Sunday, March 28, 2010

Earthen Walls

While on patrol with the Soldiers the other day, I had the rare opportunity to observe just how mud walls are constructed here in Charkh district. I would imagine there are many ways to build them, but here is the one I've seen. More than being simply utilitarian; they're works of art. And obviously, some builders are more artistic than others.

For a culture which claims to be quite community-oriented, perhaps even communal, the profusion of walls throughout Afghanistan is astounding. In many regards, it is the most compartmentalized place I have ever seen – even in the more rural areas. Walls are constructed for a host of reasons, no doubt, but appear fundamentally intended to keep others out.

I wondered for a time if they were erected to keep animals away from fruit and vegetable crops, but that theory fell collapsed when I quickly observed that most walls are nowhere near secure enough to keep out anything smaller than a human being. Small animals could easily breech these walls, and I haven't seen enough sheep, goats, or donkeys to presume that they pose a significant threat. The walls, I suppose, are to isolate one's home and property from everybody else.

While on helicopter flights, I've looked out the windows to see long, high walls skirting the perimeter of a local's property. Oddly, directly on the other side of his wall is another wall – skirting the perimeter of his neighbor's property. The narrow spaces between the two contain foot paths, occasionally a small canal (more a rut, really), or nothing at all. It seems like a waste of effort. 

One could probably argue that Afghans are fiercely private people and wish to conceal their day-to-day lives from scrutinous (and frequently abundant) onlookers. Perhaps. I would also cautiously propose that this is a shame-based culture, and privacy reduces witness to one's behavior incongruous with Koranic law. Some of these walls (and the houses often incorporated into them), more closely resemble near-windowless fortresses. In a way I don't fully understand, privacy to the point of isolation is important to the Afghans.

Walls here range from precarious and weak to absolutely massive, depending on their location, the dedication of those building them, their intended purpose, and a number of other factors. The only reason mud is a viable building product, incidentally, is that rainfall is remarkably low here; most water comes from snow melt or qanats (I'll save that one for another day). Additionally, the composition of the dirt itself, when mixed with a few key additives, makes for a cheap, stable, and undeniably abundant material.

Walls of any size or height aren't simply placed on the ground. A number of I've seen have a loosely-fitted stone base (usually the nicer ones). Stones are, after all, another readily-available building material in this region of the world. Depending on the size of the wall and probably the laziness of the builder, the stone foundations will be anywhere from eight inches to 36 inches high. This structure effectively preserves the lowest portions of the wall from seasonal runoff and erosion, freeze/thaw cycles and maybe even the abuse of traffic and animals. Atop this stone base, damp soil is shoveled into place.

When I observed the practice along the roadside, one man shoveled uniformly-sized, roughly rectangular clods to a second, who grabbed them and adeptly tossed them into the slowly-forming run of wall. A third man, using his hands and what I suppose was a trowel, tightened the packed clods and shaped them into a course of wall approximately 16 inches high and perhaps 14 inches deep (the depth diminishes as the wall tapers upwards with height). Though I cannot prove it, I would hypothesize that the consistency of the dirt (how wet it is, mostly) determines just how high each course will be built. If the soil is too soft, it sags. If it's too dry, it never packs properly and remains weak. Just how high to make the course, as well as soil moisture content, probably requires some skill and practice. So, course after course of wall is shoveled into place (after letting the previous one dry sufficiently), and the final result will be a wall of impressive strength and size. As the mud/soil sun bakes the entire project into virtual bricks, cracks will slowly develop (at fairly even intervals, oddly enough), giving the impression that the wall was actually composed of earthen blocks (see below photographs). These are the nicer, more elaborate examples: *Click on photos for a larger image, if desired.

In other areas (and seemingly at random), walls will be of lesser quality. Instead of clearly-defined courses, Afghans appear to have simply heaped dirt/mud into a winding, rough wall that skirts the edges of their yards, crops or properties.

It is difficult to tell which walls are simply poorly-built and which are ancient. I can't determine if some of them are 500 years old and showing their age, or five years old and shabbily constructed. Assessing their age and original condition is made all the more difficult by the practice of stuccoing. A number, particularly the nicer structures and frequently homes, are covered in a troweled smooth layer of softer mud – oftentimes mixed with straw (as a primitive strengthener). It, too, cracks and deteriorates with time, slowly revealing the workmanship beneath. See the photo below:

Since any rain at all jeopardizes the top edge of a wall, various things are done to protect them. For many, it simply means heaping soft mud atop the structure and expecting to replace or repair it on a fairly regular basis. For others, they run a course of flagstones or of loose stones mortared with mud. On some of the largest walls, builders will level off the top, install a layer of boards, and then sculpt a final course of mud atop them. Without a doubt, these top courses need considerable attention, at least relative to the remainder of the wall. See the photos below:

If you look closely at that last photo, you will see that in addition to simply throwing on an semi-expendable layer of mud, the builder also added sticks as reinforcement (hard to see, sorry). At first glance, I thought they were all raspberry shoots, but I have since seen a number of other plants represented there – to include cuttings from the cottonwood-like trees seen in the above photograph. None of them, at least as far as I can tell, have taken root. They're just there. If I ever get any video footage uploaded successfully (and I promise I'm trying), you will see examples of this practice more closely.

And so, with the great availability of soil and only a modest need for water, the only significant investment into a mud structure is labor. I imagine they're very time consuming. All the same, it's a very versatile material, and I've seen it augmented with bricks, mud bricks (probably not kiln fired), and concrete. All a builder need do is build a wall, add in some logs above doorways and windows (or breaks in the wall around the property), and an entryway is created. For a roof, the same can be done, and houses are probably reinforced with internal supports, too. In the end, a structure of consider height and durability can be built quite inexpensively. The first photo below shows a two-story structure with mud bricks in the background note the smoke from the small window or chimney port), and the second illustrates some of the colossal compounds that may be seen in more open terrain (near the flood plain).

 Looking around the homes and walls in Charkh district, I get the impression that some homes and walls are genuinely ancient, and residents have been simply adding to them for years. The final product is a strange and confusing labyrinth of not only walls, but also the interiors of homes. Three steps lead into a small foyer, where you can turn one way, walk up more stairs, and enter a two-story tower. Or you can walk straight and enter a courtyard. You can walk to the right and enter living quarters (which are also elaborately compartmentalized). It is a unique building style which I have seen nowhere else.

There are a few mud homes in Iraq (usually along the river and very rural, impoverished regions). The favored building material is concrete, bricks and cinder block. It could be due to an excess of sand in the soil (which would limit the soil's use as a building product), or it could be the ease of constructing a plumb and true concrete or block wall relative to the great efforts of a mud one. But out here, with poverty, abysmal road conditions, seasonal problems with mud and snow, the one consistently available and inexpensive building material is soil itself.

If the occasional car and far more frequent motorcycle were removed from the picture, photos from here could very well be from ancient times. Building practices appear relatively unchanged, save for the improvements of metal doors, glass windows, and electricity. A walk through nearly any area of Charkh, along the Pengram river in the valley, or moving out towards the hills in any direction, consistently strikes me as a walk through time.

 Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting observations about the walls... maybe the walls were constructed to keep noise levels down when they're partying... ok, that was a bad joke. Hope you're doing well out there. Take care!

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