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Kabul comeback

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Globe and Mail (Canada)
November 3, 2007

KABUL — Does beauty matter in a country torn by war?

That question confronted conservationists when they started rebuilding the renowned Babur Garden in Afghanistan’s scruffy capital city. After all, the country has many more urgent needs. As Canadians know all too well, the south is a deadly war zone, and progress elsewhere has been halting at best since the U.S.-led assault overthrew the Taliban six years ago.

Even in Kabul, the biggest and most advanced city, only half the garbage is picked up every day, just one household in 10 has piped water and the air is said to contain more fecal matter than in any other city in the world, the consequence of having four million people and no sewage system.

Could Afghanistan and its backers really afford to spend time and money on recreating the horticultural vision of a long-dead Mughal emperor? “People said: ‘You guys are daft to be doing conservation when there is so much humanitarian work to be done,’ ” says Jolyon Leslie, the urbane South African architect who directed the restoration for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Deciding that a city does not live on bread alone, Mr. Leslie and his collaborators went ahead, and the result is a small miracle: a corner of loveliness in the heart of Kabul. Now open after more than $5-million (U.S.) of work, the garden – at 11 hectares, the size of 20 football fields – draws hundreds of visitors on Fridays, when Afghans begin the Islamic weekend. Families picnic under beech trees. Children chase each other on the lawns. Old men stroll up stone steps past cascades of water.

“It’s a bit of a pressure valve, a release,” Mr. Leslie says. “People are still pretty jittery. They come for a little open, green space and fresh air.”

Those are in short supply in Kabul. Its population has grown nearly sixfold since the 1970s, as poor villagers migrate here to seek jobs and safety. Slum dwellings climb up the hills. The dusty streets are potholed or unpaved. The murky Kabul River is lined with garbage. Foreign embassies and military outposts surrounded with sandbags and razor wire lend an air of menace.

Past glory

The garden is a reminder of what Kabul once was: a delightful city of colourful bazaars, tree-lined avenues and grand palaces and mosques. One of its glories was the garden, built in the early 16th century by Emperor Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur.

When warlords fought over the city in the 1990s, it fell into ruin as factions burned its stately buildings and cut its trees to deny cover to their rivals.

The Baghe Babur (Babur’s Garden) became a symbol of Kabul’s devastation. The Aga Khan, spiritual head of the world’s Ismaili Muslims and a friend of the government of President Hamid Karzai, led the effort to fix it up. The German government pitched in. The hope was that the garden, restored to its former splendour, would become a symbol of the city’s renaissance.

That now seems idealistic, given all of Afghanistan’s troubles. Even so, if a fractious people such as the Afghans are to succeed, they will need more than new bridges and a better electrical supply. They will need a shared history and culture. Babur and his garden are part of that heritage.

Born in what is now Uzbekistan, Babur ascended to the throne of the little principality of Fergana two years after Christopher Columbus reached America. He was 12, and by the time he died at 47, he had conquered much of today’s Pakistan, Afghanistan and northern India, laying the foundation of the Mughal empire, which would rule the region for more than 300 years and leave its mark in monuments such as the Taj Mahal.

A warrior with an artistic side, Babur loved gardens and built them all over his empire, giving exhaustive attention to their design and maintenance. One of the first was in Kabul, which he conquered in 1504: He set his garden on a site sloping down from a rugged hillside to the banks of the river. When he died in Agra, northern India, he asked to be buried in the garden “under the open Kabul sky.”

Recreating his garden was not easy. The team had to search for the original design because over the years the garden had been transformed by Babur’s successors and later Afghan leaders. One of them built European-style fountains, another a series of buildings for his court. A Communist mayor put in a swimming pool. Nature did its work too. An earthquake in 1842 is said to have destroyed the massive 1.5-kilometre wall that enclosed the garden.

After excavating parts of the site and studying plans of similar gardens, Mr. Leslie and his team moved out the pool, restored Babur’s bullet-pocked grave, built a series of water channels and ponds along the site’s central axis and hired hundreds of local labourers to rebuild the wall. They also restored two historic buildings: the grand Queen’s Palace at the garden’s summit and the striking white marble mosque built in 1647.

Above all, they planted trees: walnut and almond, apricot and pomegranate, mulberry and black cherry, chinar and quince. The different species flower in sequence through the spring and summer, bringing a splash of colour to Kabul’s sandy palette.

Worthwhile cause

As someone who worked with the United Nations and other agencies in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, through both the brutal civil war and Taliban rule, Mr. Leslie is alive to the charge that restoring a garden is not a priority for Afghanistan.

“Putting a developmental glove on a conservation hand,” he took pains to involve the local community, hiring locals to do most of the work and keeping the garden open throughout to remind residents they were welcome. Also, a third of the project budget went to helping the slum dwellers in the surrounding hillside.

When foreign diplomats tried to rent space there for receptions and parties, Mr. Leslie turned them down, fearing that city residents would come to see the garden as a symbol of foreign occupation rather than a national treasure.

So, he says, “the original idea that this is just a foreigners’ indulgence is well dispatched. People are very proud of the garden. They come up and say, ‘I used to come here with my grandfather.’”

And the place is a hit. Six times as many people visited in July as did the same month last year. People come not just to picnic, but to attend cultural events such as theatre festivals and recitals by traditional Afghan musicians – little touches of civilization in a country shattered by decades of turmoil and civil war.

Even the former warlords who now sit in the Afghan government are taking an interest. When they congratulate him on the restoration, Mr. Leslie says, he feels like replying: “Maybe you shouldn’t have burned it down in the first place, mate.”

He has no illusions that the garden symbolizes Afghanistan’s rebirth. Skeptical about the Western effort to rebuild the country, he is the co-author of a book titled Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace.

Not totally peaceful

Even in the green confines of the garden, Afghanistan’s tensions can spill over: Families from hostile clans or ethnic groups sometimes exchange looks and curses that turn to fistfights. To keep a lid on things, security guards equipped with whistles and batons have been hired to patrol the grounds.

Babur was no stranger to violence, introducing cannon and matchlock rifles to his armies in order to slaughter his enemies with greater efficiency, but he also was a fine poet, a serious student of history and a naturalist who documented the flora and fauna of the lands that he conquered – an advocate of the idea that beauty matters.

His gardens were tributes to nature, a reminder of his conquests and a respite from the burdens of state. Not surprisingly perhaps, Kabul’s is said to have been his favourite. The marble plaque on his grave, painstakingly restored by Indian craftsmen, reads:

“If there is a paradise on Earth, this is it, this is it, this is it.”

Marcus Gee is a Globe and Mail columnist and reports on Asia-Pacific affairs.

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Written by afghandevnews

November 4, 2007 at 2:04 am

Posted in Culture and Arts

6 Responses

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  1. […] The garden was one of many created by the founder of the Moghul Dynasty, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (who claims direct descent from Genghis Khan) and built between 1504 and 1528 as his final resting place. In 2002 an initiative was launched to restore and rebuild the garden as a place of peace and green, fresh air and picnics. […]

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