Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

The Emir of Bukhara’s Forlorn Garden: Revealing Kabul’s hidden history

Jolyon Leslie 8 min

Kabul is a city of secrets. An outsider needs both curiosity and patience to discover the hidden layers that lie behind mud walls or at the end of dusty lanes. This heritage is however at risk from indiscriminate demolitions and new construction, much of which is uncontrolled. The stories behind places also risk being lost, as some of their names indicate; a busy traffic intersection at Chahrrahi-ye Zambaq (Iris crossroads) may have been a tranquil garden; what is now a refuse-clogged drain once supplied fresh water to the neighbourhood of Ju-ye Shir (Sweet water channel) from a distant spring. AAN guest author Jolyon Leslie, who has campaigned for and contributed to safeguarding built heritage, highlights the threats currently facing historic sites in Kabul, both from physical ‘development’ and loss of memory in this AAN Christmas read. 

The residential quarters of the exiled Emir, looted and damaged in the 1990s. Photo: Jolyon Leslie/2006The residential quarters of the exiled Emir, looted and damaged in the 1990s. Photo: Jolyon Leslie/2006

This dispatch is part 1 of a short series about the last Amir of Bukhara who ended up in Afghan exile in 1921. His country, once Afghanistan’s neighbour to the north, does no longer exist, having been divided between Uzbekistan an Tajikistan in Soviet times. The text is an extended version of ‘Notebook 058: Garden of Exile’ published in 2012 as part of dOCUMENTA 13 art exhibition at Kassel (Germany). Part 2 on 27 December 2018 (here) will look at Amir Alem Khan’s resting place in Kabul and the two countries’ relationship.

Development or destruction?

The brutal changes wrought to the urban landscape over the last decade have obliterated important traces of Kabul’s history, as a tide of money feeds speculative construction, much of which is illegal. Worsening security seems to have little impact on the proliferation of brash multi-storey blocks that now crowd the skyline, often funded from dubious sources. From within their heavily-defended compounds in the central ‘green zone’, Afghan politicians and their diplomatic guests tend to portray this rash of new construction as a sign of development – rather than admitting that it is also a concrete manifestation of the corruption and greed that has dogged many aspects of international engagement in the country since 2002.

A similar disconnect prevails with efforts to safeguard sites or areas of historic significance. Most Afghan politicians are keen to affirm their commitment to preservation of their heritage, but it has proved difficult to enforce controls as long as municipal staff are willing to turn a blind eye to the approach of bulldozers – usually for a small consideration from developers, who might themselves be government officials. As on other issues, the failure to uphold the rule of law tends to be portrayed as a problem of ‘lack of capacity’, although such capacity seems to be in abundance in the lucrative realm of ‘redevelopment’. And with most young Afghans not taught about their culture or heritage in the classroom, awareness as to what they stand to lose is largely absent, presenting a challenge for public campaigns.

City of gardens

There are, however, corners that have thus far escaped the khakbad (dust-devil) of transformation, and hopefully might be safeguarded for future generations. Among these are some of the gardens that were once key to the character of Kabul, and seduced the likes of Babur, the first Mughal, whose memoirs offer a vivid picture of how central these were to court life in the early 16thcentury. A garden bearing his name was re-opened to the public in 2008 following restoration and is now popular for family picnics. (1)

Some distance to the south of Bagh-e Babur lies a less well-known site, approached along dusty tracks bordered by high mud walls over which festoons of white nastaran (dog-roses) hang. On the urban fringe, the landscape here is dotted with qala (family homesteads) with blank defensive outer walls and turrets set among irrigated fields and orchards. One such property, Qala-ye Fatuh seemed on my first visit in 2004 (2) to be abandoned, with its avenues of mature walnut and mulberry trees choked by invasive saplings and weeds. Nature appeared to be taking over the ruins of a scattering of buildings in one corner of the site. Despite this air of neglect, water flowed through open channels and villagers were working on small plots they had reclaimed for cultivation. One of them explained that this is known locally as Bagh-e Padshah-e Bukhara, or the Garden of the Emir of Bukhara.

One of the war-damaged pavilions in the garden. Photo: Jolyon Leslie/2006

One of the war-damaged pavilions in the garden. Photo: Jolyon Leslie/2006

Curious as to the history of the garden, I came to learn that Muhammad Alem Khan, emir of Bukhara, lived here in exile for more than twenty years. Unlike Babur, who dealt with being forced from his home in Ferghana (in present-day Uzbekistan) by embarking on a series of ambitious military campaigns that eventually enabled him to control much of India, Alem Khan’s exile was spent in this garden, plotting unsuccessfully to reclaim his throne in Bukhara. The forlorn landscape and ruined buildings there bear mute witness to a little-known aspect of modern Afghan history.

The emir in exile

Alem Khan’s family ruled over the Emirate of Bukhara for a century before its incorporation in 1868 as a protectorate of the Russian Empire. A photograph taken in Bukhara in 1911 shows him resplendent in a blue silk chapan (coat) embroidered with tulips and irises. Having initially viewed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as an opportunity to realise his dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the region, Alem Khan soon realised that the revolutionaries’ social and economic reforms were at odds with his conservative views. He began to organise resistance, but his forces were no match for the Red Army troops who occupied Bukhara in 1920, causing the emir to flee. After an unsuccessful attempt to mobilise opposition from the east of his country, he accepted an invitation from the Afghan ruler Amanullah Khan to visit Kabul, crossing the frontier in 1921 from Tajikistan.

Painted mural over the fireplace in the residential quarters. Photo: Jolyon Leslie/2006

Painted mural over the fireplace in the residential quarters. Photo: Jolyon Leslie/2006

Little did Alem Khan imagine that this visit would became permanent exile. With his entourage, he was initially quartered close to the royal palace, In Muradkhane, on the north bank of the Kabul river, from where his host monitored his attempts to rally resistance to the Bolsheviks, with whom Amanullah Khan – despite some ups and downs – maintained friendly relations. It may have been the exiled emir’s persistence in seeking foreign support – he made several requests to the British Indian government in the belief that the Soviets represented a common foe – that prompted his re-location to the secluded compound at Qala-ye Fatuh.

This move did not however prevent Alem Khan from maintaining contact with Bukharan rebels. On the defection to the rebel side by Enver Pasha, a former Young Turk and Minister of War of the Ottoman Empire but now in exile and sent by Lenin to contain the rebellion, he was promptly appointed commander-in-chief by the emir and went on to organise raids on occupied Bukhara. Amanullah would have monitored these developments closely, for he too dreamed of a confederation of Central Asian states, but with Afghanistan at its centre. Despite having signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviets, the Afghans quietly supplied arms to the Bukharan and other anti-Soviet rebels in the former Russian province of Turkestan. This support proved to be in vain, for the Red Army had largely suppressed them by 1922, killing Enver in that year. (The insurgency continued for many more years – more about this in part 2 of this series.) Despite this setback, Alem Khan seems not to have wavered from the conviction that he would return to Bukhara and regain his throne.

This belief might have made it easier to cope with the straitened circumstances in which the emir then lived, which were in stark contrast to the splendours of Bukhara. The quarters in Qala-ye Fatuh comprised a series of free-standing buildings ranged around neat flowerbeds and ornamental trees – now completely overgrown. Curiously, the residential spaces are tiny, even by Afghan standards, and one can but wonder how the corpulent emir and his entourage coped. This might be why Alem Khan appears rather disconsolate in a photograph taken in one of these miniature rooms in 1922. (3) The stenciled wall decoration visible in the photograph survives to this day, but the carpet at the emir’s feet is long gone, replaced by drying animal fodder. Over a fireplace in an adjoining room is a mural depicting a bucolic scene of castles beside a lake ringed by rugged mountains, perhaps intended to remind the household of happier times. Only the biplane that soars above this painted landscape seems to point to the future.

It was to the future, and the possibilities of modern technology, that the emir’s host Amanullah looked as he embarked on an ambitious program of reforms. Part of his vision for a modern capital was the creation of a new government enclave in Darulaman, where a foundation stone was laid in 1923. Work on the elevated Secretariat building (that was badly damaged during inter-factional fighting in 1993/4) must have been visible from Qala-ye Fatuh, and might even have reminded the emir of his grand palaces back in Bukhara. (4)

Alem Khan’s fortunes were hostage to Afghanistan’s turbulent politics. Soon after Amanullah’s abdication in 1929, the leader of the rebels who had overthrown him, Habibullah Kalakani, called for Bukhara’s liberation from Soviet occupation. (Find more background about him in this AAN dispatch.) The exiled emir appears in several photographs of public events at the time, and his presence may have lent a degree of legitimacy to Kalakani’s rule in Kabul. It was less than a year before he was in turn overthrown and then executed by Nader Shah, who turned a blind eye to Soviet incursions into northern Afghanistan in pursuit of Bukharan rebels.

Today, Qala-ye Fatuh’s forlorn garden and ruined buildings seem to resonate with the sadness that Alem Khan must have felt as he heard news of the Soviets’ consolidation of their grip on Bukhara. One can imagine how he must have struggled to keep up appearances in the tiny spaces in which he now lived, perhaps pacing up and down the avenues of trees to make sense of what was happening in the world outside of the walled compound. A section of an ornate plaster fireplace, now partly buried in rubble, is a reminder of the elegance of some of the buildings, even though its rusting corrugated-iron roof now hangs over ruined walls like a shroud. Nearby, shafts of bright sunlight penetrate through the shattered wood ceiling of a mosque, inside which painted decoration and inscriptions survive, albeit defaced.

Detail of moulded plaster fireplace in one of the damaged pavilions. Photo: Jolyon Leslie/2011

Detail of moulded plaster fireplace in one of the damaged pavilions. Photo: Jolyon Leslie/2011

This destruction is a clue to the next chapter in the history of Qala-ye Fatuh. Its ruined buildings and overgrown landscape are not only the consequence of a natural process of decay, but of destruction caused by mujahedin fighters who, after the fall of the Soviet- backed government in Kabul in 1992, occupied this area. In another twist of history, these mujahedin belonged to the factions who claim to have forced occupying Soviet forces to withdraw from their country in 1989 – a goal that Alem Khan had pursued for his country from this very garden 70 years earlier. (5)

Along with other sites across the fast-changing urban landscape, Qala-ye Fatuh serves as a palimpsest of an important period in Kabul’s history. Since I first visited the garden in 2004, Afghanistan has experienced exceptional urban growth, as families are displaced from insecure rural areas or move to towns and cities in search of a livelihood. With almost a third of Afghans now thought to be urban residents, according to World Bank figures for 2017 there is huge pressure on land, housing and basic services. It is inevitable that investment to keep pace with this growing demand will come at some cost to urban heritage, but more can and should be done to document and, where possible, safeguard, sites like Qala-ye Fatuh that hold the history of the country – and without which future generation of Afghans will be the poorer.

Edited by Sari Kouvo and Thomas Ruttig


(1) Implemented by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, whose programme the author managed at the time.

(2) In the course of planning the rehabilitation of Bagh-e Babur, efforts were made to identify other significant walled gardens that survived in and around Kabul.

(3) One of series of photographs taken by Wilhelm Rieck, a German engineer, who was engaged to oversee various construction works in Kabul in the 1920s.

(4) In a curious echo of history, in 2017 President Ashraf Ghani pledged funds for the restoration of the Darulaman palace as part of an ambitious plan for an administrative quarter to be built in much the same area that Amanullah Khan chose for his ‘new Kabul’ – designed in 1921 by French architect Godard but not realised.

(5) A new contingent of ‘guests’ arrived in 1996 in nearby Rishkhor, where an al-Qaeda base was established, only to be obliterated by US missiles two years later. The craters remain to this day.


Alem Khan Bukhara garden Kabul