Babur’s tomb makes a perfect starting point. When he died in Agra, India, in 1520, Babur’s body was brought here, in accordance with his last wishes, to be buried. He had asked that his grave be left open to the sky so that the rains and snows of his beloved Afghanistan might penetrate its stones and bring forth a wildflower or sapling from his flesh. His epitaph, which he wrote himself, is engraved on a stone tablet at the head of his tomb: “Only this mosque of beauty, this temple of nobility, constructed for the prayer of saints and the epiphany of cherubs, was fit to stand in so venerable a sanctuary as this highway of archangels, this theatre of heaven, the light garden of the godforgiven angel king whose rest is in the garden of heaven, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur the Conqueror.”
In prewar Afghanistan, the tomb and its gardens were a favorite picnic spot for Kabulis. On hot afternoons, families swam in two Olympic-scale pools on the gardens’ northern edge. Today, the pools are being renovated, and gardeners are bringing the sprawling banks of irises, hollyhocks, zinnias, pansies, marigolds and roses back to life. Afghan and European archaeologists are restoring the ancient city walls above the tomb, filling shell holes and bullet pockmarks with fresh adobe. “When they were here, the Taliban cut down the ancient trees,” a gardener tells us. “They let the irrigation ditches dry up. When we tried to keep the flowers alive, they put us in prison. Next year, it will all be beautiful again.”
In 1933, the British eccentric Robert Byron drove, as we are about to do, from Kabul to the old Afghan capital of Ghazni. In his book The Road to Oxiana, he wrote: “The journey took four-and-a-half hours, along a good hard road through the Desert of Top, which was carpeted by irises.”
Ghazni was originally a Buddhist center. When Arabs swept in from the west in A.D. 683, bringing Islam with them, the city held out for nearly two centuries until invader Yaqub Safari sacked it in 869. Yaqub’s brother rebuilt Ghazni, and by 964 it was the center of a rich Islamic empire stretching from Turkey, across Afghanistan to northern Pakistan and India. While Europe languished in the Dark Ages, Ghazni’s ruler Mahmud (998-1030) was building palaces and mosques and hosting theological debates that drew Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Zoroastrian and Nestorian Christian scholars from all over the East. It took Genghis Khan to end Ghazni’s power in 1221, when he ravaged the city.
Today, Byron’s “good hard road” has vanished. In its place is a heaving chaos of sand, cobblestones, hummocks and gullies, the result of neglect and Soviet tank treads; Ghazni itself is a backwater. The 98-mile drive from Kabul takes us nine uncomfortable hours. The heat is suffocating, and dust as fine and white as flour rises in clouds, coating our lips. The countryside is in the throes of a four-year drought, and the villages look dispirited, surrounded by dried-up orchards and fallow wheat fields. Not only that: this is hostile territory. “Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are still in those mountains,” Azat says, gesturing to the jagged peaks to the east. “If they knew foreigners were traveling here, they would try to kill or kidnap you.”