Chihilsitoon Garden is a 12.5-hectare public site, located four kilometres south of Babur’s Garden, on the same range of foothills of the Sher Darwaza Mountain. Historic documents are believed to refer to this area as early as the sixteenth century, describing an outpost where Mughal troops were stationed in orchard gardens below a hillside settlement along the Kabul River.
A panoramic sketch produced in 1876 by a British military cartographer shows a hillside residential cluster in the same area, surrounded by large trees, possibly indicating a formal garden on the site. Historic maps from the same period refer to the settlement as “Hendaky”, which was also the name of the small pavilion built on a stone outcrop above the garden by Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901) for his son Habibullah at the end of the nineteenth century. With a royal pavilion on the site, it is believed that this was the time that the garden was delineated and a wall constructed at its perimeter. Early twentieth-century photographs of the pavilion show an elongated rectilinear building (with one circular end) surrounded by a deep arched veranda with forty columns (chihil-sitoon) built above a series of terraced
platforms with views onto the Chardeh plain. With newly built royal residences (arg) at the centre of the city, the pavilion remained unoccupied and occasionally served as a state guesthouse. The most prominent visitors who stayed in the building were members of the British Boundary Commission (charged with negotiating the northern boundaries of Afghanistan).
Upon his ascension to the throne in 1904, Amir Habibullah Khan (r. 1901–19) expanded the site, establishing at its centre a formal axial garden with marble fountains and paved walkways. As part of this work, the pavilion was expanded into a two-storey double-height rectilinear building, retaining only twelve of the original forty columns of its covered veranda and, ironically, renamed it the Chihilsitoon Palace. The flat roof of the original pavilion was replaced by a system of pitched roofs, and the shallow, fan-shaped flights of steps gave way to heavy lateral staircases with castiron railings.
The palace was damaged during the armed conflict that led to the succession of Nadir Khan (r. 1929–33), but later repaired and reused as a summer palace and state guesthouse. The building was once again transformed during the reign of King Mohammad Zahir Shah (r. 1933–73) when two squat towers were added and the external facades of the building were modernized. Used at that time primarily as a state guesthouse, dignitaries who resided within the Chihilsitoon Palace included heads of state, most notably US President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1959) and Soviet Premier
Nikita Khrushchev (1955, 1960).
By the 1960s and 1970s, due to the increasing importance of the building as a place of accommodation for foreign diplomats, the government further invested in adding spaces for receptions, banquets and state dinners. A modern L-shaped building was constructed to the east of the palace, which provided additional space for accommodation and banqueting services. The Chihilsitoon Palace remained a hub for government activity in the 1980s, mainly used to convene press conferences with local and foreign media. During the initial days of the Soviet occupation in 1979–80, President Babrak Karmal reportedly took refuge in the Chihilsitoon Palace and was guarded by tanks and anti-aircraft guns. During the conflict that ensued, the building was targeted and heavily damaged. The site remained unused in the years that followed, and was further destroyed and looted during the conflict in Kabul in the early 1990s.
Chihilsitoon Garden — as it is defined today by a low brick wall — seems to have been greatly reduced in size by the construction of roads around its perimeter. Historic descriptions indicate that the garden had extended to sloped areas to the east of the site, where a pigeon tower had been built on a stone outcrop. Since the 1980s, informal settlements have been erected on these hillside areas by those displaced by conflict or economic migrants. While historic photographs depict the garden as being overgrown, planted with deciduous vegetation including mulberry and plane trees, in the 1950s and 1960s species of evergreen pine and cedar trees were heavily planted in pockets throughout the site. The frequent use of buildings located within the garden for royal or state functions meant that Chihilsitoon Garden remained
intermittently accessible to the public throughout the twentieth century. During the period in the late 1970s, when the president’s offices were located within the palace, the garden was closed altogether to the public. The central formal garden, which had included large areas of lawns planted with indigenous flowers and shrubs and sandstone pathways and stairs, was in disrepair at the time of surveys conducted by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2014. Unlike Babur’s Garden, where the natural landscape was heavily scarred by the ravages of conflict, large parts of the horticulture of Chihilsitoon Garden survived periods of neglect and intentional destruction.
Sloping gently towards the north, the garden has historically been irrigated by a surface channel sourced from the Logar River some five kilometres to the south. More recently, disposal of household waste (generated by the spread of informal settlements along the hillsides) in the channel has polluted the water source, which is no longer suitable for irrigation purposes — particularly in a public garden with large groups of children. Since 2002, the site has been cleaned and irrigated using water mechanically extracted from deep wells, ensuring its partial use by the community mainly for recreation and sport. Yet insufficient services and the absence of management oversight have prevented women and young children from entering the site. Based on the successful rehabilitation and sustainable operation of Babur’s Garden, in 2015 the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) commenced a multi-year rehabilitation programme in Chihilsitoon Garden with the intention of providing high-quality public spaces for social and cultural interaction, educational programming, and sport and recreational activities.
A tripartite agreement with Kabul Municipality and the Ministry of Information and Culture has ensured the active participation of Afghan institutions in a rehabilitation programme through the formation of a coordinating body. Furthermore, the agreement provides the legal basis for the establishment of a management structure for the garden after rehabilitation work is completed. Chihilsitoon Garden will be managed by the newly formed Kabul Historic Gardens Trust, which will have a mandate to operate the city’s historic public gardens, building on nearly a decade of experience gained through the sustainable operation of Babur’s Garden.
Following the preparation of a detailed physical survey and the finalization of an organizational plan for the site, architectural and landscaping designs include provisions for the construction of new buildings and open spaces. In addition to constructing new buildings for these purposes, existing buildings (including Chihilsitoon Palace) will be restored and made functional for public use. Based on detailed surveys and responses to questionnaires completed by visitors to other gardens, including Babur’s Garden, sufficient provisions have been made for public services such as food and beverage areas, public toilets and visitor facilities.
Landscape designs call for the integration of a variety of disparate spaces, used for different purposes, within a wider network of paths and services that allow for a diverse set of experiences within a rational system of circulation and usage — such as separate areas for sports activities and family picnic sites, an outdoor amphitheatre, and the historic formal promenade (containing original marble fountains), which will be restored and made functional again. In order to support the continued use of the site for sports activities, a distinct zone has been designated to contain cricket batting areas, volleyball fields and football pitches. Additional services have been provided to enable sports teams access to changing facilities and showers, promoting the use of the sports fields for competitive matches. In addition to supplying saplings for maintaining the stock of trees and plants within the garden, a commercial horticulture nursery will be constructed in order to generate additional revenue towards the upkeep of the garden.
In order to promote traditional building techniques, new buildings within the garden will be built using ecologically sustainable reinforced rammed-earth construction. Found to have been used in parts of Afghanistan as far back as the second century AD , rammed-earth structures are highly suitable to the climatic and ecological environment in the region. Reinforced with a variety of material, including bamboo, steel rebar and concrete-frame structures, buildings constructed with rammed earth are able to withstand moderate earthquakes. While capable of withstanding wide variations in temperature, the characteristics and workability of the material enable a wide range of rich architectural designs.
New structures will provide essential space for the administrative and maintenance teams of the garden, while increasing the capacity of the site to hold multipurpose events and gatherings. An indoor auditorium will be built as an extension to the existing annex space, which will provide a facility for welcoming up to three hundred people year-round for conferences, presentations or performances. A gallery and visitor centre will be added within the site, enabling cultural organizations and individual artists to exhibit their works to the public. The multi-purpose space can also be used to display and market handicrafts and locally produced merchandise.
Retail, food and beverage premises have also been included in the design of new structures in order to ensure that sustained revenue for the operation of the garden can be generated through the hire of these spaces. Provisions have been made for on-site utilities, which will ensure that the garden is properly maintained with limited usage of water and electricity, and septic systems that will filter wastewater through
subsurface leach fields.
When complete, the rehabilitated Chihilsitoon Garden will provide users with high-quality landscapes and building spaces capable of containing and promoting the rich and diverse forms of social, cultural and economic expression manifested in Afghanistan.
Source: Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Chihil Sitoon Garden and Palace Rehabilitation (Alternate)
Rehabilitation started in 2015 and was completed in 2018