Letters from Kabul: 6 March 2013

The other day we went out to see Babur’s garden. Babur (1483-1530) was the first of the great Moghul emperors, and he ruled over an empire that stretched from what in the modern day is Afghanistan to Bangladesh, across most of what is now north and central India. He was a direct descendant through his father’s line of Timur, whom we know as Timur the lame, or Tamerlane. Through his mother he was a descendant of Genghis Khan. With such a lineage it is no wonder that he is remembered for many of the atrocities he conducted, including the making of pillars of severed heads.

He died at Agra, India, but had left a will stating that he wanted to be buried under the open sky in his beloved Kabul. In fact, he had already identified the hillside, and had constructed a garden with ten terraces that rose in steps towards what would be the burial platform. A central pool provided water which then cascaded down the terraces through an intricate series of canals. According to his memoirs, the Baburnama, the gardens were planted with the trees of sustenance – walnuts and cherries, pomegranates and almonds, mulberries and apples, apricots and quince. An avenue of plane trees provided shade to the water coursing down the central channel. In the spring the garden provided the key elements of an Arabic garden – there was the sound of water, the smell of blossom, and the colour of trees, fruits and flowers. All the senses – sound, scent, sight, touch and taste – could be employed in this garden.


Indeed, he was a very sensual man, and was noted for his many passions. He gave up drinking alcohol for health reasons, but later wrote: “Everyone regrets drinking and swears an oath (of abstinence); I swore the oath and regret that”. A man after the hearts of many!

When we went to the garden the water was not running, and the trees were still bare against the dusty ground. The marble channel was a stark line running down the middle of the garden and the shrubs, shrouded in black felt against the winter cold, looked like so many women huddled in their burqas.


We walked up the pathway, past families sitting together eating bread and fruit, impromptu picnics on a cool but sunny day. We passed the central pool, like everything else destroyed during what is euphemistically called the “factional fighting” of 1993 – what we know as the Afghan civil war. The Aga Khan Foundation Cultural Council led the renovation efforts between 2003 and 2005, drawing on archaeological excavations, descriptions from Babur’s memoirs, and the journals of other travellers, including the sketch drawings made by Charles Masson in 1832.

Past the pool we came to the mosque designed by Shah Jahan and dedicated in 1647, around the time he designed the Taj Mahal (between 1632 and 1648). Perhaps this was simply practice, a scale model for his later and better known creation.


We then came to a walled enclosure made of brick, behind which we assumed was the grave of Babur. Subsequently I learned that the outer walls were built over the ruins of those found by Italian archaeologists who excavated there during the 1960s. The brick was made to the same consistency and structure as the original remnants they uncovered.

A man approached us, keys dangling from his hand. “Would we like to see inside?” he wondered. Well of course we would, and we followed as he unlocked the door in the wall, ushered us in, and then closed it firmly behind us.

In front of us was a marble screen, finely carved, which enclosed a simple raised marble tomb. The original screen was erected by Jahangir, the great grandson of Babur, during a visit to the grave in 1607. According to the caretaker, the inscriptions on the screen read: “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this”, and are a copy of what was on the original screen.


The tombstone itself was similar to those found in English cathedrals, but without the carved likeness of the king or queen beneath. It is, we were told, the original stone, recovered from under the ruins after the fighting. The marble screen is a recreation, designed based on Masson’s sketches. I was awestruck, in the true sense of the word. What an amazing place to be, what history.

My colleagues had wandered off, to look at the fragments of the old carved walls which had been rescued, or to admire the 1788 double-headed tombstone of the daughter of Alamgir II.

It was quiet by the tomb, and I stood and talked to the caretaker, and meditated on how the wishes of an emperor, to be buried on a dusty hillside in Kabul, could have generated such a place of beauty.


Some fifteen months ago I had walked the ancient walls of Balkh, Alexander the Great’s capital, and stood on the shores of the Amu Darya, which we in the west call the Oxus. Here in Babur’s garden I had that same sense of smallness, of being in the presence of something so incredible that one’s own existence is called in to account.

We walked back down the hillside. As we walked we realized that we were walking under an avenue of plane trees, and that the gardens stretching out to right and left were basically orchards, trees planted across what in summer will be the grassy swathes. There were garden beds in some areas, and pathways snaked their way around. Above we could see houses, clinging precariously to the stony hills of Kabul.


At the bottom we explored the caravanserai, originally constructed in the 1600s to “house the poor” and now sheltering an Aladdin’s cave of carpets from across Afghanistan, wooden chests and doors from Nuristan, blue glass goblets from Herat. I saw a beautiful set of prayer beads, deep orange amber beads with lapis buttons at the end of the string, but the owner of the shop regretfully informed me that these were not for sale, they were just on display because they were beautiful and he liked to look at them when the shop was empty and he had no customers to serve.

Look left


Look right!


Outside there were two young men selling jewelry. We looked and saw some well worked pieces, jade and amber, rubies and silver, even a bullet on a pendant. But after the amber and lapis prayer beads it all looked relatively tawdry and cheap. We talked with the young men awhile, and they gave me permission to take their photograph, with the caravanserai behind.


We left through the wide and open gates, high enough for a camel to pass through in to the courtyard, should one so wish, past the “No weapons allowed” signs and the man who had sold us our entry tickets, out on to the street and the loud chaotic madness of Kabul.

As we drove away we were all uncharacteristically quiet. Like sacred places everywhere, the gardens and grave of Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur have that sort of effect on people.

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