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88 KABUL •• Sights

are specifically mentioned in the Babur- nama, including walnut, cherry, quince, mulberry and apricot trees. In the centre of the garden is a pavilion built by Abdur Rahman Khan, with a series of information boards on the restoration programme. Above this there’s a delicate white mar- ble mosque built in 1647 by Shah Jahan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal. While on a much smaller scale, the similarities in style are evident in the clean carving of the stone. Overlooking the whole of the garden from the top terrace is Babur’s tomb, in- side a simple enclosure. Babur wished to be buried under the open sky so his grave is uncovered, surrounded by a simple marble screen. The headstone says it was erected for ‘the light-garden of the God-forgiven angel king whose rest is in the garden of Heaven’. Given the near-miraculous resur- rection of the grounds, it’s an easy poetic sentiment to agree with.

Kabul Museum

The Kabul Museum (Map p80 ; Darulaman; admission 20Afg, camera 100Afg; h8am-3.30pm) was once

one of the greatest museums in the world. Its exhibits, ranging from Hellenistic gold coins to Buddhist statuary and Islamic bronzes, testified to Afghanistan’s location at the crossroads of Asia. After years of abuse during the civil war, help from the international community and the peerless dedication of its staff means the museum is slowly rising from the ashes.


Born in 1483 to the ruler of the Ferghana Valley in modern Uzbekistan, Zahiruddin Babur inherited his father’s kingdom before he was even a teenager. His early career was less than brilliant. By the age of 20 the young king (a descendant of Timur on his father’s side and Genghis Khan on his mother’s side) had repeatedly captured and lost his beloved Samarkand, only to be driven out of the Ferghana by Uzbek warlords. This misfortune sent him to Afghanistan, where he took Kabul in 1504. Here he prospered, visiting Herat during its last days of Timurid rule, capturing Kandahar and campaigning in the Hazarajat. Afghanistan also became the springboard for his ultimate conquest of India, where he founded the Mughal dynasty (‘Mughal’ being a corruption of ‘Mongol’ – local parlance for anyone from Central Asia).

But Babur wasn’t just an empire builder. He recorded his memoirs in the Baburnama, Islamic

literature’s first autobiography, relating everything from his military campaigns to the after effects of his drinking parties and the choosing of plants for his formal gardens. Babur’s intimate charac- ter sketches of generals and poets bring his court to life in rich detail, and reveal a great love for Afghanistan and a distaste for the climate of his new Indian empire. Babur died in 1530.

The museum opened in 1919, and was al- most entirely stocked with items excavated in Afghanistan. As the fall of communist Kabul became apparent with the Soviet withdrawal, many of the most valuable pieces were moved into secure storage, but the majority of exhibits remained in situ. Unfortunately the museum quickly found itself on the frontline of the mujaheddin’s terrible fight for Kabul. Between 1992 and ’94 the museum was used as a mujaheddin base. During this period the museum was massively looted – not just ransacked – but with care taken to select the most valuable pieces for resale on the illicit antique mar- ket (the museum’s library and inventory was also lost at this time, to hamper efforts to trace the provenance of stolen goods). Among the priceless treasures lost include many of the Bagram Ivories (see p109 ), the Kunduz Hoard of Graeco-Bactrian coins (see boxed text p163 ) and unique Gand- haran statues of Buddha. During this loot- ing, the museum was further damaged by a rocket attack that destroyed its upper floor. When the Rabbani government regained control of the area, soldiers posted to guard the site continued ad hoc looting of their own.

On capturing Kabul in 1996 the Taliban vowed to protect what remained, but it was a short-lived promise. In March 2001, as the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan were being levelled, soldiers entered the museum with hammers and smashed what statues and other image-bearing exhibits they could


In 1978 a hoard of Kushan gold was excavated by Soviet archaeologists near Shiberghan. Dubbed the ‘ Bactrian Gold’, it was a trove to rival Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt, but decades of war have kept it hidden from the world. The find had barely been catalogued by the time the Russian tanks rolled in, and the treasure

was never publicly displayed. Over the years, stories grew up around it – it had been spirited to Moscow, looted by the mujaheddin, sold by the Taliban or just plain lost. In 2004 the Afghan gov- ernment revealed its location to the world, safely stored in the national bank vaults, using power tools to open the safes as the keys had long disappeared. The gold revealed inside was astounding. A crown made of thousands of leaves of yellow metal,

curly-haired cupids riding dolphins, clasps showing Persian gods, and a sensual brooch of the Greek goddess Aphrodite with Bactrian wings and an Indian face. All rich evidence of the cultural melting pot of 1st century Afghanistan. The Bactrian Gold has yet to be exhibited in Kabul as security still isn’t good enough to put it on public display. But at the end of 2006 it formed the centrepiece of a special exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris, appropriately titled ‘Afghanistan: Rediscovered Treasures’. Several of the remaining Bagram Ivories also featured in the exhibition, alongside Kushan glass goblets and ma- terial from Ai Khanoum. It’s hoped that before too long the Afghan people will be able to enjoy their heritage in Kabul for themselves.

find. The oxymoronically-titled Minister for Culture led the destruction. That a museum still stands is little short

of a marvel. Less than a third of the col- lection survives, but there’s a surprising amount on display. In the entrance hall is a 15th-century black marble basin from Kan- dahar, known colloquially as the Buddha’s Begging Bowl because of the carved lotus at its base. To the left is a large Greek inscrip- tion from Ai Khanoum and to the right is the Rabatak Tablet found near Pul-e Khumri in 1993, covered with yet-to-be deciphered Bactrian script.

Further on, a pair of glass cases display

Graeco-Bactrian Buddha statues from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD in limestone and schist, the few to escape the Taliban’s rage. Other treasures downstairs include a lovely carved marble door from Kabul, and a recon- structed stucco section of a 12th-century mosque from Lashkar Gah. Exhibits are interspersed with photos of looted items and the half-demolished museum. The highlight of the museum is the Nuri-

stani gallery upstairs. It is filled with huge wooden deities and ancestor figures, carved before the 1890s when the region was still pagan. Goddesses ride mountain goats, warriors sit astride horses and loving cou- ples are carved on posts for the marital bed. As works of art they’re radically different to anything from elsewhere in Afghanistan;

the flat mask-like faces seem more Central African than Central Asian. The statues were chopped up by the Taliban, but have been magnificently restored. Security is tight at the museum, with bag

checks as you exit as well as on entering. While you wait, take a moment to read the plaque outside the front door: ‘a nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’. The old royal palace of Darulaman sits oppo-

site the Kabul Museum. Built by Amanullah in the 1920s, in grand European style, the palace is now little more than an empty shell. Don’t explore the palace too closely as there are still unexploded ordnances (UXOs) in the area. Between the two look out for the rusting steam train, more evidence of Aman- ullah’s ill-fated experiment in modernity – only a few miles of track were ever laid.

European Cemetery

This cemetery (Map p85 ; Kabre Ghora, Shahabuddin Wat; admission by donation ; h8am-4pm) was built

in 1879 by the British army for the dead of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The cemetery contains around 150 graves.

Most are from members of Kabul’s inter- national community from before the war. Only a few of the original British Army head- stones remain, now mounted in the south wall. They have been joined by newer memo- rial stones added by the British, Canadian, German and Italian ISAF contingents.


Sights 89

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