Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Coming Home to Kabul: A Mughal art exhibition opens in the cradle of King Babur’s Empire

Jelena Bjelica Kate Clark 6 min

The display of 72 paintings from the mid-sixteenth century Mughal period in Kabul as well as late sixteenth and seventeenth century Indian Mughal paintings opened in the Queen’s Pavilion of Babur’s Garden in Kabul on 31 March 2018. This, as well as an earlier exhibition in Herat’s Citadel in December 2017 showcasing fifteenth century Tîmûrid and sixteenth century early Safavid pictorial art, are extraordinary displays of some of the most outstanding miniatures in Islamic art. As AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Kate Clark report (with input from Thomas Ruttig), both exhibitions symbolise the long homecoming of Afghanistan’s extraordinary cultural legacy.

Royal courts in fifteenth century Herat and sixteenth century Kabul once sponsored some of the most magnificent pictorial creations in Islamic art. Despite wars and destruction in Afghanistan, many of these miniatures survived, albeit outside the country in public and private collections around the world. After the paintings were taken out of what is now Afghanistan in the second half of the sixteenth century and entered royal collections in Mughal India, Safavid Iran and Ottoman Turkey, many were sold on to European and North American private and public collections in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their enlarged reproductions were only brought together for the first time and put on public display in Afghanistan in 2017.

As AAN reported in December 2017 the exhibitions are taking place at carefully chosen sites – the Herat Citadel and Kabul’s Babur’s Garden. Both sites have been restored since 2001 by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture with funding from both the German and the US governments, and are now permanently open to the Afghan public (for the restoration of Babur’s Garden see here and for the Herat Citadel, here). More importantly, these could have been the exact places where some of these miniatures were created. The restored Herat Citadel, also known as Qala-ye Ekhtiaruddin, is one of the most magnificent Tîmûrid monuments in Afghanistan.

Babur’s Garden, named after the first Mughal emperor (1483-1530), was established in the early sixteenth century when Babur gave orders for the construction of an ‘avenue garden’ in Kabul, described in some detail in his memoirs, the Baburnama (here an online English translation). It is also where he found his last resting place, according to his own wishes, after he died from illness on one of his campaigns to India. His description was used when the garden was renovated to find the exact tree species that had existed in his lifetime. The emperor’s description of Kabul in his Baburnama is famous and often quoted by Afghans:

It has a very pleasant climate; if the world has another so pleasant, it is not known.

The two exhibitions

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Professor Michael Barry, a global authority on Medieval Islamic art who located reproductions of these miniatures held in museums and private collections across Europe, Canada, the USA, Turkey, Egypt and India, the exhibitions are now on display in Afghanistan. Barry did not only locate and collect the works, he also made high-resolution images of the miniatures and conceptualised both exhibitions. In partnership with Boston University’s American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS) they then printed enlarged, high-resolution images onto metal, a material that supports shifts in both light and temperature. (1) These works are also easy to copy anew from electronic files that are kept at the Centre Dupont in Paris, should they ever be attacked or damaged, and allow for a meaningful regrouping of these widely scattered paintings by artist, date, theme, royal sponsor – in optimal conditions of display, as AIAS explained. It also allows Afghan visitors to view these masterpieces created by their ancestors in close detail, and, indeed, almost in the same privileged way that only princely owners once could in the past.

The first exhibition in Herat in December 2017 was such a success that the Herat’s authorities requested US Embassy in Kabul, that the panels – still technically the property of the US government, which paid for them – remain in the Citadel on permanent loan. On 23 February 2018, the Afghan government hosted a heads of state conference with Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India for the inauguration of the TAPI pipeline initiative framework within the grounds of the Herat Citadel, surrounded by the Tîmûrid art exhibition, which served as an international showcase of Afghanistan’s centuries-old cultural glory.

The exhibition in Herat displays reproductions of over one hundred miniatures. The paintings largely date from the fifteenth century, when the city was the seat of the powerful Tîmûrid Court. Artists, at the time, illustrated calligraphic texts of poems with meticulously painted scenes. They drew on the poets of the region for inspiration: Ferdowsi, who wrote the Shahname in Ghazni in the tenth century, Saadi, from Shiraz in modern-day Iran, and the Herati Jami. The most famous miniaturist of them all was Kamal al-Din Behzad (roughly 1450-1535) whose workshop in Herat attracted artists from all over the region. As in early Renaissance Europe, the wealth of artistry was also the result of enlightened patronage. Queen Gawharshad, wife of the Tîmûrid ruler Shahrukh, whose mausoleum is in the city’s famous Musalla area, was a key connoisseur of poetry and miniatures.

Nevertheless, the Herat school’s influence extended well beyond what is now Afghanistan. In 1545, when the Mughal emperor, Babur’s son Humayun, retreated from India to Kabul because of dynastic rivals, he was, said Michael Barry, “smitten” when he saw the miniatures that had been taken from Herat to Kabul forty years earlier. He invited the surviving artists from Herat and further afield, including Tabriz in Iran, to come to Kabul where a new academy was established. These artists would later follow Humayun back to India and train a generation of new artists. “So the Mughal style,” Barry told AAN, “is daughter of the school of Kabul and granddaughter of the school of Herat.”

The name of Herat persisted more broadly throughout Islamic culture. “The Mughals in India, the Ottomans in Istanbul and the Safavids in Iran,” said Barry, regarded Herat as the model of perfection, like Florence is for Europeans.” Even more recently, Barry said, when the French impressionist Henri Matisse saw Behzad’s miniatures for the first time in 1903 in Paris, he was overwhelmed by their beauty. “They completely changed his manner of painting and through Matisse and his colour and composition, the Herat school has influenced all modern art.”

Babur, though, was somewhat more critical. In his Baburnama, he wrote of Behzad:

His work was very dainty but he did not draw beardless faces well; he used greatly to lengthen the double chin; bearded faces he drew admirably.

The combined catalogue for the two exhibitions

The exhibitions’ catalogue (in five languages: Persian/Pashto/Arabic/English/French) to accompany these exhibitions is designed as a scholarly publication and a fundamental work of reference for Afghans and interested non-Afghans. In one large volume, the paintings that feature in both exhibitions are printed with detailed explanations, including their precise allegorical significance. Barry has been a pioneer in deciphering the allegorical codes of late medieval Islamic paintings in light of the literature they illustrate.

Furthermore, the catalogue will make supporting illustrations accessible from materials that are not displayed in the exhibitions but that are important for the surrounding discourse (eg, Sasanian and Byzantine, then Chinese and Venetian Renaissance influences on Islamic paintings, and, in turn, the influence of Islamic and notably Herati paintings on twentieth century art, notably on Matisse, and hence on global modern art) in all 200 illustrations. It will also offer a general introduction to the evolution of Islamic painting from the thirteenth and fourteenth century Baghdad schools to the flowering of art in fifteenth and sixteenth Tîmûrid and early Safavid Herat, and then in mid-sixteenth century Mughal Kabul, with a subsequent impact on India. An appendix will also offer an anthology of the most important fifteenth and sixteenth century eastern Islamic source texts on Islamic painting in their original languages (with facing translations), many penned in Afghanistan. This will be essential to all serious scholarship on the subject, which, until now, has been almost inaccessible to the Afghan public.

The catalogue will serve as a national Afghan educational resource, available to all Afghan institutions of higher education (including the American University of Afghanistan). It will hopefully also serve as a prestigious diplomatic gift on behalf of the Afghan government – to promote and increase global awareness of Afghanistan’s medieval Islamic cultural heritage. Other copies will be sold to university libraries around the world and displayed in international museum bookshops.

The exhibitions’ website can be accessed here. The Kabul exhibition runs until end of June 2018.



(1) The exhibitions have been supported by a grant from the United States Embassy in Kabul through Boston University’s American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS) – whose Afghan branch is housed on the campus of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). The French Embassy in Kabul, through the Institute de France en Afghanistan (IFA), contributed a major grant to sponsor the accompanying catalogue, making this a fully Franco-American educational project.







AIAS Babur's Garden Islamic art miniatures Mughal paintings