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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kabul's Very Historic Garden Of Fidelity

2 paintings of Babur laying out the gardens

I was lucky I got to travel through Afghanistan when I did, in 1969 and again 1971. After that the whole thing blew up and today when Westerners think of Afghanistan, they think of off an ugly, dusty, crumbling, violent landscape. When I think of the "best" countries I ever visited, Afghanistan is always high on the list. And countries get on that list because of the people more than anything else. The Afs were always incredibly friendly and hospitable, even when I got thrown into jail for trying to smuggle 50 kilos of hash out of the country in my van.

Unfortunately, in the last decades Afghanistan hasn't been a place for foreign visitors. A Taliban spokesman a few months ago: “It is part of our war strategy to target any foreign citizen whose country has a military presence in Afghanistan and enters our country without permission from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." A few tourists go anyway, maybe 100 a year, fewer than when I was first there in 1969. A Canadian couple disappeared and haven't been heard of since. Another two were a wealthy Russian couple, who hired an armored car and bodyguards at $1,500 a day, stayed in the $356-a-night Kabul Serena Hotel, toured the Panjshir Valley, and went home on schedule.
Like tourism industries anywhere, Afghan tourism does have its boosters. “The security situation is fairly stable, and tourists who visit are fairly comfortable and they are pleased when they see a hotel of this standard,” said Shahryar T. Khan, the general manager of the Kabul Serena Hotel, which has five stars and “world-class security measures.”

The 177-room hotel runs at 64 percent occupancy, Mr. Khan said, and tourists make up an increasing share of the guests. “Of course, from zero it’s gone up to 1 percent.” The Serena has twice been attacked by terrorists, and in 2008 Taliban insurgents killed six guests in an attack aimed at the hotel’s health spa.
Ghulam Nabi Farahi, the deputy minister of tourism says “Afghanistan is a country very suitable for attracting tourists. It’s a place where tourists can have all their wishes come true.” And he insists that there have been no recent cases of tourists attacked or kidnapped. The WikiTravel site for Afghanistan has a bold warning on top telling would be visitors that travel there "is extremely dangerous, and independent travel/sightseeing is emphatically discouraged."

But this week, a friend turned me on to a blog by Barbara Wells Sarudy who expresses a beautiful historical appreciation for Afghanistan-- or at least for the Afghanistan of the 1500s-- and from a unique perspective.
The Bagh-e Vafa (Garden of Fidelity) was Babur's first garden in what is now Afghanistan. He wrote in his memoirs, "In 1508-09, I had constructed a charbagh garden called Bagh-i-Wafa on a rise to the south of the Adianapur fortress. It overlooks the river, which flows between the fortress and the garden. It yields many oranges, citroens and pomegranates."

What is known about its design also comes from Babur's memoirs, "There oranges, citrons and pomegranates grow in abundance...I had plantains brought and planted there; they did vedry well. The year before I had had sugar cane planted there; it also did well...The garden lies high, has running water close at hand, and a mild winter climate. In the middle of it, a one-mill stream flows constantly past the little hill on which are the four garden plots. In the southwest part of it there is a reservoir ten by ten, round which are orange-trees and a few pomegranates, the whole encircled by a trefoil meadow. This is the best part of the garden, a most beautiful sight when the oranges take color."

This type of garden, called a charbagh, was described earlier in an account from Sir John Mandeville’s travels into the East, c. 1370, “And this Paradise is enclosed all about with a wall…and in the most high place of Paradise, even in the middle place, is a well that casteth out the four floods that run by divers lands. Of the which, the first is clept Pison, or Ganges, that is all one; and it runneth throughout Ind or Emlak, in the which river be many precious stones, and much of lignum aloes and much gravel of gold. And that other river is clept Nilus or Gison, that goeth by Ethiopia and after by Egypt. And that other is clept Tigris, that runneth by Assyria and by Armenia the great. And that other is clept Euphrates, that runneth also by Media and Armenia and by Persia. And men there beyond say, that all the sweet waters of the world, above and beneath, take their beginning of the well of Paradise, and out of that well all waters come and go.”

Charbagh is a Persian-style garden layout. The quadrilateral garden is divided by walkways or flowing water into four smaller parts. In Persian, "Char" means "four" and "bagh" means "garden." Chahrbagh originated from the time of Achaemenid Persia. Greek historians, such as Herodotus and Xenophon, give extensive accounts of Cyrus the Great's palatial city of Pasargadae and his four-gardens.

The Gardens of Babur, also called Bagh-e Babur, is today a historic park in Kabul, Afghanistan, and also the last resting-place of the first Mughal emperor Babur. The gardens are thought to have been developed in the early 1500s, when Babur gave orders for the construction of an "avenue garden" in Kabul, described in some detail in his memoirs, the Baburnama.  Today, many species chosen for replanting are specifically mentioned in the Baburnama, including walnut, cherry, quince, mulberry and apricot trees.

The Baburnama was the first autobiography in the Muslim world. It is the memoir of Zahir ud-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530), founder of the Mughal Empire & a great-great-great-grandson of Timur. It is an autobiographical work, originally written in the Chagatai language, known to Babur as "Turki" (Turkic), the spoken language of the Andijan-Timurids. Because of Babur's cultural origin, his prose is highly Persianized & contains many phrases & smaller poems in Persian. By 1590, the autobiography was completely translated to Persian by a Mughal courtier, Abdul Rahim, in AH (Hijri) 998 (1589-90). Babur & his successors introduced a level of Persian sophistication into Northern India, founding the last dynasty of India, the Mughal Dynasty.

Babur begins his story at age 12. His father had died, & he had inherited & lost a kingdom in the lush Ferghana Valley north of Afghanistan. As a teenager, Babur captured Samarkand, only to lose it. In his early 20s, Babur seemed to strategize more. He took to the forests, where he lived for 3 years, slowly building & training an army. He had an Empire to establish.

When he was ready, he crossed the Hindu Kush mountain range, & captured Kabul, a city he grew to love. In his autobiography, he described Kabul, “It is a pretty little province, completely surrounded by mountains. This province is a mercantile center. From India, caravans of 10, 15, 20 thousand pack animals brings slaves, textiles, sugar, & spices. Many Kabul merchants would not be satisfied with 300 or 400% profit! Goods from Iraq, Antonia, China, [& beyond] can be found in Kabul.”

While in Kabul, he designed a garden. Gardens were part of his homeland, which he missed. There, they tended to be walled enclosures with water channels which ran at regular intervals, cross-sections. And that’s what he recreated, a garden with terraces & running water. The water adds background noise & the fragrance from blossoms, as it cools. When he brought water to the dry, dusty landscape, it became fertile. Water transforms the land into an image of paradise. The Garden of Eden, the Promised Land.

Despite his adoration of Kabul & his garden, Babur was not ready to retire. He conquered Kandahar, another wealthy city along prosperous trade routes. He crossed the Oxus River & conquered his ancestral lands of the Ferghana Valley. He then set his sights on India. He used the newest technologies; & his battalion of 12,000 was able to defeat an army of 100,000. He sacked what is today Northern India. He & his descendants ruled the subcontinent for 3 centuries, instilling a legacy of Persian culture & Islamic faith.

"If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!" reads the inscription on Babur’s tomb in his Kabul Garden. Babur died in Northern India, but was later brought back to Kabul & was laid to rest in his beloved garden.
I don't recall ever seeing it. Now I want to go back to check it out!


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