Our quest begins beside an austere sarcophagus of white, black and pink marble with a simple little ivory-colored mosque below and vast terraced flower gardens beyond, high above the dusty, war-battered city of Kabul. The man buried beneath these stones, Zahiruddin Mohammed Babur, was one of Asia’s greatest empire builders. Starting about the time of Columbus as an Uzbek princeling in the Fergana Valley north of Afghanistan, Babur and his followers captured eastern Afghanistan and Kabul; from there they rode east across the Khyber Pass, to conquer northern India all the way to the Himalayas.
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Three of us, photographer Beth Wald, my Afghan friend Azat Mir, and I, are setting out to seek what is left of Afghanistan’s splendor. It won’t be easy: ten months after the U.S. intervention and the overthrow of the Taliban, the road system is kharaab (broken), and fighting still flares up regularly in the mountains southeast of Kabul and near Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. The U.S. State Department recommends that Americans not venture here at all, and certainly not travel outside Kabul. But I spent 11 years covering the Soviet–Afghan wars for the New York Times, the Washington Post and Time; Beth has photographed the wilds of Patagonia, Vietnam and Tibet; and Azat is your quintessential bold-to-the-point-of-folly Afghan, an ex-guerrilla who has lived and worked in Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and who, like most Afghans, is fiercely proud of his country. For transport we have Azat’s four-wheel drive SUV. We have high hopes. Like the heroes of Kipling’s Man Who Would Be King, we are embarking on a treasure hunt, a search for myths and legends across a rough and lawless country.
Zahiruddin Mohammed Babur’s Moghul empire is long gone, and Afghanistan is a ghost of a country, where the grandeur of the past is in danger of disappearing. Twenty-three years of war, beginning with the Soviet invasion in 1979, damaged or destroyed many of the country’s historical treasures, and the Taliban fundamentalists, who took power in the mid-1990s and ruled until last year, destroyed or sold off many more. Today, renegade local commanders and desperately poor villagers are digging in sites from the Greek metropolis of Ai Khanoum to the ancient city surrounding the Minaret of Jam and selling what they find to art and antiquities smugglers.
Many of the surviving palaces, fortresses and monuments scattered across the landscape are relics of cultures that even today remain a mystery to historians. Afghanistan is a huge, three-dimensional mosaic of races and cultures. During its long, tumultuous reign as the crossroads of Asia, everyone from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan passed through, leaving behind a multitude of bloodlines, languages and traditions. Today there are hundreds of tribes, clumped together in six major groups: Pushtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Aimaqs, Nuristanis and Uzbeks. Though almost all Afghans are Muslims (until the advent of Islam in the seventh century A.D. the region was Buddhist), even Islam is split between the majority Sunnis, descended from kings and orthodox scholars who succeeded Muhammad, and the Shi’a, from Muhammad’s descendants and their followers. All this has left a rich historical alluvium. Golden Buddhas, silver swords, ivory chess sets, Venetian glass trade beads and Greek coins are still unearthed regularly by farmers’ plows and looters’ shovels. Five years ago in the ancient Silk Road oasis of Bamiyan, a peasant dug up a fragment of an ancient Torah, evidence of the Jewish trading community that once flourished there.
Our journey will take us through a desert no-man’s-land to the old capital city of Ghazni, across a remote pass to Bamiyan, northeast into the Himalayas, and north to the windswept Turkoman Plains. We will cross minefields, territories of warlords and feuding militias, and high, blizzardlashed mountains. We will dodge terrorists and tribal skirmishes, bluff our way past roadblocks manned by uniformed bandits, and spend nights in villages where we are the first Western visitors in 20 years. When it is over, we will have found sites of tragic destruction, where the glories of the past have been blown up by fanatics. But we will have also found perfectly preserved thousand-year-old monuments. And we will witness a legend in the making, as today’s Afghans enshrine a newly dead prince.