Kabul is the economic, cultural and political capital of the modern nation-state of Afghanistan. Its strategic location and defensible physical geography - high in a mountain valley, along the Kabul River - has made it an important regional center for many empires and the core of resistance against many invaders. Over the course of its history, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, adding multiple layers to its urban fabric. But its architectural legacy remains threatened by a near-constant state of war since 1978 and the intense rebuilding efforts initiated after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Pre-Islamic era to Muslim Conquest (1500 BCE - 987 CE)
Sources as ancient as the Rig Veda (ca. 1500 BCE), Hinduism's oldest scripture, mention the major settlements of the Kabul River valley, including the river's eponymous city. Persian Achamaenid and Sanskrit texts, written between sixth and fourth centuries BCE, also reference a city at Kabul's location, but the city's first identifiable mark on the historical record occurs in the first century BCE, when the Kushans (first century BCE to third century CE), a group of semi-nomadic Central Asian tribes, conquered most of Afghanistan from the Greeks. The Kushans were instrumental in developing trade between China, Arabia and India, and one of the major routes of the Silk Road ran through the Kabul area, where Buddhism flourished. In the first century CE, much of the Kabul river valley was a far extremity of the Indian Buddhist Maurya Empire, and the city remained loyal to various Hindu and Buddhists kingdoms until the Arab conquest in 870. The construction date of Kabul's precipitous citadel, the Bala Hissar (High Fortress) in which the city's rulers would reside for centuries, is presumed to be in the fifth century. The city's famous walls extend outward from fortress, lining the ridges of the Sher Dawaza and Asmai mountains. These walls also served as a de facto growth boundary: the enclosed urban dimensions of 4-5 hectares continued to represent the city limits until the late eighteenth century. Vestiges of the rampart, as well as the ruins of the citadel, remain visible to this day.
Although Kabul lay on a major trade axis, other cities fulfilled more significant commercial functions during most of the pre-Islamic era. Only after the fall of the Hepthalites, who ruled most of present-day Afghanistan until 565 CE, did Kabul rise to prominence among Afghan cities, causing it to attract ever-increasing numbers of invaders. By 643, the Arabs had successfully annexed Khorasan, the easternmost province of Persia, from which they began a series of attacks on the Hindu kingdoms to the northeast. For two hundred years, the armies of the Hindu King of Kabul successfully held the invaders at bay. The valley has always made Kabul naturally defensible, but by the 860s, Kabul's king, Ratbil Shah, decided to refocus attention on the construction of the circular wall to ensure his city's protection.
The city was captured in 870 by a Muslim warrior named Yakub bin Lais (d. 879), founder of the short-lived Saffarid Empire. The empire collapsed soon after his death, and the Hindu Shahi dynasty retook Kabul in 879, naming it the capital of a kingdom that Muslim historians refer to alternately as Kabulistan or Waihind, which included most of the Kabul River Valley and the ancient province of Gandhara (present-day Kashmir and Northern Pakistan). While Islam was growing in popularity among ninth century Afghans, the majority practiced a combination of Hindu and Buddhist rites: Kabul's many extant stupas (Buddhist reliquary mounds) attest to this period of heterodox religious devotion.
According the Arab scholar Ibn Hawqal, Kabul was still under Buddhist control in 977 CE, but the local Muslim population controlled the single road in and out of the city. Ten years later, when Subuktigin, a slave who inherited the command of Ghazni from his master, arrived at the gates of Kabul, the city came under Muslim rule once and for all.
Ghaznavid, Ghurid and Il-Khanid Periods (987 - 1398)
Subuktigin's son Mahmud of Ghazni (reg. 997 - 1030) founded the Ghaznavid Empire just as Iran's Samanid Empire was crumbling, expanding the territorial reach of Sunni Islam from Samarkand to Delhi. While no significant architecture remains in Kabul from this period, it was the Ghaznavids who, while ethnically Turkic, established the use of Persian languages in Afghanistan and fostered the confluence of Islamic and Indic cultures that Kabul continues to manifest to this day.
The Ghurid dynasty succeeded the Ghaznavid, when Alaudin of Ghur sacked Ghazni in 1186. Again, other places in Afghanistan bear more of a Ghurid architectural imprint than Kabul. Nevertheless, Kabul's garrisons allowed the Ghurid armies to expand their realm eastwards, adding to the cultural exchange with India while consolidating the hold of Sunni Islam over Afghanistan. As so many cities in the region, Kabul suffered greatly at the hands of Genghis Khan, who pillaged the city in 1221. For over a century the city remained visibly scarred.
Timurid and Mughal Periods (1398 - 1734)
When Timur (Tamerlane) captured the city in 1398, he married into the local elite. But the Timurid architectural influence on the city exhibited itself more overtly through the public works of Tamerlane's descendant Babur (reg. 1501 - 30), who took the city by force from his relatives in 1504 and made it his first capital. Babur's love for the city is fabled: after conquering almost all of India and establishing the Mughal Empire, he wished to be buried in Kabul. His passion for gardens is often cited as a reason for his affection for Kabul's climate, agriculture and horticulture. The 11-hectare Bagh-e Babur (Babur's Gardens) was his favorite among the ten gardens he built around the city. The garden - the design of which many scholars consider to be a derivation of the Timurid Chahar Baghs of Samarkand and Heart - has been the subject of various restoration efforts in the centuries since its construction.
After Babur's death, India began to eclipse Afghanistan in importance, and Kabul experienced less of the architectural patronage than is evident elsewhere in the Mughal sphere of influence. Nonetheless, each of his four successors (Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan) visited the city, provoking short bursts of commemorative building. For example, Shah Jahan (reg. 1628 - 58), ordered the eponymous Shahjahani Mosque to be built near Babur's gravesite. The small, white marble mosque still stands at the thirteenth terrace of the garden below Babur's grave. Shah Jahan's appointed governor, Ali Mardan Khan, commissioned the famous Chahr Chatta (Four Arcades) bazaar. Its significance as a hallmark of seventeenth century Mughal architecture was lost when the British destroyed the building in 1842.
Abdali Period and the era of "The Great Game" (1738 - 1919)
In the early eighteenth century, Kabul languished as Mughal power waned. Meanwhile, Kandahar was growing restive under Safavid rule. A Persian general, Nadir Shah, arose to quell Afghani opposition, and, in 1738, conquered Kabul in the process. He stationed many of his Shi'a troops in Kabul's well-fortified garrisons, and went on to extend Persian rule from the Indus to the Caucasus. In 1747, he was assassinated, and each region of his empire declared independence. Afghan tribal chieftains crowned Ahmed Shah Abdali (later called Durrani) the King of the Afghans in Kandahar, thus defining the modern territorial and national conception of Afghanistan and reigniting Kabul's urban development.
Local power struggles convinced Durrani's heir, Timur Shah (reg. 1773 - 93), to move his capital to Kabul, whose population barely numbered 10,000 at the time. Within twenty years, the new capital city had grown to 60,000. The Pul-e Kheshti Mosque (1793), dates from the early Abdali period, notable for its use of Herati tiles and its scale: it remains Kabul's most recent large mosque. Most housing in this period was still primarily built of unbaked brick along unplanned roads that correspond to the undulating topography of the city. Only the bazaars conformed to rectilinear axes, and they exist independently of the internal partitions and gates that delimit each kucha, or neighborhood, of the old city. Kabul continued to grow, in both importance and population, and it began to attract foreign travelers and the competing, imperial desires of both Tsarist Russia and British India. The "Great Game" between these two powers included two British deployments to Kabul, from 1838 - 42 and 1878 - 80. The former resulted in the torching of the city and the Chahr Chatta Bazaar; the latter ended with the destruction of the Bala Hissar. This show of British military power essentially ended Afghan control over its foreign policy, but it also consolidated an Afghani nationalism centered within Kabul.
With the Bala Hissar in ruins, the Amir, Abdur Rahman Khan (reg. 1880 - 1901), had a new palace built north of the Kabul River. From this point on, the city would line both banks, and the river would cut through the heart of the city rather than delimit it. The city's northern wall was torn down. In this northern zone, Kabul suddenly had the space to create industrial facilities, starting with an ammunition factory. Abdur Rahman's son Habibullah Khan (reg. 1901 - 19) was a reform-minded secularist who presided over the development of Kabul's infrastructure and worked to strengthen relationships with Afghanistan's neighbors. During his reign, Kabul counted up to 140,000 inhabitants and could no longer be contained within its ancient borders.
The modern nation-state (1919 - 1973)
Habibullah Khan was assassinated in 1919. When his son Amanullah Khan acceded the throne, he found himself in a new conflict with the British that brought about full independence for Afghanistan. The Amir took this moment as an opportunity for the accelerated development and modernization of Kabul. A new capital complex, connected to the historic core by a trolley line, was built to the city's southwest. European architects were invited to collaborate on the new Kabul, and the first urban planning institutions were established at the municipal level. Many Afghanis found Amanullah's sweeping reforms to be too radical, however, and an open revolt forced him into exile in 1928.
Western building typologies began to gain ascendancy among upper-class Kabulis in this period. The courtyard typology was inverted in favor of European style villas, oriented towards to the street. To accommodate the explosion in automobile use, the city widened its streets: the drastic expansion, in 1949, of Kabul's main road, the Jad-e Maiwand, required the demolition of houses and severed ancient neighborhood networks. New residential quarters were constructed to the north and west to house a population that had grown to 200,000 by 1950.
In 1964, Soviet experts helped Kabul to develop its first Master Plan, estimating an eventual urban populace of 800,000 and recommending pre-fabricated Soviet-style apartment blocks. The city's rapid expansion coincided with experiments in political liberalization. The last amir's prime minister, Daoud, ended 226 years of royal rule in a bloodless, popular coup d'etat in 1973. His republic had been enabled by his collaboration with Afghani Marxists, but when he attempted to purge them from his government and distance Afghanistan from the Soviet Union and move into closer alliance with Pakistan and Iran, the Marxists staged a counter-coup. The Soviet intervention, ostensibly to support the Afghani Marxists, began on December 25th, 1979. They took Kabul within two days, and since this date, Kabul has been in a nearly constant state of war.
Kabul saw little building in the 1980s. While much of the war of attrition between the Mujahideen and Soviet forces took place in rural areas, Kabul still suffered. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the civil war in Afghanistan continued, and Kabul experienced even more destruction. The Taliban government that emerged from this civil war brought a measure of stability to the country, but also completely isolated the country and imposed an extreme and brutal form of theocratic governance. Kabul continued to suffer. In 2001, the Taliban refused to relinquish Osama bin Laden, to whom the government had provided asylum, after the September 11th terrorist attacks. In response, the United States-led military coalition invaded the country, routed the Taliban from Kabul, and established a transitional government. As of March 2007, the government of Hamid Karzai is in power while unrest continues throughout the country. Nonetheless, development dollars have poured into the city from around the world, and a building boom is underway, one that puts much of Kabul's historic fabric at risk.
The rate of rural-urban migration in Afghanistan outpaces any other Asian country. Kabul's population is impossible to calculate given the vast amount of migrants and returnees, but the UN estimates that nearly 3,000,000 people now live in the city. Despite severe and entrenched poverty, Kabul is still seen as a city of opportunity.
At the time of writing, international consultants and local developers are engaged in numerous urban planning projects, most of which prioritize infrastructural needs and symbols of economic opportunity over historic preservation efforts. One of the most famous projects is Dr Hisham Ashkouri's "City of Light" urban design master plan. The nine-billion dollar project includes a variety of privately funded developments: mixed-use facilities such as hotels, office buildings, retail malls, outdoor markets, medical facilities, low cost housing, cultural buildings such as concert halls and movie theaters, public parks and pedestrian malls, fountains, new roadways, parking and the beginnings of a public transit system. Several hotels catering to the global diplomatic elite are operational, and a large industrial complex has opened in the city's south. The government continues to seek foreign investment and is pursuing an ambitious development agenda.
Mumtaz, Babur and Kaj Noschis, eds. 2004. Development of Kabul: Reconstruction and Planning Issues. Lausanne: Comportements.
"Urban history and development of Kabul: Reconstruction and planning issues today", was the theme of the 10th Architecture and Behaviour Colloquium from 4-7 April 2004, that took place in Monte Verita, Ascona, Switzerland. It was organized by the Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, in collaboration with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, with additional support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Canton of Tochino.
In postwar Kabul, where solutions for housing, transportation and infrastructure needs have to be thought about, decided upon, and implemented in an ad hoc and urgent way, the question arises about the necessity of following a general urban planning approach for the coordinated development of the city. Questions around a new master plan were raised in presentations and discussions and openly debated during the colloquium proceedings.