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.
Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme: Urban Conservation and Area Development in Afghanistan. Geneva: Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 2007.
Dedicated as it is to the in-depth rehabilitation of urban heritage in the Islamic World, the Historic Cities Programme (HCP) of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture deals with a complex reality. For historic cities harbour an important architectural legacy that goes well beyond the realm of “bricks and mortar”. Their monuments and their traditional urban patterns speak to us about the attitudes, the aspirations and the living conditions of past generations of human beings. That is how cities gain their symbolic dimension and how they are enabled to dispense cultural identity.