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94 KABUL •• Sights

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Precious little remains of old Kabul. Even before the war, ill-conceived Soviet town planners had started to tear down whole areas in favour of shabby concrete developments. Following the bombs and rockets, demolition has continued as the value of land has soared, and new buildings (concrete with lots of glass and fake pillars this time) are thrown up on a daily basis. Two organisations have been working with local communities to try to preserve as much of the traditional fabric of Kabul as possible. The Turquoise Mountain Foundation ( is working in the Murad

Khane district, the oldest settlement on the north bank of the Kabul river, and just a stone’s throw from the Serena Hotel. An oasis of traditional architecture, it also highlights some of the key challenges in saving old Kabul. The oldest areas are often poorest, with houses lacking basic services and streets clogged with detritus. At the same time, the riverside has some of the highest commercial value areas in Kabul, with a huge attendant pressure from developers. The Murad Khane project works closely with the local community, who lobbied the government in support of it. One of the first tasks was simply the removal of rubbish – in some places just doing this lowered the street level by over 2m. Next, the Foundation has started working with landlords to adopt valued buildings to restore them, co-funding the venture. Turquoise Mountain has set up a school in the Karte Parwan district, with Afghan masters teaching traditional woodwork, plaster, tiling and masonry techniques. South of the river, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture ( has been

working in the Asheqan wa Arefan district around the Mausoleum of Timur Shah. By creating local employment, improving local water supplies and removing waste, the Trust has built a strong foundation for restoring the physical structure of the neighbourhood – from the delicate wooden latticework windows to rebuilding in mud-brick and plaster. Importantly, both projects demonstrate that restoration of old buildings can bring significant improvements to the quality of life of their residents, as well as raise awareness within the communities of the value of their heritage.

The most sobering by far are the Russian ‘butterfly’ mines often picked up by chil- dren mistaking them for plastic toys. Where most mines are deliberately camouflaged, these come in a range of bright, kid-friendly colours. OMAR is the country’s leading demin-

ing organisation, with over 500 Afghans working in mine-clearance. Education is an important second facet to their work. Murals and posters depicting types of mine and UXO can be found everywhere in Af- ghanistan – visual education aids being par- ticularly important in a country with low literacy levels. OMAR is also working in partnership with the UK charity No Strings (www.nostrings, which uses puppet theatre to teach land mine safety information to children. Mines kill and injure more children than adults, and the use of story to illustrate what happens when a mine is picked up or dis- turbed is a highly effective educational tool. In addition to the theatre, a mobile cinema has been set up showing a No Strings film

called Chuche the Little Carpet Boy, a mod-

ern Afghan version of the Pinocchio story, where a grandmother who has lost her fam- ily to land mines makes herself a new child out of carpet rags.

Mausoleum of Timur Shah

Timur Shah was the first to make Kabul the capital of a unified kingdom. He died in 1793, but it was another 23 years before his

mausoleum (Map p93 ; Mandayi market) was built,

possibly due to the chaos after his death, caused by his leaving over 20 sons and no nominated successor. The building is a copy of the Indian Mughal style, an octagonal brick structure surmounted by a plain brick drum and shallow dome. The mausoleum stands in one of the old est

surviving parts of Kabul, with its tradi tional street plan, houses and winding lanes. This area has been at the centre of a restoration project by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (see boxed text, above ).

Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque

Called the ‘ Mosque of the King of Two Swords’, this mosque (Map p93 ) on Kabul

River must be one of the most unusual in Islam. Built in the 1920s during Amanul- lah’s drive for modernisation, it looks like it would be more at home in Versailles or Vi- enna. The facades are all Italianate baroque with stucco detailing, picked out in white against a lurid lemon yellow paint-job. That it has two storeys is even more peculiar, and only the tiny minarets disclose the build- ing’s true purpose.

The mosque’s name is derived from a far older story than Amanullah’s strange archi- tectural tastes. In the 7th century Kabul was a Hindu city, besieged by an Arab army. The Arab king was beheaded, but was so inspired by Allah that he continued fight- ing, leading his men to victory at the point of his two scimitars.

The mosque underwent large-scale res- toration in 2002, and is a major focus for Kabul’s Ashura commemorations. The attrac- tive two-storey riverfront buildings stretch- ing away from the mosque are unique in Kabul, and in urgent need of restoration.

Bibi Mahru Hill

Also called Teppe Bemaru, this low hill (Map p85 ) overlooks Wazir Akbar Khan. It’s pop- ular with some expats living in the district for walking, and has reasonable views. At the top there’s an Olympic-size swimming pool built by the Russians that’s barely been full since it was built due to the difficul- ties of pumping water uphill. During the war the diving board was notorious as an execution spot.

The pool sits on the spot where Babur got

his first views of Kabul. Nearly 350 years later, it was the site of an important turning point in the First Anglo-Afghan War. An ill-led British force was soundly defeated in battle here, a rout that paved the way for the disastrous retreat from Kabul.


Security can be very tight in Kabul on pub- lic holidays and anniversaries such as Mas- soud Day (9 September). Despite official exhortations, Victory Day (28 April) is a low-key affair, as it celebrates the mujahed- din capture of Kabul in 1992. Many Kabulis prefer to mark this as the start of the slide into the anarchy and chaos that destroyed their city – a day of tragedy rather than celebration.

KABUL •• Festivals & Events 95


The Afghan new year, Nauroz ( above ) is celebrated across Kabul. Festivities are con- centrated in two main areas. The shrine of Karata-e Sakhi at the base of Koh-e Asmai is a traditional point of celebration, where flags are raised to mark the new year. There’s more of a spectacle around the Mausoleum of Nadir Shah at Teppe Maranjan, which hosts a Fighting Kite Festival on the day. When this was held in 2005 for the first time in 30 years it attracted over 150,000 attend- ees, Kabul’s most festive day out in years. Concerts are held across the city – check with the FCCS ( p84 ). Ghazi Stadium is also used to host special events, including a farmer’s parade of livestock, and the last buzkashi of the season.

Barf-e Awal

The first snowfall of winter is called Barf-e Awal. Many Kabulis play surprise games (barfi) on their friends at this time, sending them riddles in an Afghan variant of trick- or-treat. Whoever receives their riddle first, must treat the sender to a meal. The riddles are traditionally sent to the home (so many people won’t answer their door on this day), but in modern Afghanistan look for people sending joke text messages to their friends with the first flurry of snow.


Most accommodation in Kabul is based in Shahr-e Nau, close to Chicken St or Shahr-e Nau Park. Guesthouses extend into Wazir Akbar Khan, jostling for space alongside the embassies. For those staying in Kabul long-term, room rates are usually negoti- able. Unless noted, all guesthouses have se- cure parking. Prices exclude 10% tax.


Park Hotel (Map p93 ; x020 2103 355; Mohammad Jan

Khan Wat; r US$6) This hotel sits above an arcade of electronics shops. One step up from a chaikhana, it has simple cell-like rooms with grubby walls, and a large communal area full of local men lounging over endless pots of tea. Don’t expect too much of the shared bathrooms.

Salsal Guest House (Map p85 ; x079 9734 202; Jad- e Torabaz Khan; s/d US$10/20) This is a great new

addition to the budget hotel scene, and the pick of the ultra-cheapies. Carpeted rooms

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