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.
The movie, Afghanistan: Hope Takes Root, presents the conservation and cultural work of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) since it became active in Afghanistan in 2002. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Afghanistan designs and implements cultural heritage and restoration projects to promote Afghan culture and makes historical sites, landscapes, and residential quarters safe and usable. To date, AKTC has restored over 145 individual heritage sites, ensuring their continued use by future generations and helping to preserve Afghan cultural identity. These projects, undertaken in coordination with local communities, are a means to invest in access improvements, infrastructure upgrading, and vocation training, which contribute to improving quality of life and socio-economic opportunities for local residents.
Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage is in danger of being cast aside in the race to modernity after years of war. Far more than a programme of historic preservation, the work of AKDN in Afghanistan has sought to contribute to the lasting redevelopment of the economy, society and culture of the country. In this context it is important to ensure that the rich pluralism of Islam within Afghanistan is respected, and sustained for the peace and serenity of all Afghans, as we work together to improve the quality of life for the people of this country and this region, and for generations yet unborn. Just as fear can be infectious, so is hope.