While Afghanistan is known for its on going wars, this is nothing new regarding its past. Even in the 1800’s Afghanistan was constantly finding itself in different battles. During these times Afghanistan was fighting both British and Russian influences for nearly a century. In the early 20th century when the British were giving most of their attention to the new and rising Soviet Union, an Afghan named Amanullah Khan took advantage of the situation and attacked British troops in India. His success brought true independence to Afghanistan in 1919.
Amanullah Khan brought many reforms to his country. He began modernizing the infrastructure, wrote a new constitution creating equal rights for all citizens, built schools for both boys and girls, and even removed strict dress codes for women. Sadly most of his country was not ready for all these changes. He began to be seen as too close to the west, and his declining popularity brought about the Khost rebellion. While the rebellion was defeated, he still was disliked by most conservatives in his country, and eventually fled in exile in 1929. Kabul saw more leaders come and go, but Amanullah Khan remains one of the most respected in Afghanistan today. Outside the city center in Kabul are the ruins of Amanullah Khan’s massive palace, still barely standing after nearly a century of war.
Afghanistan is famous for being a mountainous country. Like few other cities in the world though, Kabul is divided by mountains instead of built in between them. One place called TV mountain gives you great views of the city of four million people from all directions. TV mountain is no higher or unique than the other mountains in Kabul, it’s just easily recognizable because of the giant antennas and towers on the summit. Otherwise, it’s just one of dozens of mountains within the city. Below is a shot of TV mountain itself.
This photo above shows another view from TV mountain, and below is a zoomed in shot of the city center. The building you see in the lower photo on the left is actually the tallest building in Kabul! While we were up here we heard some machine gun fire in the distance, or what we thought was machine gun fire. We had no worries because we were so far away from it, but after hearing it for a bit longer we realized it was just someone operating a jack hammer.
Just like the guy operating the jack hammer who we had mistaken for a machine gun, there seemed to be a lot of construction going on in the city. This mosque here is a bran new one that was recently built and easily seen from TV mountain. Below is a shot of some of the houses in Kabul outside of the city center. This really reminded me a bit of La Paz Bolivia. The photo below shows some crowded houses along some stepper terrain elsewhere in the city.
When I visited, Afghanistan was led by President Hamid Karzai, seen in this large poster above. Hamid Karzai was a fighter against the Russian invasion of the 1980’s, and at first was a supporter of the Taliban when they took over the country. The Taliban also respected Karzai and even asked him to be a spokesmen for their cause. By this point the Taliban was already earning a harsh reputation and so Karzai declined the offer. As they began to get more extreme, he increasingly distanced himself from the group. Eventually things between Karzai and the Taliban went sour enough to the point where the Taliban attempted to assassinate him, forcing him into neighboring Pakistan. Later when the US invaded after 9/11, Karzai supported the Americans in overthrowing the Taliban and returned to lead his country.
The country is back on track to regaining its independence and stabilization, but has some serious challenges ahead. Aside from rebuilding the country, to this day other nations fight for influence in Afghanistan. The photo above is the Khatam al-Nabeyeen Islamic University which was completed in 2008. It’s very controversial in Afghanistan, because it was largely funded by Iran and the university is biased towards their version of Islam. It’s just one example of other nations attempting to influence Afghanistan and get invovled in their culture, politics and education. The Khatam al-Nabeyeen Islamic University is one of the largest in the country however. It’s complete with its own mosque, and even student housing!
Of course it’s known that Kabul still faces many challenges regarding security and violence. While in Kabul a local joked with me and said that the police were police during the day, but at night become the criminals. The photo of the guest house above is generally a much safer place to stay compared to a normal hotel. Hotels often get more attention and can be targeted by terrorists. Not too much later after my trip, a hotel in the Kabul was stormed by terrorists and several foreigners were killed. Later on I also read about a guest house like mine being attacked, so of course no place will guarantee you safety. Below is a US helicopter passing by and likely going to Bagram air base.
The violence and instability is what mostly dominates people’s views of the country. I did most of my historical exploring in the north and west of Afghanistan, but all over the Kabul you’ll find mausoleums of former kings and rulers. Above is a mausoleum of a former Afghan ruler centuries before Karzai. Below is a shrine to another famous Afghan, a former military commander.
Even though this history isn’t ancient, I found one of my most interesting experiences in Afghanistan was visiting the remains of Soviet buildings in the city. Nearly everything in this former Soviet Cultural House was completely destroyed. What remained was being looted, and that includes even the walls. I saw a man and his son taking bricks from the building and hauling them off in a wheel barrel. One of the only things that remained somewhat intact were these Soviet murals. Most people would remove an unwanted painting with paint remover or just cover it up,. In Afghanistan however, this portrait of Lenin above was removed with machine gun fire.
Something I didn’t expect to find in the abandoned building were junkies. Many people were homeless and sleeping in the middle of the day. Others were doing drugs and just zoned out sitting in random parts of the building. I remember climbing up on the roof and seeing men sprawled out in the sun looking miserable. Syringes like this one above were littered all over the place. Below is a photo of a young Afghan that was one of the few people I saw here that seemed healthy. I asked if I could take his photo and he nodded, and afterwards he said thank you.
Lots of buildings all over the capital still showed signs of the Soviet War despite the decades that had passed. If you wanted a souvenir at the time, it wouldn’t take you long at all to walk around and find bullet shells or other left over items from the catalyst that sent Afghanistan into chaos.
While exploring Kabul I came across this street fight. One guy was using a stick to beat another guy, and the fight attracted this silent crowd who appeared to be there for entertainment purposes. I saw multiple fist fights in the streets during my time in Kabul. Fist fights are usually harmless, but the fact that there were so many shows the instability and tension in Kabul.
While many things in Kabul have improved, it seemed as the years went on the city and country began to take a few steps back rather than forward. On my second night in Kabul, Taliban fighters had launched rockets into the city around 3am. Others I met while in the country asked me what I thought of the rocket attack, but as I’m a deep sleeper it didn’t wake me up and I didn’t even realize it happened until the morning. Rocket and assaults by gunmen are a major risk, but suicide bombers seemed to be feared the most. Since cars and trucks can be used to sneak in weapons or be a weapon themselves, they get a lot of attention from Afghan security. Above is a photo of a long line of trucks that are stopped from entering Kabul due to the anniversary of a past leader’s death. The trucks all had to wait outside the city boundaries until after the celebrations where over to try to prevent an attack by suicide bombers. Otherwise traveling by bike like this guy below might be the easiest means to get around for locals!
Despite the insecurity, in almost every street I drove through in Kabul I came across busy markets. Chicken Street is Kabul’s busiest market, but for that reason it can be a target by insurgents so I didn’t go there. Above is a photo and below are photos random markets I passed by. The one below was part of a clothing market where they sold burqas and other local clothing worn by Afghans. Despite some of the clothing markets selling only women’s attire the vendors were all men.
This photo shows a meat market with a soldier passing by, and yes, those are goat balls still attached to the animal! The markets can be a risky place to walk around as a foreigner, which was my main reason for avoiding Chicken Street. The only good thing was the markets have lots of armed guarded patrolling the streets, so if something happened there would at least be an immediate response.
If you don’t want to shop at the clothing or meat markets, there’s even a bran new shopping mall in Kabul! Entering the mall required passing by armed guards and going through metal detectors, but once inside you couldn’t tell that you were in Afghanistan. A local who I was with took me here and pointed around and told me, “Can you imagine this in Afghanistan?” Newer buildings like this one are still very rare in the country, but a few are popping up in Kabul and there is at least one in Herat. The mall even had a ATM machine that worked with my card!
Much more interesting than the markets I went to was this really good book store in downtown Kabul. Almost every book covered the culture or history of Afghanistan, but there were a few international ones as well. The book store is also one of the few places where you can buy postcards and posters. Some of you may have heard about the “The Bookseller of Kabul”, which is about an Afghan man and his family following the country’s changes after 9/11. I wasn’t aware of the story prior to my trip, so when my driver mentioned it I wasn’t sure what he was referring to. Soon after I learned the story we arrived to the infamous bookstore.
Other positive changes in Afghanistan are new freedoms that weren’t allowed during Taliban rule. Most people I talk to like it better now than without the Taliban of course. For the moment though, the price they have to pay is the insecurity of kidnappings and bombings which didn’t happen under the Taliban’s harsh rule.. Above is one of many Afghan Kids I saw flying kites in the city. Kite flying was banned during the Taliban rule, and I think it goes without saying that the Ferris Wheel below would have been banned too. The Ferris Wheel is working and I heard it’s right next to the Kabul zoo.
Above is a family of Afghan children I came across while visiting some kite flyers. They couldn’t speak any English, but nevertheless they ran up to me out of curiosity and tried to talk. I was surprised by the diversity of different ethnic groups in the country, I wouldn’t have thought the girl below was Afghan if I had seen her photo for example. I assume these kids are all brothers and sisters by the way they acted towards each other. The boy in the photo above did something to annoy the second oldest girl, which sent her yelling and stomping back off to her house.
One of my favorite places to visit in Kabul was the Babur Gardens. These gardens have been a popular place to visit for hundreds of years! The gardens were created in 1528, but have been abandoned and rebuilt several times throughout Afghanistan’s history. As a matter of fact, in the 1930’s there were even public swimming pools and recreational activities that took place here. Of course with the war and Taliban rule that all ended. Today the gardens are once again flowering and are popular with Afghan families. Many of the roses were in full bloom when I visited like this one below. Aside from the many flowers there are also pomegranate and cherry trees within the gardens as well.
I’m not sure if these rooms are available today, and I’m guessing not, but for once upon a time the gardens were also a place to stay the night for worn out travelers who made it to Kabul. Above is a photo showing the rooms that were available.
One of the world’s biggest empires in the 16th century was the Mughal empire. It spanned all the way from Bangladesh, across India and Pakistan and into Afghanistan. The Mughals were known for pacifying their people and having their citizens follow the emperor out of loyalty rather than fear. The first Mughal emperor was Zahir-ud-din Babur who died in Kabul after succumbing to sickness. He is buried in the tomb above, and the gardens now carry his name. There aren’t many details about his wife, but supposedly that is her tomb photographed below.
My last photo from Kabul shows the shrine within the gardens dedicated to Zahair-ud-din Babur, that holds his tomb. It’s completely made out of marble and has been very well taken care of over the past century. The original shrine was completely destroyed during an earthquake in the 1800’s, but early British explorers described how beautiful it once was, and the details put into the stonework.