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The Impact of War on Afghan Cultural Heritage


When the Buddhist monk and chronicler Hsüen-tsang (Xuanzang) toured Afghanistan on his long trek from China to India during the second quarter of the 7th century, he made this note during his visit to Kabul:

      "The climate is icy cold; the men are naturally fierce
       and impetuous. The king is a Turk. They have profound
       faith for the three precious objects of worship
       (Buddhism) ... he esteems learning and honors virtue."

Hsüen-tsang describes Kabul as a thriving commercial and religious center. But at the very moment that Hsüen-tsang was recording his impressions,, a dynamic new force had swept out of the Arabian desert hundreds of miles to the west.

The Arabs. With striking rapidity, Arab armies had carried the banner of Islam across Syria and Mesopotamia into Persia, where they inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Sassanians in 642.

Seemingly invincible, the Arabs pressed on to come face to face with a rugged terrain new to these desert men. And the mountains were defended by equally rugged tribesmen. These were to prove obstinate obstacles. Approaching the heart of Afghanistan via Kandahar and Ghazni, Islam's cyclonic movement forward changed to a slow and difficult advance in which every mile was hotly disputed, attack after attack was repulsed, and conquered cities rested only to revolt.

Leading the defense at Kabul was a Turkish, possibly Hinduized, king of a dynasty variously referred to as Kabul Shahi, the Turki Shahi, or the Ratbil Shahan, the latter referring to one of the dynasty's most celebrated figures. They had raised Kabul to paramountcy over Kapisa and now these kings of Kabul resisted the Arabs with such bravery that their exploits form the substance of many heroic tales in early Islamic literature.

Kabul was captured by the invaders in 664 AD but only after a siege which lasted a full year. Persistent contumacy necessitated subsequent action and the city was actually fought for on several occasions. It succumbed only after long sieges or as a result of misadventure, such as the time a wounded elephant fell in the gateway, thus preventing the closing of the city's doors to the enemy. Finally, thoroughly exasperated, the Arabs sent in a special force called the Army of Peacocks. Somewhere, in a gorge between Ghazni and Kabul, 40,000 Arab soldiers met their destiny.

Despite such incidents, the resistance of the Kabul Shahi was viewed with great respect by their adversaries as this tribute to the passing, by the Ghaznavid historian, Al-Birumi, reflects: "The Hindu Shahiya are now extinct, and of the whole house there is no longer the slightest remnant in existence. We must say that, in all their grandeur, they never slackened in the ardent desire of doing that which is good and right, that they were men of noble sentiment and noble bearing."

Two hundred years were to elapse before these princes could be forced to abandon their mountain fortress. During this time, Islam and its protagonists triumphed in nearby states: Herat, Samarkand, and Kashgar in the north, and the Seistan in the southwest, were all ruled by Arab governors by the close of the eighth century. Kabul itself lost some of its extensive territories to Herat, and an Arab agent resided in Kabul to make sure tribute was appropriately forwarded to the Caliphs of Baghdad. Nevertheless, it retained its own princes and its submission was lax, its fealty loose. There was as yet no permanent occupation of Kabul by Islam.


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The Saffarid Dynasty (861-1003 AD). Elsewhere, enthusiasm for the new religion was great and gave rise to the formation of volunteer troops known as Warriors of the Faith who hired out their services to anyone conducting a holy war against the infidel. Although often described, even by early Islamic sources, as robbers and scoundrels, individuals of this group did sometimes achieve great fame and power. One such was Yaqub ibn Layth Saffari, a coppersmith from Seistan, who marched on Kabul in 871. Here he routed Kallar, an Indian Brahmin, who as prime minister had usurped the throne of Kabul in 850 and founded the Hindu Shahi Dynasty. Kallar fled to Gardez where he established a new capital from which he ruled for another few years until chased from the vicinity of Kabul by Amro ibn Laith. During this campaign, the famous Hindu temple to Suriya in the Logar was destroyed, and the Hindu power at Kabul was finally broken.

The rise of the Saffarids was indicative of the troubles besetting the weakening Caliphate at Baghdad. Indigenous populations rose against their Arab conquerors in the eastern provinces; local chiefs replaced Arabs as governors and assumed virtual independence. During the last years of the ninth century, the most powerful of these dynasties, the Samanid princes of Bokhara, extended their influence southward to acquire possession of Kabul c. 900. Being so far from Bokhara, Kabul reverted to the rule of the local chiefs who were most probably invested by the Amirs of Bokhara to whom they paid a yearly tribute.


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The Ghaznavid Empire (975-1187 AD). At the Samanid court a Turkish slave, Alptigin by name, rose to great power as Commander-in-Chief of the Samanid forces in Khorasan.

When in 962 he was caught in an unsavory bit of court intrigue, he deemed immediate departure to be most prudent and set out to find a kingdom of his own. Heading south through Bamiyan, he took Ghazni in January 963 after a siege of four months. A successful future seemed assured. But fate decreed otherwise; he died the following September. The city, suffering under a series of inept successors, finally sent to Kabul where their former ruler, Abu Bakr Lawik, had sought refuge.

Accepting with alacrity, their former king set forth immediately with his brother-in-law, the son of Kabul's chieftain, by his side. From Ghazni, Alptigin's slave and son in-law, Sebuktigin, went out to the Logar Valley and joined in battle with the army from Kabul.

Victorious, Sebuktigin "came out of the fort of Ghazni with the umbrella, jewels, and banners and proceeded to the Jami Masjid where he was confirmed King" in April 977. Thus, the glorious period of the Ghaznavids began.

Sebuktigin extended his domination by annexing the neighboring petty states including Kabul, conquering in the name of Islam which became at last the faith of the valley.

His son, the great Sultan Mahmud (998-1030), extended his sovereignty and gained special renown for his numerous iconoclastic forays into India from which he returned with vast stores of treasure: "jewels and unbored pearls and rubies, shining like sparks in iced wine, emeralds as it were sprigs of young myrtle, diamonds as big as pomegranates."

At Ghazni historians chronicled its story, poets praised its glory and architects built a city worthy of its wealth and culture.

The Sultans of Ghazni reveled in splendour and opulence. They built palaces and gardens in every important city of the realm: Herat, Balkh, and Lashkar-i-Bazar. Kabul, a dependency of Ghazni throughout the Ghaznavid period, does not seem to have been thus favoured and we have only occasional references to the fact that the Sultans pitched their tents outside its gates.

Terse though these references may be, they allow one to picture lively and colourful happenings at Kabul. Imagine, for instance, the arrival of Sultan Mahmud in 1023 after a victorious campaign in India. He stopped in Kabul to review his troops: "54,000 well-equipped cavalry, 1,300 elephants in defensive armour, horses, and camels beyond computation."

Eight years later, Sultan Mas'ud also stopped here to review his troops and we are told he was pleased to find his "1,670 elephants all plump and ready for action."


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The Ghurid Empire (1148-1215). Situated in Ghör, now a province in the center of Afghanistan between Herat and Ghazni, the Ghurids (or Ghorids) were a medieval (12th to 13th century) Muslim dynasty of Iranian origin which, at its zenith, stretched over a vast area that included all of present-day Afghanistan, eastern Iran and northern India as far east as Delhi.

The origin of the dynasty is unknown. Legend suggests that the Shansabānī family, which descended from the Sassanian royal family, fled from Western Iran following the Arabic conquest of Persia, and settled as Ghör, where the inhabitants were still Zoroastrians as far back as the Achaemenid era (5th BC).

There they remained, free from all Arab-Islamic influence until the 11th century, when Shansabānī found themselves between the hammer (Seljuk Turks to the north) and the anvil (Ghaznavids to the south, who converted most of the Ghör inhabitants to Islam during the 11th century. .

Between 1175 and 1192, under the leadership of Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghauri, ended Ghaznavid rule across present-day Afghansitan and Pakistan), captured the Ghaznavid's eastern capital at Lahore and founded an Islamic empire known as the Ghurid state (1148-1215 AD).

Once the Ghaznavids had been vanquished, the Ghurid Sultans retreated from India, consolidated their power at Ghazna (in Afghanistan) and ruled India by means of an army of slave soliders known as the Turkic Ghulams, who held sway as far east as Delhi.

The Ghurids are perhaps best remembered as patrons of Persian literature and architecture, their most spectacular surviving creation in western Afghanistan being the Minaret at Jam, built during the 1190s.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 65-meter high minaret is located by the Hari River in the Shahrak District of Ghor Province, by the Hari River. It is famous for its intricate brickwork, stucco and glazed tile decoration, which consists of alternating bands of kufic and naskhi calligraphy, geometric patterns, and verses from the Qur'an.

For centuries, the Minaret was forgotten by the outside world until it was rediscovered in 1886 by Sir Thomas Holdich, who ventured upon the site by accident while working for the Afghan Boundary Commission.

The minaret did not come to world attention until 1957, when the French archaeologists André Maricq and Wiet Herberg rediscovered the site and conducted limited surveys around the site in the 1970s, before the Soviet invasion of 1979 once again cut off outside access.

Preserving and studying the site is an ongoing project of the Minaret of Jam Archaeological Project.


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Mongol Invasion and Kahnate Rule (1219-1294/1330). After the death of Sultan Mahmud in 1030, we enter once more into a long period of turmoil where the gradually weakening Ghaznavids bowed before new powers rising in the north. These were fierce bold men from the hills southeast of Herat, masters of the newly established House of Ghor which was destined to rule Delhi. The Ghorids dominated the 12th century only to be swept away in the Kabul area by the start of the 13th by the Khwarizm from the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea. Kabul was included in the kingdom of Bamiyan during much of this time, but central authority was but reluctantly endured, and the city did obeisance first to its local chieftains. It was a relatively peaceful prelude, however, to the devastating storm soon to erupt from the heart of Central Asia. Genghis Khan was on his way.

The Khwarizm Empire stretched from north of Samarkand to the Arabian Sea and from the eastern borders of Afghanistan through Central Persia. Its ruler, Sultan Muhammad, glorified in his power. When, therefore, Genghis Khan sent a mission demanding that a border governor be handed over for punishment, the Sultan singed off the beards of the envoys and returned them without comment. Who was this upstart Mongol who dared to make demands?

He soon learned, for it was his effrontery that raised the curtain on one of history's grimmest periods of destruction. By the beginning of 1220, Genghis Khan was in Balkh with 100,000 mounted men and the appalling scenes of devastation marking his path attested to the magnitude of his fury. Sultan Muhammad turned his back and fled, leaving the impossible situation in the hands of his son Jalal-ad-Din, a man of great courage and determination. Refusing to despair, he retired to Ghazni where his personality alone succeeded in uniting the independent tribes. In pursuit, Genghis Khan sent 30,000 savage riders, each with three reserve horses. Quickly assembling his newly formed army, Jalal-ad-Din advanced to meet his enemy at the confluence of the Panjshir and Ghorband Rivers, northeast of modern Charikar, close to the ancient Kapisa.

As the two armies faced each other across the Panjshir River that evening in the fall of 1221, the hearts of the Afghans were filled with dire misgivings for the figures of a huge host loomed in the darkness. Their leader was not to be intimidated. He rallied them to attack at dawn. With astonishment, they watched their opponents flee, with amazement, they examined the portion of the great host behind; they found them to be mere scarecrows of straw covered with felt, bound to the backs of the reserve horses. A propitious beginning this, but unity was alien to these tribesmen and they fell victim the very next day to a petty dispute over a horse. The strongest of the leaders rode off, leaving the alliance shattered behind him.

Genghis Khan did not take kindly to defeat. He advanced to the south like "flash lightning" vanquishing every stronghold on his way. The barbarity inflicted upon those who resisted his advance is difficult to contemplate, much less describe. He stopped briefly on the Kabul battlefield and we may picture him here at age 59 astride a horse, his long-sleeved black sable coat set off by a high white felt hat from which long red streamers hung to frame his hardened face.

As this horde moved out of the valley on its way to the final battle with Jalal-ad-Din on the banks of the Indus, "the countryside was choked with horsemen, the air black with the dust of cavalry." Jalal-ad-Din succeeded in escaping across the Indus, but his cause was utterly crushed and Genghis Khan pursued him no further. Retracing his steps, the conqueror passed again through Kabul in March 1222. Toward the end, Genghis Khan seems to have suffered some uneasiness about his policy of total annihilation. It is said that upon asking an Afghan prince if the blood he had shed would remain forever in the memory of men, he was assured, with considerable temerity, that the present rate of bloodletting would certainly preclude the existence of man to harbour any such memories. So it must have seemed to the peoples of this time.

Genghis Khan died in 1227 and the old territory of Khwarizm was left in the hands of his son Chagatai who completed the subjugation of the mountain tribes of Afghanistan. For 100 years, they remained in the grip of the Mongols. By the end of this period, the far-flung empire of the Khans had begun to crumble and once more Kabul was caught in the ensuing scramble for power.

These struggles were fought for personal gain unmindful of the ruin and desolation of the indigenous people and their countries, hence recovery from the holocaust was painfully slow. Local Turkish chiefs administering the provinces for their Mongol lords were sometimes successful in relegating their lords to a new Mongol figure to restart the cycle. The most powerful jockeying for power took place in the north around Bokhara and Samarkand for the Mongols did not settle in great numbers south of the Hindu Kush, but the effects of the chaotic struggles in the north nonetheless submerged the southern provinces in poverty and widespread lawlessness. It was an era of petty autocrats whose authority scarcely extended beyond their own villages.

That Kabul was victim to these machinations is all too evident from the poignant account of the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta. In visiting Kabul in 1333, he writes: "We travelled on to Kabul, formerly a vast town, the site of which is now occupied by a village inhabited by a tribe of Persians called Afghans. They hold mountains and defiles and possess considerable strength, and are mostly highwaymen."

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Timurid Rule (1381-1504). Three years later, in 1136, a boy was born in a small valley fifty miles south of Samarkand. His early life, from 1360 on, mirrors the chaos of these times, but he was destined to become its master. This was Timur, known to European histories as Tamerlane, son of an impoverished Turkish chieftain. Timur journeyed to Samarkand where his services on behalf of the Turkish governor was so appreciated that he won the hand of the governor's grand-daughter whose brother was then Prince Husain of Kabul. Not long after, however, a Mongol lord of the Chagatais appeared from the east to reclaim his heritage both in Smarkand and in Kabul. Timur, in a series of wily maneuvers, emerged as a regent for the Mongol in Tansoxiana but his position was precarious and before long, he and his bride were forced to seek refuge in the mountains of the Hindu Kush.

Searching for the deposed Husain, they entered the valley of Kabul where they furtively bartered outside the city for fresh horses before continuing south to a rendezvous with Husain in the vicinity of Qandahar. Here with nothing but boundless ambition, they engaged in the life of soldiers of fortune. They fought well for the local chieftain and it was during one of these battles that Timur received a foot wound from which he never fully recovered, which is why some of his chroniclers, in vituperation, call him Timur-i-Lang, Timur the Lame. Little by little, the reputation of their prowness grew until, from Kabul to the Aral Sea, the tribes rallied to their cause. By the close of 1369, Timur divested himself of his avaricious companion Husain, and was proclaimed sovereign at Balkh.



The next few years were occupied with campaigns in the north but his strength and leadership brought about stability throughout the realm and led to a gradual recovery of the south. By 1397, he was eyeing India. Though somewhat hesitant at first, he received much encouragement from his sons. One argued that "whichever Sultan conquers India becomes supreme over the four quarters of the globe," while another pointed out that "India is full of gold and silver, diamonds and ruby and emerald...," and his grandson, Pir Muhammad, Governor of Kabul, sent urgent petitions advising him that the "time for conquest is propitious." Timur himself says, "My object in the invasion of Hindustan is to lead a campaign against infidels, to convert them...." A campaign that offered power, wealth, opportunity, and the glory to God, was hardly to be resisted. Accordingly, with an army "as numerous as the leaves of tree," Timur set out from Samarkand in March 1398 to conquer Delhi. In August, he came to Kabul where he pitched his tent on a nearby meadow.

Kabul under Pir Muhammad was now the prosperous capital of a province which included Kunduz, Badakhshan, Ghazni, Qandahar, and the territory to the east, as far as the Indus. Timur visited this important capital with all the pomp and ceremony befitting a powerful potentate. He had two royal pavilions for use while travelling so that one could be sent ahead, to be readied for his arrival. We are indebted to a European traveller, Clavijo, Ambassador to Castile, who on visiting Timur in 1403 wrote this colourful description of Timur's travelling accommodations: "The pavilion was a hundred paces broad, and had four corners and the ceiling was round like a vault. It was pitched upon twelve poles, each as large around as a man's chest, and each painted gold and blue and other colours. From the vault of the ceiling of the pavilion silken cloths descended, making an arch from side to side. There was a crimson carpet embroidered with gold threads. In the four corners were the figures of four eagles with their wings closed. The outside of the pavilion was covered with silk stripes, black, white, and yellow. At each corner was a high pole with a copper ball and the figure of a crescent, and on the top of the pavilion there was a tower of silken cloths, with turrets and an entrance door. This pavilion was so large and high that from a distance it looked like a castle, and it was a very wonderful thing to see and possessed more beauty than it is possible to describe."

Timur held all state ceremonies in these pavilions, preferring them to any palace. While at Kabul, he received an ambassador from Persia who came with a tribute so large that the court recorders worked unceasingly for three days and nights in listing it. The presentation ceremony was one of the most spectacular events recorded in the historical narratives of this period. For a full day, the treasure passed in review: leopards, birds of prey, robes of gold and brocade of every hue, camels, mules, Arab horses with gold saddles, pavilions, tents, couches, hangings, vessels, and gems of every variety.

So we can picture Timur at Kabul and wonder if the monarch so ensconced amidst such splendor turned memory back to his earliest visit to the valley.

Timur the warrior had spread his conquests far and wide during which he had acquired a reputation for being cruel and savage. At his capital in Samarkand and in such northern cities as Herat, a different side of his character unfolded. Here he began a renaissance of culture by his avid patronage of artists and all men of learning and by his passionate beautification of his cities. This trait was strongly inherited by his son and successor Shah Rukh under whose wise and just rule from 1404 to 1447, the Timurid dynasty enjoyed its greatest glory. However, the new life which returned to the lands of the Hindu Kush during these years was stunted in later years by ceaseless internal strife in which every descendant of Timur aspired to supreme authority, be it in the capital, a province, a town, or a valley. A hundred years after the death of Timur it was his descendant Ulugh Beg who ruled at Kabul.


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Moghul-Safavid Rivalry (1504-1700). Far to the north, just east of Samarkand, was another small valley kingdom, where a young crown prince boasted direct descent from both Genghis Khan and Timur. Such an elite heritage was not enough, however, to spare him from internal intrigue when his father's death placed him on the throne in 1495 at the age of twelve. In addition, the powerful Uzbegs from Transoxiana took advantage of the young king's troubles to sweep down upon him, forcing him at length to flee with a few impoverished followers. He turned at first to powerful relatives ruling rich cities of the north but they, having noted the determination with which he defended his valley and being jealous in the protection of their own thrones, deemed it wise to spurn him.

So, Zahir-ad-Din Muhammad, later known as Babur, the Tiger, wandered over the Hindu Kush until, in October 1504, he looked upon Kabul, a city but recently usurped from Ulugh, Beg's successor. From the heights of Bemaru he saw a valley beautiful in its fall colours and from informants he learned that the city was seething with discontent. Babur attacked, unseated the usurper, and won a throne. He was passionately entranced with the beauty of his new home and immediately set about to embellish his capital. Numerous gardens, for which he brought in saplings and seeds from lands to the north, were laid out under his personal supervision. In the midst of these gardens, new buildings rose.

The court indulged in simple pleasures. Of his early days in Kabul, Babur recounts with appreciation the remembrance of a well-turned phrase and of those hours spent in sharing a cup of wine with friends in one or the other of his new gardens. The simplicity was in marked contrast to the opulent court of his relatives in Herat, as he himself notes.

It was not, however, a completely easy throne upon which to sit. Though the tribes of Kabul readily acquiesced to his leadership, he says those of other valleys were fierce and difficult to subdue. Persistently he moved on to Peshawar, to Ghazni, into the Hazarajat to Ghor, over the Hindu Kush to Badakhshan, and later south to Qandahar. While away on these campaigns, he had constantly to keep in touch with affairs at home, for his family, now comfortably ensconced on large estates surrounding the city, easily forgot their debt to his leadership, and plotted against him for his throne.

He persevered, however, and twenty years after his arrival, with affairs at home under control and with expansion to the north and west pushed as far as possible, the lure of India caught Babur as it had caught so many empire builders before him. Ambition drove him to leave the rugged mountain for the fertile plain but he left Kabul in 1525 with considerable reluctance. From this time onward, he ruled from a new capital in Agra but he never abandoned Kabul in his heart. At Panipat, scene of his decisive victory over Delhi in 1526, he built a mosque in commemoration of this battle. He named it the Kabul Shah Mosque in honour of the land he loved. Later, repeated instructions concerning the repair and upkeep of buildings and gardens in Kabul were sent to his son Kamran, now instated as Governor of Kabul, for, as he says: "I have a longing beyond expression to return to Kabul. How can its delights ever be erased from my heart."

Babur was a brilliant military strategist whose resoluteness founded the great Moghul Empire, and yet, in the story of Kabul, the image of the warrior is tempered by his love of poetry and beauty, his delight in nature, and his generosity toward those around him. It was upon the pleasures of this life that the dying monarch's thoughts dwelt a few short years later when he willed that he should be laid to rest in a favourite garden at Kabul. Unrest following his demise in 1530 prevented the immediate fulfillment of his wish and for nine years, he remained buried at Agra, not far from where the Taj Mahal now stands. When at length his last journey was made, it was his faithful Afghan wife, Bibi Mubarika Yusufzai, who brought him to his beloved Kabul.

Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan, protagonists of the quintessence in oriental magnificence, now enter this story. Ruling from Agra and Delhi, the Moghul princes found their western provinces to be uneasy possessions. Important cities like Herat and Qandahar were wrested from them in time and the recalcitrant tribes between Kabul and India has often to be assuaged with healthy allowances. In spite of this, they zealously retained the hold on Kabul for its position was strategic, and these sons of Babur had inherited much of their ancestor's fondness for the valley.

Each of these kings had occasion to visit Kabul, either on pleasure or in the course of protecting their outlying territories; Akbar in 1581, Jahangir in 1607, and Shah Jahah in 1640. Such visits gave an impetus to the cultural life of the city which was during this time further embellished by buildings and gardens wrought in the elegant style developed by the Moghuls. Graceful pavilions similar to those at Lahore and Delhi rose upon the outer walls of Bala Hissar and along the riverside. In the heart of the city, Kabul's governor, the celebrated Ali Mardan Khan (d. 1657), built a covered bazaar, the Char Chatta, which was to remain famous throughout the next two centuries for its fountains, murals and exotic merchandise. A few years later, in 1640, Shah Jahan built a graceful marble mosque in Babur's Garden, close to the simple tomb of his forefather.


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  The Ghilzais at Kandahar. The 16th and 17th centuries were, therefore, comparatively peaceful times for Kabul due in part to the fact that power in India under the Moghuls had been paralleled by equal power in Persia under the Safavid Dynasty. By the beginning of the 18th century, however, both houses had succumbed to a surfeit of luxury and local rulers began to stir.

At Kandahar, then under the Persians, Ghilzai chieftains declared their independence, defeated the Persian armies come to contest their claim, and pushed on to take possession of the Safavid throne at Isfahan. Theirs was but a short lived occupancy lasting only from 1722 to 1730, when they were defeated by the Persian general Nadir Shah Afshar who, after seating himself upon the Persian throne, went on to capture Qandahar in March 1738.

His next objective was the throne of Delhi which he approached via Kabul in May. Though the Moghul garrison's weak resistance was overcome by June, Nadir Shah remained in the city until September before descending into India. Strongly supported by his trusted Afghan general Ahmad Khan Abdali leading his tribal followers, Nadir Shah defeated the Moghuls, gathered a rich booty, and returned to Kabul in 1740, leaving the Moghul king to rule India under Persian suzerainty.

The territory west of the Indus, however, was transferred to direct Persian rule and a rearguard of several thousand Qizilbash troops, for whom four large garrisons were built, were left behind in Kabul.

The Qizilbash formed the center of Nadir Shah's army, always fighting close to their leader; his most trusted servants and fanatical Shias. However, Nadir Shah lacked the genius to forge an empire out of his conquests and the interim of his tenure is therefore significant to this story only because it set the stage for the emergence of Afghanistan.
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Ahmad Shah Durrani. The new epoch opens in violence with the assassination of Nadir Shah in 1747. At Qandahar, the seat of local independence prior to the rise of Nadir Shah, powerful tribal chieftains reviewed the signs and concluded that recent events had been but a temporary interruption of their goals: India, under waning Moghul power, lay inert; Persia, rent with internal dissensions, lay impotent. The time was without question theirs, but who was to lead them? Day after day at the tribal council, powerful chiefs proudly proclaimed their individual merits with ever-increasing vehemence. At length, when all seemed lost, a seer came forward to point to a quiet young man, that same Ahmad Khan Abdali, 25, so recently the trusted general of Nadir Shah. Miraculously, the haughty chiefs acquiesced and proclaimed him Ahmad Shah, King of the Afghans.

Knowing that he must demonstrate his abilities, Ahmad Shah attacked Kabul and advanced upon the Moghuls in Delhi where he was actually invited to accept the throne of India. Declining, he took only lands west of the Indus. A brief poem written by Ahmad Shah at this time reveals the man and his objectives: "I will conquer countless lands; And revive the memory of Sher Shah; But I cannot forget the fascinating orchards of my motherland; When I think of the mountain peaks of my country; I forget the throne of Delhi."  

Ahmad Shah's military campaigns were many but they are incidental to his real contribution to this story already sprinkled with brilliant military figures. His genius lay instead in his ability to imbue his intractable, volatile countrymen with a national conscience. While travelling from his capital in Qandahar to visit with tribal chieftains throughout his realm, he often had occasion to visit Kabul, where he stayed, not in the marble palaces of the lofty Bala Hissar, but in a garden in the city, accessible to those who wished to see him. It was through simple gestures such as this that Ahmad Shah Baba, Father of the Afghans, achieved his remarkable goal: Afghanistan, Land of the Afghan.

Ahmad Shah brought about this national cohesiveness in the incredibly short time of twenty-six years, but on his death in 1772, the age-old plague of fraternal jealousies returned to place it in jeopardy. In retaliation for the disloyalty exhibited by the people of Qandahar over the accession, Timur Shah, the second son whom Ahmad Shah had chosen, transferred the capital to Kabul.

The political history from this point presents a fast moving kaleidoscopic story filled with grim internecine struggles boding a hasty end for the new Afghanistan. Timur Shah's unfinished mausoleum in the center of Kabul stands today as a monument to these unsettled times. For the reader who enjoys exciting adventure stories packed with a wealth of glamorous figures and ingenious plots, this period offers fascinating reading. The details are beyond the scope of this simple survey and are furthermore available in a number of works in English. Here we must content ourselves with a few salient events and personalities specifically involving the life of the city.


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Amir Dost Mohammad Khan.  The struggles for supremacy played out in the palaces and dungeons of Bala Hissar where oriental splendor replaced the simplicity of Ahmad Shah. Splendor did not, however, command obedience and by the time Dost Muhammad Khan, the first of the Muhammadzai Dynasty, secured the throne of Kabul in 1826, his authority was respected scarcely more than a hundred miles from the city. Even within this radius, each valley fort paid tribute first to its own chief. Beyond this radius, the country was divided between Herat and Kandahar ruled by bitterly opposed members of the same family. Of the contenders, Amir Dost Muhammad was the most outstanding.

During his reign, Kabul played a cordial host to an ever-increasing parade of western visitors, acute observers who wrote voluminously and vividly for an excited public eager to devour the minutest of details concerning this all but unknown land. We can walk with them and in so doing find ourselves very much at home. The city was smaller than it is today. About three miles in circumference, it covered the approximate area now bounded by Bala Hissar, the Spinzar Hotel and the defile between the hills of Asmai and Sher Darwaza. In the center, near Pul-i-Khisti, several large serais catered to caravans arriving from far-off lands as they had been doing from time immemorial. The goods they brought "from most every part of the world" were offered for sale in covered bazaars of the Chahr Chatta and in the Shor and Darwaza Lahori bazaars, two main streets which ran from Pul-i-Khisti to the foot of Bala Hissar through the densely packed residential section of the city. Other specialty markets such as the grain and cattle markets, were located on the left bank of the river and large garden estates took up the remaining space.

The villages of Deh Afghanan and Deh Mazang clung to the sides of Asmai as they do today, but present day Shahr-i-Nau was laid out in small farms which produced fruits and vegetables for the city. The Amir and his retinue continued to live in the palaces of Bala Hissar where there was also a separate city unit of about 1,000 houses. All together, the city's population during these early years of the 19th century was estimated to be between 50-60,000, which represented an increase of 40,000 from the day Timur Shah first brought his court to Kabul.

This was the prize for which the rival claimants gambled. Amir Dost Muhammad's efforts to maintain his position were further complicated by the entrance of foreign powers into the desperate game. Napoleon's intrigues in Persia first directed the British in India to open official relations with the Court of Kabul as early as 1809. Russia's steady advance southward toward the Oxus River deepened their concern. Acutely aware of Afghanistan's age-old position as a highway from Persia and Central Asia to India, the British took an active interest in the seating and unseating of princes on the throne of Kabul during the remainder of the 19th century. They had rich investments to protect. Twice this interest involved the actual participation of British troops: first in 1838-1842 during the First Anglo-Afghan War and again in 1878-1880 during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.


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First Anglo-Afghan War.  During the first of these episodes, the British escorted Shah Shujah, an exile in India for thirty years, back to the throne in Kabul. To do this, they deposed Amir Dost Muhammad who was accused of negotiating favourably with Persia, where Russian influence was strong, and with Russia in a manner considered to be hostile to British interests.

Since feelings ran high against the puppet Shah Shujah, British troops stayed in Kabul to support him. They built a large walled-in cantonment to the northeast on the right side of Ansari Wat (airport road). Here officers' wives carefully tended their gardens, hemmed dainty handkerchiefs, and dined off imported mahogany tables. The men passed their leisure time in enjoying various equestrian sports with their Afghan friends. As winter came on, British officers fashioned skates out of locally procured wood and iron and joined the Afghans in their graceful sport of sliding on the frozen waters of Wazirabad Lake. As the spring thaws arrived, one Englishman launched a sailboat on this lake which proved to be an object of considerable fascination for both Afghan and Englishman. During the summer, hockey, cricket, football, and quoits were played on these meadows which also provided an exciting course for the steeplechase. At the cantonment, Afghans dined with the British officers in their mess hall and sat as enthusiastic audience in the specially constructed theatre where Sir Alexander Burnes is said to have translated English comedies into Persian with remarkable skill. In return, the Englishman were invited to Afghan homes in the city to "share in the field sport in their country castles."

The pleasant living and the camaraderie thus reported by the participants was but a false facade. Only a very small proportion of Kabul's citizens welcomed the foreigners. The rest of the city and of Afghanistan was seething in opposition to the policies dictating the British presence; resentment ran deep in the hearts of the tribesmen who valued their independence so highly they chafed at the outside interference in their midst. This resentment culminated in the massacre of the retreating British forces on the road to Jalalabad in January, 1842. At Kabul, Shah Shujah was ambushed and killed by his own people not far from the citadel of Bala Hissar on the 5th of April.

British troops under General Pollock, later entitled "The Avenger," returned the following September from Jalalabad followed closely by General Nott from Qandahar. They found the gates of the citadel standing open, the city deserted, its people fled with their valuables to Istalif. A few days later, they were joined by the 120-odd British prisoners who had been taken as hostages by Dost Muhammad's son, Akbar Khan, as security for his father's well-being. Except for one officer who reached Jalalabad, these hostages were the only British to survive.

On October 10th, searching for a "mark" to leave on the city to remind it of British power for revenge, General Pollock issued orders for the destruction of the Chahr Chatta, the great bazaar which was the city's famed adornment. While this was occuring, soldiers and camp followers set most of the city, except the Bala Hissar, on flre. The fire still had not gone out when the troops left the city two days later.

The failure of British forces to unseat Amir Dost Muhammad led authorities in India to view their former prisoner with new interest. Amir Dost Muhammad returned to the throne l in January 1843 and ruledthe King of Kabul for the next twenty years annexing Kandahar and territories of the north by 1853 and Herat in 1863, a few months before his death.

Amir Sher Ali Khan. The Amir's death heralded bitter controversies between his sons over the succession. At the same time Russia renewed its steady drive toward the Oxus River. This reinforced British interest in Afghanistan and in 1869, a cordial meeting between the incumbent at Kabul, Amir Sher Ali Khan, and the Viceroy took place in India. But Russia continued to advance and further initiated a steady correspondence with Kabul. When they finally dispatched a Mission to Kabul in 1878, the Viceroy of India countered by sending a British Mission to Kabul, a move they had desired for years but which the Amir had consistently refused.



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Second Anglo-Afghan War.  The Amir earnestly desired the absence of both Missions from his capital, but his advice went unheeded. On the 21st of September 1878, the British Mission advanced to the Khyber Pass where the commandant of the fort at Ali Masjid refused them entry. A month later, no answer to their ultimatum having been received, British troops forcibly crossed Afghanistan's southeastern border, thus initiating the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Amir Sher Ali Khan then quitted Kabul for Russia with the intention of laying his grievances before the court which had professed such staunch friendship. In Kabul, the Amir left his son Yakub Khan as Regent.

In order to prevent the further advance of British troops into Afghanistan, Yakub Khan met with the British at Gandamak in May and there concluded a treaty ending, so it was thought, the Second Anglo-Afghan War. One of the principal provisions of this Treaty of Gandamak called for the Amirs of Afghanistan to "henceforth conduct all relations with foreign states in accordance with the advice and wishes of the British Government."

Amir Sher Ali Khan died in Mazar-i-Sharif in February, 1879, having been refused admittance to Russia, and Yakub Khan became Amir at Kabul. The following July, Sir Louis Cavagnari arrived in Kabul to establish a permanent British Resident Mission, another provision of the Treaty of Gandamak. In September, mutinous troops attacked the Mission, killing all but three or four of its members and burning their quarters in Bala Hissar to the ground. This news put the still mobilized British troops again on the march under General Roberts and the second phase of the Second Anglo-Afghan War opened.

General Roberts occupied Kabul via the Logar Valley in October. Once settled in their cantonments at Sherpur, the troops set about enjoying the valley; bamboo punts, flat-bottomed canoes, and rowboats skimmed along on Wazirabad Lake, cricket and polo teams met in contest, and there were many competitions at horseracing. The city, returned to its former prosperity, continued to fascinate: "Towards the afternoons the main bazaars present a most lively and animated appearance, and are densely and incongruously crowded: camels, elephants, mules, horsemen, Afghans and Englishmen all jostling along in a busy stream."

The situation was vexing. Amir Yakub Khan had resigned, and the chiefs had raised his son as Amir. But the son was too young to serve as more than a figurehead. Old resentments across Afghanistan reached a peak when armies and spur-of-the-moment militia from across the region converged on Kabul. Thinking to head off a meeting of these forces, General Roberts sent out troops against them only to be driven back behind the walls of the Cantonment where he was besieged for nine days while the leader of the Afghan forces, Muhammad Jan Khan, held control of the city.

The assault was then suddenly abandoned. The British emerged from behind the walls of Sherpur to find the mountains and the plains which had bristled with thousands of hostile tribesmen now quiet and serene. The city lay before them undefended; contentions between the chieftains had dissolved their alliance and the tribesmen had returned to their villages. Roberts assumed control of the city but the British Government was not interested in actual annexation. The desperate search for a leader capable of conciliating the varied interests eventually turned toward one Abdur Rahman who had recently crossed the Oxus with a small following. During the struggles for succession following Amir Dost Muhammad's death in 1863, Abdur Rahman had fought vigorously on his father's behalf thereby establishing his reputation as a man of strength. His father, however, died in 1867 after a short and tenuous reign of one year whereupon Abdur Rahman retired in exile to Russia. His appearance was now welcomed with great optimism.

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Amir Abdur Rahman.  The new Amir of Kabul was officially recognized on July 22, 1880. On the 11th of August the British troops marched out of Kabul: 23,000 troops and 40,000 followers accompanied by large droves of cattle and every description of transport, "carts, hackeries, ekkas, elephants, camels, mules, ponies, donkeys, and pack bullocks." They left a country divided within and beset from all sides. As Amir Abdur Rahman himself says in his autobiography, "when I first succeeded to the throne of Kabul my life was not a bed of roses. Here began my first severe fight against my own relatives, my own subjects, and my own people."

Amir Abdur Rahman, however, was admirably equal to the task set before him. Strong and ruthless in his dealings with internal insurrection, knowledgeable in his relationships with neighbouring countries, able as an administrator, he quickly exchanged chaos for stability; Qandahar and Herat bowed to the authority of Kabul, neighbouring countries settled long-standing border disputes and Afghanistan as we know it today emerged.

At Kabul, there was much to be done. A new palace and citadel, known as the Arg, was begun near Deh Afghanan and around it farms gave way to a fashionable residential area. Here the Arg Bazaar was built and princes and courtiers built homes surrounded by lovely gardens. Accounts of the gracious living enjoyed at the palaces at Babur's Gardens, Bagh-i-Bala, and Paghman suggest a return to tranquility. Foreign conquest, in the past a favoured means of maintaining the allegiance of tribes, was no longer feasible, but Amir Abdur Rahman had learned much from his days beyond the frontier and turned his energies instead to an avid championship of new workshops, schools, and hospitals. By 1901, Kabul's population had risen to an estimated 140,000-160,000.

Amir Habibullah.  Late in September of 1901, Amir Abdur Rahman passed away at his favorite new palace of Bagh-i-Bala. Due to the fear of possible palace intrigue, his body was secretly carried into the city and buried in the east wing of the Bustan Seraj, his private city palace, which remains today as his mausoleum. His son, Prince Habibullah, ascended the throne without incident on the 3rd of October, to begin a reign which followed the general principles of development laid down by his father. The city continued to grow: the new bazaar near the Arg expanded; Dilkhusha Palace and other palaces in the Arg were built; various public buildings such as the Id Mosque and the shrine at Khwaja Safa were enlarged. Perhaps the greatest single innovation in the city during his reign was the introduction of electricity.

King Amanullah. Amir Habibullah was cut down by the hand of an assassin near Jalalabad in February, 1919 upon which his son Amanullah succeeded to the throne. A quickening of modern innovations was immediately evident. Chafing under the remnants of British suzerainty, the continued control of external affairs, Amir Amanullah instigated the Third Anglo-Afghan War or War of Independence. Hostilities commenced at Torkham in the Khyber Pass on the 3rd of May. On the 24th, Kabul experienced its first aerial bombing. General Nadir Khan and his brother Shah Wali Khan, directing matters with great flourish and causing the British considerable discomfort on the Central and Southern fronts, advanced some distance into British India. By the 3rd of June, there was talk of an armistice, on the 20th of July, Afghan and British diplomats met, and on the 8th of August, the Treaty of Rawalpindi was signed. This was a provisional treaty which prepared the way for a final treaty granting full independence to Afghanistan which was fully ratified in Kabul on November 22, 1921.

To celebrate Afghanistan's entrance into the community of sovereign nations, a new capital for the new nation was begun in Chahrdeh at Darulaman, where elaborate, European styled buildings sprang into being. Trolley lines were laid to connect the old city with the new, streets were widened to accommodate an increase in motor traffic, new highways were begun, and the old cantonment at Sherpur gave way to become Kabul's first airfield.

As diplomatic relations were established with other countries, Kabul played host for the first time to foreign embassies and legations: Russia, Turkey, Germany, Britain, Iran, Italy, and France. In 1926, Amir Amanullah assumed the title of King and in December of the following year, he embarked upon a tour of Europe where he was welcomed with enthusiasm while the press exclaimed ecstatically over the beauty and charm of the gracious Queen Soraya. On their return the palaces of Kabul and Jalalabad were redecorated with the choicest of their purchases and the building boom spread to Paghman where triumphal arches, ornate theaters, cafes, hotels, racecourses, bandstands, and villas rose with amazing speed. Comprehensive political and social reforms were promulgated at the same time and here the people balked. Incited by conservative leaders from the Shor Bazaar of Kabul, the country was set aflame.

By the end of 1928, universal rebellion had crystallized under the banner of Bacha Saqao, son of a water-carrier, who came with his band from the Koh Daman to take possession of the city in mid-January, 1929. King Amanullah left Kabul by Rolls Royce for Kandahar, leaving the throne to his brother King Inayatullah who followed three days later in a British plane. Bacha Saqao then assumed the title of Amir Habibullah Ghazi, but it was the mob which ruled the streets of Kabul, burning and looting its palaces already broken by the shells of heavy bombardment. Outside the city, the country once more writhed in anarchy, unable to offer its trust to anyone. In Europe, General Nadir Khan, once Commander-in-Chief and the hero of the War of Independence but more recently estranged and sent as Ambassador to France, heard of the distress of his country and hurried to India with his brothers.

For a tortured interval, he could do no more than pace the floor of his room at Dean's Hotel in Peshawar for he had only moderate following, scanty equipment and scantier funds. Undaunted, he crossed the border in March, 1929 and despite initial setbacks, pushed on through Pakhtia province toward the capital, securing the confidence of the hesitant as he went. By the beginning of October, the advance led by Sardar Shah Wali Khan, the General's brother, reached Kabul. Bacha Saqao fled, was captured and hung.

King Nadir Shah.  Six days later an all-Afghan Jirgah proclaimed Nadir Khan King of Afghanistan. The task before him was monumental: to establish order out of internal chaos meant inevitable dissatisfaction among those curtailed; to maintain profitable international relations gave rise to grave criticism from those traditionally suspicious of outside interference. In the end, these factors led to the assassination of King Nadir Shah on the grounds of the Dilkhusha Palace on the 8th of November, 1933. The patriotism of the royal family, however, permitted an untroubled resolution of the potentially dangerous situation thus created; at 6:00 the same evening the King's 19 year old son, Prince Muhammad Zahir Shah, was proclaimed King of Afghanistan.

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