See also photo stories: Kabul Museum – Kabul Zoo – Babur Gardens – Christian Cemetery – Panjshir – Istalif – Bamyian
November 21 2003 Pictures of the military tour of Kabul.
July 2004 Walking
in Kabul articles.
There’s a lot to see, even if most of it is
wrecked. Touring Kabul is certainly best done on a Friday when the city is quieter. A
three-hour trip will give you time to visit some of the must-sees such as the
spectacular views from TV tower hill, the Darulaman
Palace, Kabul museum, the destroyed west of Kabul and King Nadir Shah’s tomb.
Of course cameras and foreigners attract the
baksheesh brigade but everyone is very friendly. Afghans love posing for
photographs and digital cameras mean you can show the results immediately or
print them out and deliver copies later (photographs as gifts are much
appreciated). However, do remember, Kabul is one of the most
mined cities in the world. Never wander off the beaten track.
No trip around Kabul is complete
without Nancy Hatch Dupree’s pocket guidebook widely available at street
bookshops or at the Intercontinental Hotel. Originally published in 1965 the
second edition was printed in 1972.
Five suggested tours around the city are laid out in detail with
sights to see and maps to guide you. Needless to say Kabul has changed
dramatically in the last 30 years but the book gives an interesting insight
into what the city was like. Eight tours for outside the city are also
suggested. Most notable is a trip to Ghazni to see
the minarets, though these days the 140km drive takes closer to four hours in
a 4x4. The shopping section offers an interesting insight, which has perhaps
changed little today: The richness of Kabul’s bazaars is legend: they are as
fascinating today as they have always been. We recommend departing from this
general guideline so that you may experience the pleasure of discovering a
favourite bazaar or an unique “find.”
USA Today travels around Kabul in 2002 using Nancy
Dupree’s 1972 guide.
WEST KABUL The whole of West Kabul sums up the wanton
destruction the city has seen. West Kabul used to be a huge residential area with the grand avenue leading
to the Darulaman Palace and Kabul museum. Thousands of people were forced to flee, however, as the
rival Mujaheddin factions rained shells at each
other across the avenues and villas from their strategic positions in the
surround hills. As a result of that sustained shelling, the area was reduced
to rubble and dust. Today it’s a haunting reminder of Kabul’s recent history
with the palace and the museum being the most striking evidence of the bitter
legacy of war. Just beyond Kabul Zoo is a roundabout with the Maiwand Memorial Column in the middle. The completely
destroyed surrounding buildings are what most TV crews have filmed over the
years to emphasize the destruction of Kabul.
KABUL MUSEUM The Kabul Museum is in front of the Darulaman Palace and is undergoing extensive renovation. The museum was famous in
central Asia for its prehistoric to 20th century collection. But
over the last ten years 70% of the collection has been lost. The museum is
closed but the editors of The Survival
Guide did manage to get inside and meet the director and his deputy. The
director Mr Omara Khan Masoudi,
who’s worked at the museum for 24 years, showed us the rooms being renovated;
mostly for storage though he hopes exhibitions will open by the end of 2003.
In the foyer is a magnificent huge black marble basin dating from the 15th
Century. Back then the basin would be filled with juice for the pilgrims to
the Sultan Mir Wais Baba shrine in Kandahar to drink from. The basin is surrounded in Islamic text. On the
wall down the corridor is a 12th Century calligraphic frieze from Lashkar Gah. Opposite the
frieze is a 12th century reconstructed mosque also from Lashkar Gah. There’s a lovely
19th Century Arabic style marble door that belonged to the royal
family. In March 2003 the main corridor was full of old steel filing cabinets
that used to house the museum’s collection of 40,000 coins. Sadly all the
coins, many dating from the time of Alexander the Great, have been looted. At the time of writing, rooms were being
restored with help from organisations like the British Museum and UNESCO, but there were no exhibition rooms open. The library
has a collection of books, mostly stored in trunks. Fortunately the Taliban
didn’t destroy many of the museum’s books, but outside you’ll see the
destroyed statues of lions and horses. The second floor of the museum was
completely destroyed in a fire in the mid-90s. In 1995 the museum did try and
start the process of retrieving objects but then the destruction began under
the Taliban who destroyed around 2,000 pieces. The museum director says
there’s a huge job to be done to restore the museum and the collection. He’s
also worried that people are still looting Afghanistan’s heritage: ‘I’m sure there are some ancient pieces on Chicken Street, but we haven’t checked’ he says. Though he says most of the
‘guns on Chicken Street are new and not ancient.” Mr Masoudi
also says many of the museum’s pieces are still in secret hiding.
DARULAMAN PALACE The palace built by
King Amannullah in the 1920s is set into a small
hill in front of the Kabul museum with the once impressive four-mile avenue
(once lined with poplars) past the former Soviet embassy, schools and
ministries leading to it. Fighting from 1992 onwards destroyed the building
but it remains one of the most impressive, albeit shattered structures in Kabul. The palace was
used by King Amannullah and was later used as the
Justice ministry and Defence ministry. The equally striking former Defence
Ministry is on the hills behind.
KABUL ZOO Kabul Zoo is
a soulless complex and is not a great place for its inhabitants. In 2002 China donated two lions, two bears, two pigs and a wolf. In addition
there are a number of other species including nine bears, jackals, birds,
rabbits, eagles, wild boars, foxes, guinea pigs, monkeys, owls and six huge
vultures. In total the zoo has 116 animals and a staff of 60 to care for
them. Conditions are poor but it is a popular place for Kabulis and up to
3000 people will visit during a week according to the director Sheragah Omar who has worked at the zoo for nine years. A
British animal protection group, the Mayhew Animal Home in London, ensures
there is enough food for the animals, and the 25 kilos of meat the two lions
Zing Zong and Dolly eat every day. Zookeeper Aziz Ahmad is also an obliging guide with gruesome
stories about the fate of the zoo’s last elephant (the elephants house is
completely destroyed) and for a small tip will show you the final resting
place of the zoo’s most famous resident, Marjan,
the one-eyed lion. Donatella the famous bear is
undergoing daily treatment for a nose infection from German ISAF. The zoo is
open from 06.00--18.00 every day and entry costs five Afghanis.
Marjan the Lion In January 2002 the most famous resident of Kabul Zoo, Marjan the one-eyed Lion and veteran of so much fighting,
died. Marjan, the only lion in the zoo, was a gift
from Germany 38 years ago and was estimated to be forty years old. Half blind
and almost toothless he’d survived all the fighting in Kabul, especially in the
1990s as rival Afghan groups fought for control of Kabul. The zoo was on
the frontline and in the direct line of fire from rocket attack from the
nearby hills. Marjan lost his eye when a Taliban
fighter climbed into the lion’s enclosure. The starving Marjan
killed and ate the man. But the man’s brother returned the next day for a
revenge attack and threw a grenade into the cage leaving Marjan
blind and lame. In his last few weeks of life Marjan
enjoyed a heated cage and plenty of food and medicine.
BABUR GARDENS On Sarak-e-Chilsitun
road. Open every day 07.00--19.00. Entrance two Afghanis. Mark our words!
These 6 hectares of walled gardens are going to be one of the most beautiful
spots in the city. After more than two decades of conflict, which saw the
rival factions fire their rockets either over or into this former imperial
park, the place was little more than a wasteland. However, today more than
twenty gardeners toil away at the site, landscaping and planting. Already new
shrubs and the layout for a rose garden are visible. Trees and flowerbeds are
also being planted. The gardens were built in the mid-16th century
at the behest of the first Mogul emperor, Zahir-ed-Din
Mohammad Babur Shah and remain one of the few
cultural landscapes in Afghanistan to retain their original shape. The entrance
to the gardens is from the Sarak-e-Chilsitun main
road that runs in front of the mountain. The gardens start out as a gentle
climb up the mountainside. The last stretch is steeper, but it is worth going
all the way up. Tucked away on the final terrace at the top is the tomb of
the former king himself, Babur Shah. His wife is
buried separately, but her tombstone is possibly even more beautifully carved
than that of her husband. Just below them is a wonderful little marble mosque
built by Babur’s successor, Shah Jahan, also dating from mid-1600. A restaurant is also
being built towards the top end of the gardens with a breath-taking view over
Kabul below and the mountains beyond. Though currently under construction the garden director is
confident that it will be finished for the summer of 2003. Despite
their poor state, the gardens serve as a much-needed respite to the
inhabitants of Kabul who come on Fridays (the Muslim equivalent of
the Christian Sunday) to picnic and relax in the relative calm. If you get a
chance, make sure you put your head around the door of the large greenhouse
in the far left-hand corner of the gardens as you look up the mountain. It is
locked, so you will need to find the head gardener, but once inside you are
in for a treat. It is packed with colourful flowers and shrubs awaiting
transplantation. One look in here and you know it is only a matter of time
before Babur is returned to its former glory.
BALA HISSAR The ancient
citadel and home of some of Afghanistan’s most important kings is now off limits and extremely dangerous
owing to unexploded bombs and landmines. However this magnificent building
dating, it is believed, in parts from the 5th century has played a
role in every twist and turn in the city’s often violent history. Bala Hissar sits to the south
of the modern city centre at the tail end of the Kuh-e-Sherdarwaza Mountain. The famous Walls of Kabul, which are a staggering 20 feet high
and 12 feet thick, start at the natural fortress and follow the mountain
ridge in a sweeping curve down to the river. Bala Hissar was originally divided into two parts. The lower
fortress where the stables, barracks and three royal palaces were contained
and the upper fortress called Bala Hissar which housed the armoury and the infamous Black
Pit, the dungeon of Kabul were situated. However the arrival of the British in Kabul marked the end of
the citadel. From 1839 onwards the British used it on and off as their
barracks until the massacre of the British Mission by mutinous Afghan troops
in 1879. General Roberts was dispatched to Kabul to quell the
situation and took the citadel. Shortly afterwards an explosion in the powder
magazine partly destroyed upper Bala Hissar. General Roberts decided to finish the job off and
ordered the destruction of the rest. Perhaps, however the last word lies with
the founder of the Mogul empire, the Emperor Babur
who captured the fort at the start of his conquering career and went on to
write of the magnificent building:
“The citadel is of surprising height, and enjoys an excellent climate,
overlooking the large lake, and three meadows which present a very beautiful
prospect when the plains are green.” Today the fortress is home to the 55th
division of Kabul. The big green gates are adorned with photos of Karzai and Massoud. Visitors
are not allowed in.
SHAH-DO-SHAMSHIRA MOSQUE This beautiful square building on the Kabul River opposite the
Pul-I-Shah-do-Shamshira Bridge is the Mosque of the King of Two Swords. According to legend the
mosque takes its name from a 7th century battle that took place
between attacking Islamic troops and defending Hindus. Despite fighting
heroically with a sword in each hand, one of the Muslim head commanders fell
in battle. It is his memory that is honoured by the mosque today. The
two-storey edifice was built in the 1920s on the order of King Amanullah’s mother on the site of one of Kabul’s first mosques.
Today, the building has seen better days. Bullet holes can be seen in the
façade, but the doors are still open to worshippers and visitors alike. Women
are advised to visit on Wednesdays when the mosque is closed to men.
THE NATIONAL GALLERY Reconstruction
and painting is being carried out at the National Gallery but it should be
open soon. The gallery used to have some 820 paintings and portraits but 50%
have been looted or destroyed; the director said the Taliban destroyed 210 portraits.
Most of the collection is of European and Afghan landscapes and portraits of
famous Afghan writers and kings and a portrait of the French writer Victor
THE NATIONAL ARCHIVE Salang Wat Street; tel: 070 29 7805. Open everyday
08.00--17.00, except Fridays. President
Karzai reopened the National Archive in March 2002.
There are some 15,000 documents and books but only photocopies are displayed
in the two exhibition rooms. The originals are housed in a secret location,
but written permission from the Ministry of Information and Culture will
allow you to see the documents. The most famous exhibit in the collection is
a 300 hundred-year-old copy of the Holy Koran. One exhibition room houses
poetry and writings by famous Afghan authors; the second room houses
historical documents, newspapers and photographs including the 1919
independence from Britain agreement and old Afghan currency. Perhaps one of
the most striking things about the National Archive is the building itself.
Emir Adurrahman Khan built this beautiful 100
year-old mini palace for his son. The building reverted to the state on the
Emir’s death. The archive is still active. Every day new publications are
stored for posterity. Official government documents,
however are only available for public viewing 40 years after the date of
FAMILY MAUSOLEUM King Nadir Shah’s Mausoleum is
the resting place for the recent monarchs of Afghanistan’s royal family. King Zahir Shah returned to Kabul in April 2002 after
29 years in exile. King Zahir’s wife, Queen Homaira never made it back to her homeland. She died in Italy at the age
of 86 while waiting to rejoin her husband in Kabul and is now buried
here The Queen is survived by seven of her nine children and by 14
grandchildren. Usually there’s a man on duty at the mausoleum who will take
you into the catacombs. There are good views of the city from here giving you
an idea of how the infighting Mujaheddin fought
over the high ground and just destroyed the city from it.
OMAR MINE MUSEUM The OMAR mines and
UXOs museum on Street 13 in Wazir
Akbar Khan (tel: 020
2100833; email: email@example.com)
has a collection of 51 types of mines out of the 53 used in Afghanistan over
the years including cluster bombs and airdrop bombs used by the US in 2002.
OMAR stands for Organisation for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation.
Unfortunately the museum is not really open for casual visitors who just turn
up. You need to go the main OMAR office on Street 10, House 206 in Wazir Akbar Khan and try and
organise a time to visit. A typical tour round the garden and display cases
will take around 45 minutes. Ask for Dr Shah Walie who
knows everything there is to know about mines.
BIBI MAHRO HILL Take a walk up the Bibi Mahro hill behind Wazir Akbar Khan for some
superb views of Kabul city especially at sunset. There’s an old Soviet Olympic size
swimming pool at the top of the hill and old trenches and armoured personnel
carriers. Many of the expatriates living in Wazir Akbar Khan below use the short climb to the top of the
hill as their daily exercise routine and you may even see a few joggers. The
area has been cleaned of mines but still take the necessary precautions.
Despite the relative acceptance of foreigners here, women should never go
unaccompanied. There have been isolated incidents of stone throwing here by
the youths who linger around the top of the hill.
CHRISTIAN CEMETERY Char-i-Shahid, Shahre
Naw. Open every day 07.00--16.00. This walled
graveyard of around 150 graves is behind large arched wooden doors about 150
meters beyond the martyr’s shrine on Char-i-Shahid.
Christians have been buried here for more than 100 years. The most famous
grave is that of the scholar, author and explorer, Mark Aurel
Stein of the Indian Archaeological Survey. He was born in Budapest in 1862 and
died in Kabul in October 1943. His simple tombstone alludes to his travels
throughout Asia and his contribution to the west’s
understanding of the region. More recent additions to the cemetery are
the ISAF memorial plaques. As you walk in, to the right, there is one to the
British soldiers and officers who died in the Afghan wars in the 19th
and 20th centuries, which was placed in the wall in 2002. Opposite
at the other end, there is a memorial plaque to the German soldiers and
officers who lost their lives in Afghanistan placed by German ISAF. Other plaques to ISAF soldiers can also
be spotted in the perimeter walls. The cemetery guardian, 60 year-old Rahim Mullah has been tending the graves for 17 years and
can give lots of extra insights into the history of those buried here. For Rahim the Taliban period was a difficult one. He
confesses that he was heavily criticized during that time for continuing to
tend the cemetery. And though he was salaried, his income dried up after the
NGO who was paying him, International Organisation for Migration, was bombed
and pulled out of the country. Money was sent in from Peshawar in Pakistan, but it was an uncertain trickle of funds. He was even
confronted by Mullah Omar three months before the fall of the Taliban in
November 2001. The Taliban headquarters were in the buildings that line the
right wall of the cemetery as you enter. One day, the famed, one-eyed leader
of the Taliban movement decided to see the graveyard for himself.
He was shown around by Rahim and stayed for twenty
minutes. But before leaving Mullah Omar asked Rahim
what he thought he was doing working in such a place. “I am an illiterate
man,” answered Rahim. “And everyone knows that to
be illiterate is like being blind (and therefore ignorant).” To which Mullah
Omar is reputed to have replied, “But I too am blind!” before clapping Rahim on the back and bursting in to laughter. Today the
British Embassy in Kabul pays Rahim’s salary and he looks
forward to passing the mantle of service on to his oldest son. Around 50
people visit the graveyard every week.
PAGHMAN GARDENS King Amanullah brought in foreign
experts to redesign the Paghman district after his
tour of Europe, India and Iran in 1927--28. The small village of Paghman at the bottom of the Hindu Kush became a holiday
retreat with villas and chalets and an Arc de Triomphe
style arch. The gardens were beautifully laid out and copied from European
designs. But as with west Kabul and the same elaborate Darulaman
palace area built by the same French and German architects, Paghman became a Mujaheddin
battleground. Today little is left at Paghman though
the arch still stands. But in the summer Paghman is
popular for picnics and days out of the city.
There are plenty of places to discover
in Kabul, depending on your interests and how you feel about being
followed around everywhere you go.
Certainly visit the money market.
Experience the stomach-churning thrill of seeing garrulous old men spirit
away your hard earned hard currency and present you
with a bundle of unknown notes. Despite the distinctly non-high-tech setting
the money dealers have all the latest exchange rates at their fingertips,
(they were the first people in Kabul to get satellite phones) and it is no
problem to change Dollars, Pounds Sterling, Euros and Pakistani rupees.
Then there’s the Titanic market in the
Kabul River. This is the place for those plastic soap dishes and
factory produced carpets from Iran.
You can buy any type of bird in the
noisy Ka Farushi bird market near the Blue Mosque
in the old city across the main bridge over Kabul River.
BBC article on the bird market.
Graveyard, as the collection of circa 1960-1985 trashed aviation memorabilia
is called, will probably be the first thing you see on arrival in Kabul. The rusting heap of vintage planes lies
to the right of the airport as you head into the city; much of it, the result of coalition attacks in 2001. But the real damage was
done between 1991 and 1996 as rival Mujaheddin factions battled for control of the
city. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,
the leader of Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic Faction)
launched constant attacks on the airport right up until the Taliban take-over
of the city.
For arts and crafts you can visit the CHA Gallery of Fine Arts and Traditional Afghan Crafts at House
76 on Cinema Zainab Road just past the Emergency
Hospital: tel: 020 2200101 (web: www.cha-net.org).
The Afghan Handicraft Promotion Centre opposite the Indian Embassy on the Interior Ministry Road also has crafts for sale.
Afghans will often
go to the Kargha Dam outside the city in the summer
Outside Kabul you should also
consider a trip to Bamyian to see
the destroyed Buddhas. A road journey will take you
some 8 hours, though a plane journey with UNHAS will only take you 20
minutes. A day trip to Ghazni to see the
spectacular minarets is possible but it will take you about four hours to get
there and 4WD is essential. Just take care walking around the two minarets. Ghazni has been heavily fought for over the years.
Day Trip/Picnic out of Kabul
This village 50
minutes drive out of Kabul is a terrible reminder of the devastation caused by the bitter
war fought for the area by the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Today it is
mostly in ruins, but a small artisan initiative is breathing tentative life
into the place. The small handful of craftsmen are
mostly potters and their creations have a compelling rustic beauty. The
colours they use are mostly royal blue and deep turquoise. The merchandise
ranges from salad bowls and plates to jugs and teacups and saucers.
To reach Istalif head out of Kabul on the Shomali road. After 45 minutes you will pass a white
roadside petrol pump on the left and see immediately a turning to the left
marked by NGO signposts. This dirt road leads up in to the foothills of the
mountains that fringe the Shomali plain. Follow the road for about 20 minutes. As
you climb, you will come across a sharp hairpin bend, shortly afterwards, as
you continue along the road you will come up over the brow of the small hill
you are climbing. Bear left at the intersection here and you will then
descend in to a valley with a beautiful river at the bottom. On the other
side of the river is Istalif.
The first thing you
will come across as you enter the village is the ‘Chai
Kana’ or teahouse. This is a good place for some biscuits, naan, green tea and gossip. This bit of
the village is fairly intact, but continue up through the village and
you will find devastated streets and derelict buildings just behind. On the
old (now destroyed) main thoroughfare you will find the outlet for the local
pottery made in Istalif. An old man is happy to let
you browse and will explain local history for those with enough Dari to
understand him. He is a keen businessman and you should haggle for any
purchase you intend to make, but after having seen the ruins the people of Istalif live in, it feels right to pay a little over the
odds. At the top of the village is the mosque and
some large trees. The view of the plain is wonderful from here. As long as
prayers are not going on, you are allowed to sit in the shade and contemplate
the scene laid out before you.
The Panjshir Valley lies around 100 kilometres northeast of the capital, Kabul, but the drive to
get there takes more than five hours. The first 50 kilometres are tarmac
road, but suddenly the road ends and after that it's just rocks and dust,
making the ride rather uncomfortable.
Head out of Kabul on the Charikar road (also a good
place to stop and eat at the famous Panjshir
Restaurant on the main town square).
Dozens of destroyed tanks still line the road, burnt out
testimonies to the violent fighting that raged in the region as the Soviets
battled to subdue the Panjshir and repeatedly
Massoud's tomb is a plain white building with a gleaming green dome
towards the valley entrance. The pilgrimage site, as it has now become, is
perched on a hill with a commanding and beautiful view of the river far
below. The Panjshir River is one of
the few fast flowing rivers in the country after five years of drought and
the valley floor is a scene of biblical lushness, especially around harvest
time in September (also the time of the anniversary of Massoud’s
Plans are afoot to expand the tomb and make
it into a national monument. When visiting be careful not to offend others.
Women should wear scarves, both men and women should remove shoes if they
wish to enter the small tomb itself.
Lonely Planet Guide: on Afghanistan and the Afghanistan pages from the Central Asia Guide.
Robert Young Pelton’s
Dangerous Places: Afghanistan.
August 25 2002 BBC: Kabul welcomes first holidaymakers
August 22 2002 BBC: Wish you were here?
January 1 2002 Daily
Telegraph: Afghanistan hopes to lure back Western tourists