The city of Kabul is thought to have grown around a Buddhist settlement mentioned by Ptolemy in AD 150. The fortified Citadel of Bala Hissar bears witness to its turbulent history, as do the defences along the ridge of the Sher Darwaza Mountain to the south, dating in part to the period of Hindu rule prior to the advent of Islam in AD 871. Kabul seems to have remained little more than a military outpost during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the cities of Ghazni and Herat witnessed significant prosperity and architectural innovation. It was not until the early sixteenth century, when the founder of the Mughal Empire Babur visited and laid out several gardens in and around the city (including the newly rehabilitated park now known as Bagh-e Babur), that Kabul seems to have grown in importance. While based in India, Babur’s successors continued to show an interest in Kabul, with Shah Jahan’s governor, Ali Mardaan Khan, building the covered Char Chatta bazaar in the centre of the commercial quarters in the mid seventeenth century. By the time that Timur Shah moved his capital from Qandahar to Kabul in the late eighteenth century, Kabul was home to approximately 60,000 people.
Accounts from nineteenth-century travellers to Kabul describe a dense settlement of traditional dwellings, accessed by means of narrow alleyways and divided into distinct quarters, some of which were walled. The only neighbourhoods in which this dense urban fabric has survived are Asheqan wa Arefan and Chindawol. Apart from the imposing brick Mausoleum of Timur Shah, built in the late eighteenth century, and the royal residences and walled gardens within the citadel, the bazaars and serais seem to have been the principal landmarks in the city.
It is in the war-affected historic quarters of Asheqan wa Arefan, Chindawol, Pakhtafurushi, Shanasazi and Kuche Kharabat, which together are home to some 18,000 people, that the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has undertaken a range of planning, conservation, upgrading, training and socio-economic initiatives since 2002. Within an area that is now the most densely populated in Kabul, a dozen historic public buildings – including mosques, shrines, a mausoleum, a madrasa, traditional hammams, and educational facilities – have been restored over the past seven years. During the same period, some fifteen important historic homes have been rehabilitated in these quarters, where more than seventy families have been able to undertake essential repairs to their traditional homes through a system of small-scale grants. This conservation work has provided opportunities for on-the-job training for more than a hundred carpenters, plasterers and masons, many of whom live in the historic quarters.