Breathing new life into the legacy of past civilisations calls for a creativity, imagination, tolerance, understanding, and wisdom well beyond the ordinary. The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP), established in 1992, implements conservation, urban revitalization and area development projects in historically significant sites of the Islamic world undertaking the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures and public spaces in ways that spur social, economic and cultural development. Its projects seek to mobilize local potential and resources in order to ensure their eventual self-sustainability through operational income, human resource development and institutional management capabilities. Through this integrated approach, the Programme seeks to demonstrate that strengthening cultural identity can go hand in hand with socio-economic progress.
Going beyond mere restoration of monuments, the Programme engages in activities related to adaptive re-use, contextual urban planning and the improvement of housing, infrastructure and public spaces. It carries out related socio-economic development initiatives directed at upgrading local living conditions and improving quality of life.
Investments in single project locations or regions are coordinated with other Aga Khan Development Network programmes so that they reinforce each other as they grow together into a critical mass for positive change. In all project locations, community participation and training of local professionals are essential components.
Laid out in the early sixteenth century by the Mughal emperor Babur, the site now known as Bagh-e Babur was rehabilitated between 2002 and 2008. The natural landscape was central to the life of Babur’s court, and he was buried in the garden in around 1540. Among his successors, both Jahangir and Shah Jahan commissioned works on this site, in honour of Babur.
Accounts of nineteenth-century travellers suggest that the garden subsequently fell into disrepair, and its perimeter walls were reportedly damaged in an earthquake in 1842. Repairs were carried out at the turn of the century, during the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, who constructed a complex for use by his family within the garden. Further transformations took place during the twentieth century, when European-style elements were introduced into the landscape and a swimming pool and greenhouse were built on an upper terrace. By the time fighting broke out in Kabul in 1993–94, the character of Bagh-e Babur was much altered and the site was in a poor state of repair.
In 2002 an agreement for the rehabilitation of the eleven-hectare garden was signed between the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and the Transitional Afghan Administration. In parallel with clearance of remaining unexploded ordnance, work began in 2003 on conservation of Babur’s grave enclosure, which had been significantly altered over time.
Based on marble fragments found in the grave area, it was then possible to erect a replica of the marble enclosure around Babur’s grave, inside the walled area. The war-damaged marble mosque dedicated by Shah Jahan in 1675 was re-roofed with lime mortar and cracked marble elements were replaced, while the mihrab wall was refaced with marble in 2004. Among other historic buildings subsequently restored were the nineteenth-century Garden Pavilion and the Queen’s Palace, both now in use for public functions. Excavations in the western end of the garden in 2003 revealed stone foundations of a seventeenth-century gateway, around which was constructed a Caravanserai complex, using traditional forms and techniques, which now houses an interpretation centre and other facilities.
Archaeological excavations in 2004–05 revealed sections of a marble-lined water channel and a series of water tanks along the central axis, which provided the basis for the design and reconstruction of a system that again allows water to flow the length of the centre of the garden, as it did in Babur’s time.
The landscaping aims to restore the character of the original garden, through the reintroduction of flowing water and the grading of adjoining terraces that have been replanted as distinct orchards. Stone pathways and stairs have been laid on either side of the central axis, which is flanked by an avenue of plane trees, interspersed with pomegranates, apricots, apples, cherries and peaches. Outside this zone, the terraces have been planted with mulberry, apricot, fig and almond trees, with copses of walnut along the reconstructed perimeter walls.