Context & Culture

Bala Hissar, Sherpur fortress and Arg: The architecture of power in Kabul


The Bala Hissar in Kabul. On this hill, there had probably been a fortress since at least the sixth century. The Mughal emperor Babur moved in from 1505 and expanded the building greatly, including a first 'Babur's garden' in the lower fort which does not exist anymore. In its final shape, the fortress housed about 5000 people. Photo (1972): Bill Woodburn

Throughout the centuries, the seat of power in Kabul has almost always been within the walls of a strong fortress-palace. That will continue, as whatever the outcome of the current election, the new president will continue to live in the Arg. Guest author Bill Woodburn*, retired military engineer and specialist in fortified architecture, traces the development of three fortress-palaces used by the rulers of Afghanistan, offering insights into how dynasties have affected architecture.

When Timur Shah, the second of the Durrani rulers of Afghanistan, moved his capital to Kabul in 1775, he occupied its ancient citadel; the Bala Hissar, or ‘High Fort’. This is sited on an outcrop of the Sher Darwaza ridge that borders the old city of Kabul. The citadel’s hill was high enough to dominate the city but low enough to sink wells, and there had probably been a fortress there since at least the sixth century. It had been greatly developed as fortress and palace during the Mughal period (1505-1738).

The first of the Mughal emperors, Babur, came from his homeland in Central Asia and captured Kabul in 1505, staying there for over twenty years before going on to conquer India. His successors were anxious to retain a strong presence in Kabul, for it was not only on a vital trading route from Central Asia to India – particularly for the supply of horses from the Central Asian grasslands – but also the gateway back to their ancestral lands, which they retained a hope of one day repossessing.

Babur developed a palace within the Bala Hissar, about which we have few details, although we know that he himself preferred to camp out in one or other of his gardens. His successors extended the fortress further, surrounding the lower part with walls, towers and gatehouses in a Mughal style. The final shape of the Bala Hissar was an irregular polygon about 800 metres east-west and 600 metres north-south. Although artillery was in use throughout the Mughal period, their fortified architecture did not follow the modern ‘scientific’ principles developed in Europe, but remained medieval in nature, utilising high walls. In fact, in these mountainous areas where it was difficult to move heavy siege guns, artillery was often of more use to the defenders than the besiegers.

One of the many gardens that were started by Babur in the Kabul area was built in the lower fort. It was a typical square Mughal garden, with sides of about 150 metres, divided into four sectors by raised walkways and watered from a channel that ran for several miles, so as to bring water from an upper part of Kabul River into the fort at an appropriate level. On the north side of the garden there was a pavilion with an open ceremonial audience hall facing a courtyard. On the far side of this, reaching to the north wall of the fort, was the royal palace, which was rebuilt by Timur Shah between 1775 and his death in 1793. This had fine buildings around a rectangular court, while an upper chamber used by the ruler caught breezes and gave views over the walls towards the snow-capped mountains. Successive rulers lived there, but it was not properly maintained. When, in 1839, during the First Anglo-Afghan War, the British assisted Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk to recover from Amir Dost Muhammad Khan the throne he had lost in 1809, Shah Shuja was shocked to discover how much it had deteriorated in the thirty years he had been in exile.

The Bala Hissar was not, however, just the residence of the ruling family; the upper fort contained an important arsenal and state prison, and the lower fort had an artillery park and stables as well as a large number of domestic dwellings. A population of about 5,000 lived within the fort’s walls. Apart from the ruler’s household, there were other nobles, court officials, servants, grooms, guards and artillerymen. Various nationalities were present, including some Armenian armourers, who had their own small church in the lower fort. There was also an extensive bazaar for the use of its residents.

The British-Indian forces that came to Kabul with Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk in 1839, did not occupy the Bala Hissar but built a new cantonment which was badly sited on land north of the Kabul river. This was overlooked by nearby hills and, when fighting broke out in late 1841, it became difficult to hold, which led to their disastrous withdrawal in early 1842.

A new fortress in Sherpur – and then the Arg

In the 1870s, the then Amir, Sher Ali Khan, started to build a much greater fortress, on mostly vacant land straddling the Biemaru hill, about three kilometres north of the city, on which he intended a grand new palace to be built. Sher Ali gave his name to this never-to-be-finished fortress-palace, ‘Sherpur’. Meanwhile, he also built a new palace within the lower part of the Bala Hissar.

Nearby was a residential compound which was allocated to a British Envoy, Sir Louis Cavagnari, in 1879, following the opening phase of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Five weeks after Cavagnari had arrived, the residency was attacked by mutinying soldiers who were from Afghan regiments who had been moved to Kabul but were in arrears of pay, which they could not get from the Amir and tried to get from the British envoy. Cavagnari and his entire escort were killed and the residency sacked.

This sparked another phase of the war and a British force advanced on Kabul in October 1879. Initially, having cleared the Bala Hissar of all its inhabitants, they occupied it, but shortly after, there was an explosion, most probably accidental, in one of the gunpowder magazines in the upper part of the fortress. This caused some casualties and damage (though not as much as is commonly reported) and, as there was a threat of further explosions, the British withdrew temporarily from the Bala Hissar and occupied the partly-constructed Sherpur cantonment. At that time, some buildings within the lower part of the Bala Hissar were demolished in order to salvage their timbers for building accommodation in Sherpur and strengthening its defences.

In late 1879, a large body of Afghan tribesmen came to the Kabul area, occupied the city and besieged the British in Sherpur, but they were fought off. At that time the British established a cemetery just outside the north-west corner of Sherpur; it remains the Christian cemetery of Kabul today, with a few of the 1879/80 gravestones still visible. Early in 1880, the British forces re-occupied the Bala Hissar. At this time, they strengthened its outer walls but demolished even more of its buildings in order to create clear defensive areas within the more vulnerable parts of the fortress. The remaining buildings were occupied by troops, inevitably suffering some damage. That was the state of the Bala Hissar – outer walls intact but many buildings demolished and most of the rest in a poor state – when, later in 1880, the British handed over control of northern Afghanistan to the incoming Amir, Abdur Rahman Khan. The fortress was garrisoned by one of his regiments, but the Amir decided it was not fit for his occupation; he would go elsewhere.

One of the Amir’s temporary quarters was a residence in the Murad Khani sector of the city, on the north side of Kabul River. It was in an area near to where Abdur Rahman decided to build a new fortress-palace, the ‘Arg’ (a term used for a citadel in Central Asia, where he had spent some years in exile). Unlike the Bala Hissar, the Arg was not on any eminence or integrated into the defences of the city, but was sited in flat gardens that lay along a road originally built by the Mughals, which ran north-east from Murad Khani. Work started in the early 1880s. The design chosen was not uncommon in Central Asia; a square enclosure with strong walls, circular towers on each corner and in the middle of three sides, and a gateway in the middle of the fourth side. The fortress was surrounded by a moat, whose waters came from a canal fed by water from the river.

Within the gardens that surrounded the Arg, and close to its north-east corner, a darbar (court) hall was built, known as the ‘salamkhana’ (still in use today on state occasions), at one end of which was some guest accommodation where a British member of parliament, George Curzon (later Viceroy of India) stayed during a visit in 1894. He described the Arg in an article in the London Times. Its walls were crowned with flame-shaped whitewashed battlements and there were machine guns mounted on the bastions. Passing through the gateway one entered a large court planted with trees. A central path had, on one side, a treasury, on the other side armament magazines. Straight ahead were the buildings of the inner palace which also included a private armoury. In the western corner, there was a fine pavilion within a small walled-garden, the Kot-e Baghcha, built to the Amir’s own design (and which has recently been restored). There were numerous other domestic buildings and accommodation for guards and officials.

The Amir had other palaces, one of which, the Bostan Serai (Orchard House), was nearby and which was turned into his mausoleum after his death in 1901. His son, Amir Habibullah Khan, built a palace, Dilkusha (Heart’s Delight), in European style, in the garden to the north of the Arg. When Habibullah was assassinated by a fanatic in Jalalabad in 1919, his third son, Amanullah, was able to seize the throne by being in Kabul and in occupation of the Arg, with its treasury and arsenal.

After gaining independence for Afghanistan later that year, Amir Amanullah Khan gave over some of the royal palaces to foreign embassies and others for state purposes such as schools. However, he encouraged his court to build summer residences alongside his at Paghman and started to build a new capital, Darulaman, on the south-west side of Kabul. But that project was abandoned when he was overthrown in the revolution of 1929. After a period of turmoil, in which occupation of the Arg played an important role, a new monarchy took control. From then on, although there have been many changes to the buildings in the Arg, the centre of Afghan state power has remained within its walls, except for the years when the Taleban’s Mullah Omar ruled from Kandahar. Although the Arg’s moats have long since been filled in and it is surrounded by government buildings, the whole area is now protected by temporary walls and barriers that form an outer defensive ring.

How much is left of Kabul’s fortress palaces?

But what of the Bala Hissar and the only partly built Sherpur fortress? The remains of the latter were flattened in the 1920s and the site used as Kabul’s first airport. In recent years, the neighbourhood has been absorbed into the expanding city and hardly a trace remains of Amir Sher Ali Khan’s grand project. But if you look at a satellite image of the area, the different patterns of streets indicate where it had been along the southern side of the Biemaru hill. The Bala Hissar has also undergone several changes. Amir Abdur Rahman Khan deliberately chose to let the lower part of the fort fall into decay; this would have been accelerated by the removal of any remaining structural timbers or usable stone. Photographs from the 1890s show little of its walls remaining. On the other hand, the upper part of the fortress was refurbished as an arsenal and prison. In the 1930s, a military academy was built in what had been the lower part of the fortress.

In the late twentieth century, the Bala Hissar was twice the scene of heavy fighting. In August 1979 when a rebellion took place against the then communist government, fighting broke out at the Bala Hissar, but government forces surrounded the fortress and it was eventually retaken. In the mid-1990s, during inter-factional fighting for the control of Kabul, the upper Bala Hissar was entrenched and fortified by forces from two of the factions, only for them to be ousted, in June 1994, in an onslaught involving air power and artillery. After 2001, a new Afghan army base was established in the lower fort, behind new perimeter walls. Lately, the remains of the military academy, which had been burnt-out in the fighting, have been flattened and new installations placed there.

The upper part of the Bala Hissar suffered considerably in the fighting in the mid-1990s and has undergone some further decay due to weathering. There are a few recent structures within it, but little of what Amir Abdur Rahman built has remained; the walls and towers that one sees from outside are very largely Mughal or early Afghan work, based on earlier foundations. It remains under the control of the Afghan Ministry of Defence and is difficult to get permission to enter. Although there have been some minor archaeological investigations in the lower part of the Bala Hissar, there has never been a proper archaeological investigation of the whole site. The remains of at least some fifteen hundred years lie within and around the walls of the fortress; it is one of Afghanistan’s prime historical sites, greatly in need of being professionally examined.

Whoever he is, the new president of Afghanistan will govern from the Arg – with his predecessor, Hamed Karzai, living very close. However, that fortress-palace is now very much concealed from public view, unless you climb one of the mountains which overlook it distantly and see how rich and green the gardens are. The ruins of the Bala Hissar, however, still tower above Kabul’s old city, presenting a distinct and visible reminder of the significance of Kabul’s fortress-palaces in the history of Afghanistan.

* Bill Woodburn is a retired British Army engineer who has made a study of fortified architecture, particularly in Central and South Asia. He has travelled in Afghanistan several times, always as a tourist. For more information and insight on the Bala Hissar, see his The Bala Hissar of Kabul: Revealing a Fortress-Palace in Afghanistan, Chatham, 2009, and “From the Bala Hissar to the Arg: How royal palaces shaped Kabul, 1830-1930”, in The Court Historian, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2012, pp. 171-188.

The fullest work on the development of Kabul is: May Schinasi, Kaboul 1773-1948, Naissance et Croissance d’une Capitale Royale, Naples, 2008. Historical images of many of the buildings can be found in the online collections of the Swiss Afghanistan Insitute.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture