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Babur's gardens emerge from rubble of war - 2004-10-21

Thursday, 2004, October 21
Neena Gopal

The intricate marble inlay is intact on the 'makhbara', glinting in the noon day sun as the workmen washing away the grime from their morning's labour, allow the water from a newly opened aqueduct to dance off the grave of the founder of the Mughal Empire.For less than a dollar a day - that is roughly 44 Afghanis (Dh12) - this is clearly a labour of love.
As the workmen kneel to pray in the exquisite, miniature Shahjehan mosque that overlooks the grave of Zairuddin Mohammad Babur Padshah Ghazi, on the second day of Ramadan, it's clear that in the months to come, the Bagh-e-Babur on the battle scarred Guzagarh hillside will go back to being the much loved centre of festivities whenever Kabul celebrates.
Afghans who left in droves after the former king was overthrown reminisce fondly of the time when the gardens were a favoured weekend haunt and the Queen's Enclosure, gutted in the war, doubled as a marquee at society weddings.
'I first came here on a school trip, when I studied across the road at the Imamia school, the first school built by the Russians,' says Salim, 23, who has wandered in out of curiosity, picking his way through labourers building a crenellated wall around the perimeter, faithfully mimicking a portion that survived the bombs. By some miracle, like the makhbara, the 1638 AD mosque too, barring the roof, emerged unscathed.
'We could only watch as the shells slammed into the hill,' said Abdul Baqi, who lives in one of the houses that perch precariously on the hills overlooking Babur's grave. Baqi is now the doorman collecting 100 Afghanis per visitor, the money going to the Ministry of Culture which is overseeing the project.
There are other players. In the genteel suburb of Wazir Akbar Khan, the Aga Khan foundation has a discreet presence. They are so low key that few know they are powering the multi-million dollar reconstruction of a monument that was once synonymous with the Afghan capital, resurrecting the glory of the sixteenth century when the ruler of Kabul swept into Hindusthan and became master of all its fabled riches.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) together with the Historical Cities Support Group and UN Habitat are peeling open a slice of history at the Bagh-e-Babur, the gardens that are named for Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire which stretched at one point from the Hindukush in the north to the Deccan in the south.
It's history that has been buried for over 30 years under a mountain of rubble. A history that a small group of archaeologists and an army of workmen are seeking to flesh out, raising the dramatis personae from the past.
Guzargarh's hills, pockmarked with huge craters from years of shelling are being levelled into graded terrace gardens that will duplicate an original sketch by traveller Charles Masson that dates back to 1832 and talks of a caravanserai and a public bath.
The callous men responsible for the damage were the US-backed mujahideen leader Gulbadin Hikmatyar, holed up on a hillside in the east, battling former president Burhanuddin Rabbani whose forces led by Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massood, were entrenched in the hills to the west. Caught in the middle were the once lush gardens, laid out with meticulous care by Babur's successors when the emperor's remains were moved from Agra, where he was first buried, to Kabul in 1540 AD ten years after he died. Babur wanted to be buried 'under the open skies of Kabul.'
The shells that slammed into the hillside through the years wrecked the delicate waterways that kept the orchards and flowering shrubs alive until the acres of green slowly turned into a barren wasteland. The dead trees were cut for firewood by local residents.
On our last visit two years ago, during Muharram, women in their finery followed by a gaggle of children picked their way to the very top of the hillside where Babur's grave and his mosque were near inaccessible, to gawk at the greater monstrosity - the Soviet-built Olympic-sized swimming pool, a great cavernous gash of blue. Today, the pool, that the Soviets who turned the hill into a garrison used, is still here. But not for long. An earlier pool, higher up on the hill, built by Nadir Shah in the 1930s and more in keeping with the gardens' character, is expected to stay.
Tight-lipped AKTC officials will only say that all 'inappropriate elements ' will be removed and the gardens ready by 2006.
For Kabul's residents who can see the chinar and the mulberry trees rise from the ashes of war, even this is comfort enough.
Recreated by Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Historical Cities Support Group.
Babur's tomb is intact and will be left open to the sky as he desired
The roof of the Shahjehan mosque is being repaired
The Queen's Enclosure which was gutted during the war has been rebuilt and will be rented out for social occasions to generate funds for the upkeep of the gardens
Project Bagh-e-Babur will be complete by 2006

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