A garden for a king who loved the flower covered Kabul foothills so much he wanted to be buried there, a garden for checkpoint soldiers (where once a queen allegedly had tea under an apricot tree), one for hospital patients to heal in and one for the children of a poor farmer. In the midst of the coldest time of the year in Afghanistan, AAN guest author and photographer Lalage Snow* offers a breeze of spring air and some sunshine, talking to passionate gardeners about a favourite Afghan pastime.
Kabul and gardens go hand in hand. “There is something about the climate; it’s a very, very special place. No wonder that Afghans love to garden,” says Jolyon Leslie, a South African architect and passionate gardener who has lived in Kabul since 1989. “The mujahedin were more interested in their gardens than in the checkpoints they manned in the 1990’s,” he remembers, “and later, the Taliban running the airstrip were the same.”
Already for the hordes of Timurids and Moghuls marauding through Central Asia in the 1500s, gardens were a respite from the harsh deserts and mountains with their pounding winds and ferocious temperatures, reminding them of Paradise. High walls created a micro-climate and gave protection from the winds; tall plane trees provided shade while water channels gave refreshment and fruit trees, sustenance. An Eden on earth.
The Emperor Babur built his finest garden in his favourite city, Kabul, in 1528, proving he was at least a marauder with taste. Perusing the foothills of Kabul he was so taken with the tulips covering them he had them counted: “thirty three unique varieties.” (1) Indeed he is said to have enjoyed so many long afternoons with concubines and fountains of “intoxicating” wine there that he chose them as his final resting place, requesting his tomb be left open to the elements to allow wild flowers to grow around him in death. It was not until around 1638 that the emperor Shah Jahan enclosed it.
Time and wars and their toll on Babur’s garden
In the 1980s, Babur’s garden still was an oasis amid Kabul’s dust for a growing population of internally displaced people fleeing unrest in the provinces. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, then a student at Kabul University recalls, “There were large trees, visitors enjoyed the greenhouse and open-air flower beds. A pond was full with children, particularly at weekends, while families picnicked on the grass.”
By 2001, three decades of foreign occupation, unrest, a devastating civil war and an iron-fisted Taleban rule, rendered it almost non-existent. During the post-1992 civil war years, most of the trees were felled and the garden’s buildings and perimeter wall destroyed. When Ruttig returned, only the leafless, charred and lifeless trunk of a gigantic plane tree remained.
When restoration on the site began in 2002 by the Agha Khan Foundation, with substantial financial backing from the German government, architects and designers had almost nothing physical to go on. “We had an idea how it might have looked from other Moghul gardens but really, we didn’t have a clue,” says Leslie, who was involved the project. The team relied heavily on nineteenth century sketches, early photographs and historical descriptions. “UN Habitat did some repair works there in the 1990s planting non native trees (mainly conifers) but, to be fair to them, this was at the behest of Kabul municipality staff who then managed the site,” he says.
During the restoration work between 2003 and 2008, and not without opposition, they systematically removed both conifers and invasives (mainly Russian willow) planting fruit, plane, Judas and sinjid trees (haw or Himalayan whitebeam that carries edible berries, also known as “jujube” or “red dates”) among many others. While returning it to its former glory, they also wanted to help revive a fledgling Afghan cultural identity and develop a modern space in which families could relax and socialise. The design, however, was the least of their worries. “There were mines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs) lodged in the mud walls or lurking in piles of rubble and clearing them took time,” recalls Leslie. “But the biggest challenge we faced,” he says, “was the indifference of senior Afghan officials, politicians and intellectuals to the works. The mine-field of Afghan officialdom was much tougher than any mine-clearance.”
Pollution poisoned trees
When the work started, some 27 acres of topsoil had to be replaced while teams of scouts went out on motorbikes to source the best plants from the provinces. The species of trees were chosen according to the description of the fruit growing in Kabul and its surrounding villages given by its founder in his Babur Nama – “grapes, pomegranates, apricots, apples, quinces, peaches, plums, jujube, almonds and nuts.”
Kabul sits at an altitude of 1,800 metres. In winter, temperatures can plummet to minus 20 degrees Celsius and in summer climb to 40 plus. Engineer Latif, resident horticulturalist, has a permanent staff of 13 and adds to it during the summer months – when temperatures soar – to irrigate, lime, fertilise and protect over 5,500 plants and trees. But air pollution worries him more than the heat. Pointing to the browning leaves of a walnut tree he says, “Pollution poisoning. Each tree is like a child to me and I hate to see them suffer.”
Babur’s garden attracts over 300,000 visitors per year who pay 20 Afghanis (40 cents) as entrance fee in order to enjoy the open spaces and picnic beneath the shade of the newly planted trees. Most are Kabuli and can ill afford the luxury of their own patch of land, or garden, in the city.
However, before the current war economy pushed basic living costs in Kabul out of reach for most, things were different. “When people returned to the city after the civil war, the first thing they did was plant a tree in their courtyards,” explains Jolyon Leslie sitting in his own immaculate garden. “Trees give shade, fruit and kindling. But on a psychological level, they reflect permanence and longevity.”
A green courtyard in a destroyed palace
Nine kilometres from Babur’s gardens is another legacy of a bygone era: Darulaman Palace. Built by Harten, a German architect under the then King Amanullah for the newly established parliament in 1923, it once boasted large Western-style gardens popular at that time, as well as an experimental agricultural farm. Time, fires and fighting have done little to relieve the palace of its stubborn majesty but the gardens are no more. They were almost completely destroyed.
Mohammed Kabir began reviving the palace’s courtyard in 2012, planting marigolds and roses and much more over a quarter of the space. Originally employed to work on the vegetable garden belonging to the Afghan soldiers stationed there, he decided to make them a miniature pleasure garden. His personal creation in summer was a confusing riot of colour against the crumbling palace battlements but one of which he was proud.
“I am a poor man and can live without food but I can’t live without seeing leaves and flowers,” he explains. Kabir claims to be 105 and to remember working as a palace gardener when the palace was built, recalling visions of elephants and donkeys transporting trees and afternoons spent drinking tea with the queen beneath an apricot tree. Whether these are tales of fancy or not, he puts his youthful complexion and strength down to almost a century of gardening.
“I brought whatever seeds I had at home and the soldiers helped plant them. Everything you see is from paradise. I am in paradise when I’m here,” he smiles toothily, half leaning on a spent rocket propelled grenade shell used as an irrigation vessel.
The soldiers based there agree with Kabir’s sentiment: “Green is happiness, green is peace. Who doesn’t like that?”
A small pleasure-garden for the soldiers at the destroyed Darulaman palace.
No water for the gardens
Just outside Kabul, Sayed Yaqub is less fortunate. “My family have always lived here and this garden used to be filled with roses, but now there’s not much I can do,” he says sadly. His garden is a scrappy patch of dry land shaded by overgrown pine trees.
He is the head gardener at an international cultural organisation, and it is not his lack of horticultural knowledge that holds him back. Despite living on the edge of Lake Qargha, a continuing drought and the spiralling price of water means that for a man like Yaqub, a productive garden is a dream. A hard fact to swallow given that he comes from a long line of men who lived off the land and that like most he has a large family to support.
“It’s not just about beauty, it’s about survival,” he says.
On the other side of Lake Qargha, Dr Zabihullah Mojaddedi has a little more leeway when it comes to irrigation. As the son of former (1992 interim) president, Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, he has a lot more security. The lake serves as buffer on one side while the well-manned checkpoints, blast walls and fortress-like entrance on the other keep away would-be attackers. However, being so far from Kabul’s centre suits him. And his garden? Well, “you don’t get a face full of dust when you smell a flower,” he jokes.
Although he spent almost 20 years living in America, he insists that the design of the garden is thoroughly Afghan, with its water channels, clearly defined terraces and areas of shade.
His wife brought seeds from Virginia, and at the bottom of the garden on a lower terrace is a vegetable patch of courgettes, squashes, spinach, cauliflower, carrots and tomatoes. Although there are numerous seating areas next to the house, beneath a walnut tree and on a terraced patio, it is the centre of the garden that Mojaddedi favours.
“When my wife is away, I come down here at night to look at the moon and let the different scents carry me elsewhere. Sometimes,” he adds, “my wife thinks I love the moon more than I love her.”
A green patch for patients to garden in and heal
The power of smell is something Ahmad Borjan (not his real name) understands. Sitting in the garden of Bost (2) hospital, a clinic in Lashkargah, Helmand province, on a military cot bed he explains, “I made this garden for patients to understand beauty and life. People can sit and think in it and smell the flowers and be reminded of peace.”
Borjan works as a nurse in Bost hospital. But he is also a poppy farmer; his ancestral land lies 20 kilometres from the city. During the Taleban regime, he and other farmers were forbidden from growing anything other than wheat and barley. “The Taleban wanted to control the value of opium. If everyone had grown it, there would have been too much and the prices would have fallen,” he explains. “We’ve been growing poppy since they left, as 1,000 dollars a harvest is more than what I earn as a nurse.”
Besides working in the drug business, he set up his own clinic to treat out-patients who could ill afford the fees at Bost hospital. He made the small space between clinic and house into a small garden. Although just four square metres, his entire family contributes to the garden’s upkeep, and even his patients or their relatives help if needed.
“It’s a calm place,” he says simply, “and calm is what we need now.” In his medical work he has seen the narrative of war through its casualties. “There used to be bombardment from the sky and shooting all around us and we would treat the casualties. Now we are told there is peace, but the hospitals are full of children with no arms or legs or with no parents.” His seven year old granddaughter sitting next to him sighs uneasily as he talks. Borhan says, “The world is telling us that the Americans and the British came to build security and peace but where is it? Outside this garden, it doesn’t exist.”
Four green square metres to heal in: Borjan’s clinic garden.
Pink and white poppy for decoration
On the main road out from Lashkargah, just after the fork to Marjah, lives Abdul Hakim Hakim. He has been living in the area for just three years, after spending most of his life in Laghman and then Pakistan. As a tenant farmer, he grows wheat and barley, but pink and white poppies pepper his fields like stars. “They grow as weeds do,” he says. Next to his compound he grows vines. Here, Hakim has also planted pink roses that have woven themselves around the vines. “My children like to play beneath them.”
Inside a large greenhouse sponsored by an agricultural program, he grows row upon row of cucumbers and, interestingly, one large marijuana plant – another ‘intruder’ Hakim tolerates and lovingly waters along with his cucumbers. “It comes from birds,” he says. “People feed the seeds to the birds they want to fight as it makes them stronger. When the birds shit, the seeds are already half pollinated and grow incredibly quickly.”
The cucumbers he sells for three Afghanis each, but sadly his market is being undermined by cheaper imports from Herat, Farah and Pakistan and he struggles to make ends meet: “We don’t have any luxuries and I can’t afford to send my children to school.” He prunes and picks the cucumbers as he talks, helped by two of his children. A third comes into the greenhouse holding a rose in her hand which she gives to her father. Hakim smiles and looks up, “You see? You get gold from the earth, not from the sky.”
*Lalage Snow is a photographer (www.lalagesnow.co.uk) who has just won the Garden Media Guilds Award for Emerging Talent in Photography.
(1) W.M. Thackston Jr., The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor (Modern Library Classics, 2002).
(2) Bost is an ancient city at the confluence of Helmand and Arghandab rivers that goes back to the pre-Islamic period. It is now mostly covered by the desert. Nearby, Lashgarkah was built in the 1950s onwards with US support as an administrative ‘capital’ and model town for the Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority. This was a project to gain new agricultural lands by a large canal system, based on the antique Boghra Canal, which the Japanese began to rehabilitate in the late 1930s, before they had to leave the country with the outbreak of WWII.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020