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.
The 11-hectare terraced garden on the western slopes of the Sher-e-Darwaza Mountain south of Kabul was laid out by the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Muhammad Zahir al-Din Babur (1526-1530). It was his favorite among the ten gardens that he built in and around Kabul, and he decreed that it be his final resting place. Babur was buried in Agra upon his death and was reburied in the Kabul garden by 1544. Both Babur's grave and the garden have seen significant transformations in subsequent years, and since 2002, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has been engaged in restoring the site in collaboration with the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (DAI).
The present garden extends over fifteen orchard terraces that descend westward towards the Kabul river. The overall layout is rectangular in plan, with an extension containing a caravanserai and another containing the burial terraces at the foot and head of the central axis. The site measures about three-hundred meters at its widest (north-south) and four-hundred and sixty meters at its longest (east-west).
History of the Garden
Although the exact layout of the garden in Babur's time is not known, it was probably organized around a central water channel in the manner of Timurid char baghs that Babur had admired in Samarkand and Herat. Excavations reveal a structure on a lower terrace which dates back to the Indo-Greek and Kushano-Sasanian periods, and there may also have been a Timurid garden and cemetery on the site. Shah Jahan's extensive investments in Bagh-e Babur are described in the Badshahnama, which mentions pools on 12 terraces along the central axis, linked by waterfalls and marble-lined channels. There is mention of a caravanserai (whose foundations have been excavated) at the foot of the central axis, and of the marble mosque erected by the sultan below Babur's grave. The chronicle lists the addition of three reservoirs (near the entrance, and on the ninth and tenth terraces) and a monumental gateway with gilt cupolas, the footings of which were excavated by the DAI in 2004-2005.
Bagh-e Babur fell into disrepair during the decline of the Mughal Empire, and its structures were badly damaged in the 1842 earthquake. Amir Abdur Rahman Khan invested in the garden in the late nineteenth century and refashioned it in a European manner. A garden pavilion was built over the central axis, which was remodeled with seven parterres and fountains. At the same time, a large palace was built in the southeast corner of the garden. Bagh-e Babur became a public park during the reign of Muhammad Nadir Shah (1929-1933). A large modern swimming pool and greenhouse were built in the 1970s. The site was badly damaged during inter-factional fighting in 1992/3, when most of the trees died or were cut down for firewood. The garden was re-opened to the public in the spring of 2002, at the beginning of restoration works implemented by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Babur's wish, recorded in his memoirs (Baburnama) was that he be buried in a modest grave open to the sky. This wish was fulfilled circa 1544 when his body was moved from Agra, where he had first been buried, to one of his favourite gardens in Kabul. In around 1607, Jahangir commissioned a headstone for the grave, added inscriptions to the adjoining graves of Babur's son and grandson, and had a marble prayer platform (chabutra) erected nearby. The marble enclosure (jali) around Babur's grave, drawn by Charles Masson in 1832, is thought to have been in place when Shah Jahan visited Kabul in 1639; he has a similar enclosure erected around the grave of his great-aunt Ruqia Sultan Begum at this time. The screen around Babur's grave had collapsed by the time of a surviving photograph by John Burke from 1872. The grave was extensively altered during the early 20th century.
The original levels of Babur's grave terrace were restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2003/4, and a replica (based on fragments found on the site) of the carved marble grave enclosure erected in 2006. This is a square structure whose elevations are made up of four narrow arched openings containing carved latticework, flanking a taller central arch. The enclosure and grave are on a raised marble plinth, accessed from a central archway to the west. An outer arcaded enclosure wall of brick was also rebuilt in 2006, on the foundations of an earlier structure that was uncovered during archaeological excavations in the grave area.
This white marble mosque was commissioned by Shah Jahan I (1628-1657) during his visit to Babur's grave in 1645 (1055 A.H.), and marks his military victory in Balkh, for which gold commemorative coins were also struck.
The mosque stands on the thirteenth terrace of the garden below Babur's grave, and comprises three bays. It is open on three sides with archways -- three to the east and one to the north and south -- that feature cusped horseshoe arches. The fired brick structure of the mosque is faced with white marble and decorated with carvings on the parapet and plinth and small roundels above each arch. Large marble slabs, one of which has been replaced, span the three structural bays. The qibla wall, recently re-faced in white marble, is articulated by a slight central projection corresponding to the internal mihrab. There are eight carved marble finials on the parapet.
The marble elements of the mosque remained disassembled, in preparation for restoration, for about three decades before being restored in 1964-66 by the Italian Archaeological Mission led by B. C. Bono. It suffered damage during subsequent fighting and was restored again by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) between 2003 and 2006.
The Garden Pavilion was built in the late nineteenth century by Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901), over a Mughal water channel and pool in the center of the garden's central axis. It has a basement with west-facing windows. The first floor, which is enveloped by a wide verandah on all four sides, centers on a large reception hall flanked by two smaller rooms. The hall is adorned with stenciled metal ceilings. The Pavilion was badly damaged in 1992/3 and restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) during 2003/4. The trunk of a large plane (chenar) tree stands next to it as a reminder of the scale of the trees that died when irrigation was halted during recent conflicts.
This residential palace was built by Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901) in the southeast corner of Bagh-e Babur. It was bequeathed to his third wife Bibi Halima after his death, and is now known as the Queen's Palace.
The main reception rooms of the palace are accessed from an open verandah running around three sides of a central courtyard, which afford fine views of the garden below. Adjoining the perimeter wall of the garden on two sides, the palace has two arched entrances to the north, one of which is designed for carriages. In the southern wing is a small brick-domed bath (hammam), which retains its internal plaster decoration. The main structure was load-bearing mud brick; the pitched roof was supported on a timber structure that included the verandah.
The palace was heavily damaged in a fire that consumed its roof and portico during wartime. It was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture between 2003 and 2006.