An iconic Pakistani mosque’s plaza is public once more

The 17th-century Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore is one of Pakistan’s architectural gems, a masterpiece from the Mughal era. But for years the Chowk, or public square, in front of the mosque was neglected.

No more. The Chowk now has been painstakingly restored, thanks in part to the U.S. Department of State’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.

The ornate, arched entrance to the mosque towers above the Chowk in the historic and cultural center of Lahore’s Walled City.

In 2012, the Walled City of Lahore Authority decided to reclaim the neglected Chowk. With guidance from experts at Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan, conservationists drew up plans for the restoration.

The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation joined the Walled City of Lahore Authority and the Aga Khan Cultural Service to underwrite the $1.2 million project.

At left, two men working on brick ceiling area; at right, row of seated men with tools by a wall (U.S. Consulate General Lahore)
Workers scrape away buildup on a ceiling and wall during the restoration. (U.S. Consulate General Lahore)

Since its creation in 2001, the Ambassadors Fund has awarded $55 million to nearly 900 projects in 125 countries for the preservation of cultural sites, objects and forms of traditional expression.

Congress, in the statute establishing the Ambassadors Fund, said: “Cultural preservation offers an opportunity to show a different American face to other countries, one that is non-commercial, non-political, and non-military. By taking a leading role in efforts to preserve cultural heritage, we show our respect for other cultures by protecting their traditions.”

At the reopening ceremony in November 2017, U.S. Consul General Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau said the Wazir Khan Chowk stands as “a testament to the city’s rich and multilayered history.”

The restoration took 20 months, with workers digging 2.5 meters to separate the existing street level and the original ground level of the Chowk’s forecourt. They also built a retaining wall around the perimeter.

Workers also conserved the Dina Nath Well, a 19th-century landmark in the northeast corner of the square.

Courtyard and buildings with arches and towers (U.S. Consulate General Lahore)
An aerial view of the Wazir Khan Mosque and its Chowk (U.S. Consulate General Lahore)

The Chowk now functions as a meeting place after prayers and regularly hosts community and cultural gatherings — including Pakistan’s first-ever Biennale, an arts festival in Lahore that took place in March. In a boost to Lahore’s economy, the site is attracting more tourists as well.

The Wazir Khan Chowk project is the largest of the 19 projects the Ambassadors Fund has supported in Pakistan, and its success hints that it won’t be the last.