Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Seeds of Hope for Babur Gardens

International organisations hope to restore a once-spectacular tomb, palace and mosque on the outskirts of Kabul
By Mohammad Daud

Perched on a gentle slope looking out across southern Kabul, the tomb of Babur Shah lies in acres of rubble and dust and is surrounded by withered, dead tree trunks. What was once a spectacular building set in beautiful scenery now stands as a terrible example of the damage done in Afghanistan’s 25 years of conflict.


The majestic palace - the inspiration for the Taj Mahal - is in a sorry state of repair. While its outer walls are intact, very little else is. Walls have collapsed across doorways and prevent the visitor from getting very far inside. Heaps of charred logs lie under once-gilded ceilings - a sad reminder of the years when Afghan refugees, displaced by war, took shelter here and burned wood to keep warm.


The United Nations Economic and Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, is now coordinating a plan by several agencies to restore the Kabul landmark - said to be the first Moghul palace - which, some experts believe, could take a number of years. “The grounds will take a generation to recover. While the flowers will grow back quickly, the full garden needs trees,” said Abdul Haseeb Latifi, a representative of the Agha Khan Foundation, one of the participants in the project.


Babur Gardens is reached by driving south through Kabul’s residential areas so thoroughly destroyed that they look like the setting for a post-Holocaust science fiction movie. The gardens house the tomb of Babur Shah, his palace, a mosque and what used to be a hotel.


Slowly, order is being imposed. Ata Mohammad, the site’s gardener, has replanted an area in the middle of the old garden with flowers and shrubs. The old “howdh” or bathing pool has been refurbished and is already popular with young children escaping Kabul’s heat. The stairways leading up and down the garden’s many levels have also been re-laid.


Mohammad Akram Salam, a programme assistant for UN Habitat - another organisation involved in the restoration - has enlisted the help of a team of stonecutters who will use traditional methods to repair the fountain that once stood at the centre of the garden.


Restoration is not going to be a straightforward process. Ata told IWPR that many nearby residents have moved the boundary walls of their properties in order to acquire some of the land. And much of the original stonework was taken by locals to rebuild homes damaged during the wars.


The mosque bears the grafitti of Afghans who passed through over the years - even in the mihrab, the part of the mosque where the imam leads the congregation.


The gardens are named after Zaheeruddin Mohammad Babur, great grandson of Timurlane, who succeeded his father as ruler of Transoxiana - now Uzbekistan -at the age of 11 in 1483. According to legend, Babur entered Kabul intent on mayhem and destruction but was so taken with the city that he showered money on its citizens instead. After his death at Agra, northern India, his body was brought back to the city for burial.


“The design of Babur Gardens is similar to that of Agra,” said Afghan archeologist Nazar Mohammad Azizi. “In fact, it is a wholly Moghul structure. The structure of grand pillars and multiple platforms are typical of the beginning of the era of the Indian Rapotanians.”


Michael Petzet, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Petzet, goes further, saying, “This was the first Moghul palace and garden structure. It preceded and must have influenced the others.”


In the intervening centuries, the site has passed through many incarnations. The hotel was built in the Twenties and served as the German embassy for a time, and an ugly modern swimming pool was built sometime in the middle of the 20th century. Babur’s original grave was destroyed and then rebuilt in the time of Nadir Shah, in the Thirties.


The restoration work includes the use of magnetic probing to build a picture of what lies beneath the surface without risking further destruction through excavation.


Expert Jorg Fastbender is currently busy testing the surface around the hotel. “Normally we get quite a clear picture with this technique. Any metal you come across is ancient and tells you something of the history of the place. But here maybe we will find too much metal just dumped in the last few years the country was at war,” he said.


The plan is to reopen Babur Gardens as a public park, for picnics and outings, and to restore the mosque and hotel to a state where they can be hired out for weddings and other special occasions. However, it is hard to imagine the palace itself will ever be returned to its original glory.


Mohammad Daud Siawash is a freelance journalist based in Kabul