seismic fault lines and has been hit by many earthquakes of various magnitudes over the years.

Yasser, 26, said he is still traumatised by memories of the 2003 quake and recalled that not so long ago he fled his home and pitched a tent in the street after Ban was hit by a minor temblor.

"It is always the same, we are always afraid, even after a little quake," said Ali Moshki, who lost six family members in the disaster.

Governor Salehi said the reconstruction was essential for Bam's economic revival and its 107,000-strong population -- 17,000 more than a decade ago.

Traditionally known for its dates and oranges, Bam has also been bolstered with a vast industrial zone on the outskirts of town which is churning out 100,000 Chinese cars annually.

"We welcome all investors with open arms," said Salehi.

The city received almost one million visitors before the 2003 quake, and is hoping to revive its tourism industry, he said, adding there were 150 sites to visit in addition to the citadel but not enough guest rooms.

Salehi said he was hoped to build more hotels in Bam, where there are only two four-star ones and some motels.

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