The Enduring Splendors of, Yes, Afghanistan

A writer and photographer crisscross a nation ravaged by a quarter century of warfare to inventory its most sacred treasures

Despite heavy internecine fighting near Kabul for more than a decade, the simple but majestic marble tomb of Mohammed Babur the Conqueror has largely escaped damage. Beth Wald

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.

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.

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.”

But when we finally get to Ghazni, we remember why we came. Despite its repeated sackings and pillagings, the town is a historical treasure-house. According to a popular Afghan folktale, a Sufi (Muslim mystic) master once sent one of his pupils on a pilgrimage to Ghazni. The young man returned in a foul mood: “Why did you send me to that accursed place?” he demanded. “There were so many mosques, shrines and tombs of saints everywhere, I couldn’t find a place to relieve myself. I nearly burst!”

We have come specifically to see a pair of towering brick minarets, each nearly 80 feet high, erected in the 12th century as part of a now long-gone mosque and madrassa (religious school) complex. But like that long-ago Sufi pilgrim with the bursting bladder, we find ourselves surrounded by historical wonders everywhere we turn. After checking into the “best” hotel, a gas station/teahouse/truckers’ stop where rooms rent for 120,000 afghanis (about $2) a night, we explore the town. The old city walls are still intact, dating back 1,300 years to the Buddhist era. The Citadel, where the British and Afghans fought a series of bloody battles between 1838 and 1842, remains imposing; its high walls still look as though they could repel an attacking army.

Once, the city’s two great minarets were each surmounted by a slim tower two times as high as the present structures. But even in their truncated state, they are impressive, standing isolated amid a wasteland of dry brush and dust. And though the road that leads to them skirts an incongruous junkyard of rusting tanks, trucks and machinery left over from the Soviet invasion, the minarets themselves remain much as Byron described them more than 70 years ago, constructed “of rich toffee brick tinged with red [and] adorned with carved terra-cotta.” Despite their size, they are as intricately detailed as a Persian carpet.

That night, back at the hotel, I am kept awake by the town crier, who patrols the main road out front. Recalcitrant Taliban types have been lobbing rockets into Ghazni at night and sneaking into the city to rob people. The crier walks up and down, toting an AK-47 assault rifle and letting loose an earsplitting whistle every 30 seconds or so. I decide that the whistle means “All is well! It’s safe for you to try to go back to sleep!” I suspect it is also a not-so-subtle rebuke: if I have to stay up all night, so should you.

On the way out of Ghazni we stop to visit another of the city’s monuments, Mahmud’s Tomb. Unlike the minarets, this site has been renovated and is the center of a busy scene. Schoolboys shrilly chant lessons beneath the giant trees; itinerant mullahs read aloud from the Koran, and farmers peddle fruit and vegetables from pushcarts. Even in these troubled times, Afghan pilgrims stream in and out of the mausoleum photographing everything in sight. They seem pleased when Beth takes pictures of the ornate tomb.

On to Bamiyan, some 250 miles away. In A.D. 632, before Islam, the Chinese monk Hsuan-tsang crossed the Himalayas from western China into present-day northern India and then to Afghanistan. In his journal he writes of gorges, deep with snow, making travel impossible; of murderous bandits who killed travelers; of precipices, avalanches. At last Hsuan-tsang crossed into the BamiyanValley, where he found a peaceable Buddhist kingdom with this oasis city at its heart, watched over by two great stone Buddhas carved into the face of a giant cliff. In time, of course, the kingdom fell, Islam supplanted Buddhism and Genghis Khan came through, demolishing and slaughtering. Later, about 1900, Pushtun monarch Abdurrahman marched in, persecuting Shi’a inhabitants and hacking the faces off the Buddhas.

When I first came to Bamiyan, in the winter of 1998, the local Hazaras, descendants of the Buddha builders, were again under siege from the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. Like Abdurrahman in his day, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Ladin and their followers despised any Muslim who did not profess the Sunni form of the religion. I was part of a small aid group that flew into Bamiyan from Uzbekistan with two tons of medical supplies in a creaky, unmarked Antonov transport plane. Because of Taliban bombing, we were forced to land at an airstrip on the plateau above Bamiyan and convoy the medicine down by truck. I will never forget rounding the corner of the snowy valley in the late afternoon sun and seeing, in the cliffs, the two Buddhas, the larger one 180 feet high, the smaller 125, looking down upon us with their invisible Buddha faces. Young Shi’a fighters armed with assault rifles stood sentry at the base of the cliff. Though Muslim, they were still defiantly proud of these monumental figures, hewn out of stone by their ancestors 1,500 years ago.

I’m not sure if it is a blessing or a curse to see something beautiful and precious before it vanishes forever; a bit of both, perhaps. I left with a feeling of foreboding. Within eight months, northern Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, leaving the Hazaras increasingly isolated. On September 13, 1998, Taliban forces captured Bamiyan itself, killing thousands, razing the ancient town and finally, of course, in March 2001, blowing up the two Buddhas with hundreds of pounds of explosives.

Now, as we drive toward the 10,779-foot ShibarPass, the gateway to Bamiyan, we pass ruined Hazara villages, relics of Taliban genocide; our vehicle, ominously, is the only one on the once-busy road. When we arrive in Bamiyan, we find most of the town lying in rubble. Then I take a second look. Everywhere rebuilding is going on: people are making bricks from mud, conjuring their houses and shops back to life. Farmers are loading up trucks with potatoes to sell in Kabul. U.N. vehicles, too, scurry about, part of a massive international campaign to bring Bamiyan back to life. A contingent of U.S. Army Special Operations troops are helping build bridges and schools while they also keep order.

From the ruins of the bazaar, I finally look up at the place where the Buddhas once stood. Though the niches are empty, the outlines of the figures are still visible on the stone sides of the caves, and in some transcendental, incorporeal way the Buddhas seem to be here too. Is it possible, I wonder, that the Taliban “liberated” the Buddhas from the inert stone? Dizzy thoughts in the glare of the sun, perhaps. A young Hazara man sees me looking up at the cliffs. “Buddhas,” he says, pointing to where I am gazing. I nod. “Buddhas khub [good],” he says. “Taliban baas [finished].” He makes a throat-cutting motion across his neck with his hand.

There is a spirited debate going on over what to do about the Bamiyan statues. Some want to reconstruct them, noting that the Indian Archeological Survey made exact measurements of the statues back in the 1950s, and with modern technology they could be replaced in situ. Others, most notably American Nancy Hatch Dupree, a leading authority on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, and Kareem Khalili, vice president of Afghanistan and chief of the Hazara tribe, think the niches should be left empty, as memorials. I’m with them.

Even Azat is uneasy about the 12-hour journey north to Mazar-i-Sharif, site of the most beautiful building in all of Afghanistan, the Great Mosque of Hazrat Ali. Not only must we go through the hazardous Salang Tunnel, built in the 1960s by the Soviets and damaged during the war, but we must drive through areas where live minefields extend to the edges of the road. An American aid worker was kidnapped at a renegade checkpoint on the highway a few months ago, and the day before we depart, 17 fighters from feuding Tajik and Uzbek tribal militias are killed in SamanganProvince, which we must cross. But fortune smiles, and we arrive without incident.

Mazar, as Afghans call the city, was the scene of heavy fighting several times over the past decade: Hazaras against Uzbeks; Hazaras and Uzbeks against Pushtuns, Arabs and Pakistanis; then Hazaras against Uzbeks against Tajiks. As we head into the heart of the city, we pass burned-out warehouses and factories, blocks of debris where shops and offices once stood, and trucks twisted like pretzels. And then, looming over the trees and rooftops, we catch sight of the beautiful ocean-blue domes of Hazrat Ali.

The story goes that the body of Imam Hazrat Ali, who was murdered in A.D. 661 near Baghdad, was placed on a camel and sent east across central Asia. The camel finally collapsed near Balkh, a few miles northwest of present-day Mazar, and Ali was buried there. Agrand shrine and mosque were erected on the site, only to be destroyed by Ghenghis Khan in the 13th century. Since 1481, when the mosque was rebuilt, it has undergone countless additions and changes, evolving into the surreal architectural jewel we marvel at today. It doesn’t look like it was “built,” if that makes sense: rather, that it somehow materialized, a vision magically transmuted into stone. The gardens that ring the mosque complex teem with worshipers on their way to late afternoon prayers, bands of schoolboys, beggars and pilgrims. A few people stare at us with set expressions, but most smile and say “Asalaamaleikum,” “Hello.”

To many Westerners, even the word “Islam” evokes images of rage, swords, war. Here, you feel the real meaning: submission to faith, tolerance, peace, balance and tranquillity. I hear laughter, and look over to see men and boys feeding the sacred white doves that flock here by the hundreds. Mazaris believe that when a bird flies here, it turns snow white from the pure holiness of the place. It is good luck to have the birds land on you, and some people, by judicious offerings of birdseed, manage to attract the doves. They laugh as their friends photograph them; one turbaned elder tapes his dove-covered compatriots with a video camera.

We leave our shoes in a gatehouse and walk across the smooth marble surface of the courtyard. The stones beneath us gleam like ice in the late afternoon sun. Above, blue domes thronged with white birds look like snowcapped peaks. The tile work on the walls is intricate and rich, a subtle glowing tapestry of muted umbers, ochres and shades of blue and green that blaze in the sun. An old man walks by, fingering his prayer beads, muttering to God; he turns to me and smiles beatifically before going on his way. This mosque is particularly sacred to the Hazara tribe, who are Shi’as, but both Shi’as and Sunnis worship here side by side. Long ago, Shi’as split off from the Sunni mainstream to pursue a more mystical, socially radical path. Shi’as are a majority in only one nation, Iran. Elsewhere, as in Afghanistan, they are a vocal, often restive minority, widely persecuted and, under the Taliban, even massacred. But Hazrat Ali is a mosque for all Muslims, as hospitable to Sunnis as it is to Shi’as, and as welcoming to non-Muslims as to the faithful. Here there is an undeniable feeling of openness and oneness. As the Afghan Sufi poet al-Sana-ie of Ghazni wrote, “At the gates of Paradise no one asks who is Christian, who is Moslem.”

On September 9, 2001, in the far northern town of Khojabahuddin, two Arab terrorists posing as journalists killed the nationalist Afghan leader Ahmadshah Massood with a bomb concealed in a video camera battery pack. Massood and his fellow Tajik tribesmen from the PanjsherValley had led the war against the Soviets in the ’80s, turning back six major Soviet offensives and descending from the mountains to attack Soviet convoys headed south to Kabul. When the foreign Muslims of Al Qaeda and their Afghan/ Pakistani Taliban allies tried to take over the country in the chaos following the Soviet withdrawal, Massood and his followers fought them too. His murder two days before 9/11 was undoubtedly timed to remove the last Afghan opposition to Taliban and Al Qaeda before the inevitable U.S. retaliation against Afghanistan’s terrorist regime.

Now that the United States, allied with Massood’s fighters and other anti-Taliban forces, has swept the Taliban away, the martyred Massood is being hailed as the savior of his nation. Because tens of thousands of Afghans and dozens of foreign dignitaries are expected to show up for his ceremonial interment in Bazarak a year to the day after his death, we go a day early, on September 8.

It takes six hours to get there. The road zigzags high above the PanjsherRiver. As night falls, we pass throughcorn and wheat fields, orchards of nut and fruit trees, mulberry thickets, windbreaks of willows. Villages twinkle in the darkness: the ingenious Panjsheris have devised their own small hydroelectric plants, powered by the flowing river, full from the melting mountain snows. Peaks loom high on both sides of the PanjsherValley, rising to more than 18,000 feet. There are glaciers up there, and snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep, ibex. We have entered the Hindu Kush, the western Himalayas.

I lose track of time and of exactly where we are on the map when suddenly Azat pulls off the road and stops at the base of a hill. I look up, and there is the blue metal dome of the mausoleum. We are here. We climb the hill, past Panjsheri sentries. It is after 9:00 p.m., but other mourners and worshipers are already there. Like them, we remove our shoes and walk across ornate tiles to the building itself. Inside, the sarcophagus is wrapped in tapestries depicting the holy places of Mecca. Someone has laid a small bouquet of wildflowers on top. A young village boy’s lips move silently in prayer as tears fall from his eyes. An old peasant looks over at me and shakes his head gently, sadly: our grief is your grief, he seems to be saying; you and I, we know what greatness the world has lost here. In a little while, I walk outside into the chill starlight. Behind me, the shrine glows, a blue-and-white diamond in the vastness of the mountains.

For the next two days, helicopters soar in and out of the valley, bringing government ministers, foreign ambassadors, chiefs and commanders from every tribe and race in Afghanistan. Schoolchildren carry banners and flags. Verses from the Koran thunder from a loudspeaker system. Bards sing songs in Massood’s honor; poets recite epic verses, recounting the glories of the dead man’s life. It is a timeless event: the laying to rest of a modern prince who is also a liberator in a mausoleum built on a hill, another monument to enriching this tortured, desert land.

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