Who was this man? History books in American high schools barely mention him, if at all. I certainly don't remember learning about him. Reading Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, in which Mr. Stewart describes his daring 2002 walk across Afghanistan using Babur's memoirs as a guide, gives you an appreciation of the unusual humanity of the founder of the great Mughal empire. E. M. Forster wrote: "What a happiness to have known Babur! He had all that one seeks in a friend. His energy and ambition were touched with sensitiveness; he could act, observe, and remember; though not critical of his senses, he was aware of their workings, thus fulfilling the whole nature of man."
His gardens must be his greatest monument. Carved into the side of one of the mountains surrounding Kabul, they gradually ascend through a series of grassy terraces. Spring is still stretching its legs at this point in the year, but rose bushes indicated the promise of a glorious May, and trees burst with purple flowers. The central water channel anchors the symmetry.
Though not as crowded as it was on Nawruz, the many terraces still teemed with families toting thermoses, portable grills, and rugs. Little boys giggled happily as they slid down the short, steep hills dividing one terrace from the next. Gangs of young men strolled around aimlessly. Occasionally, one of them would get out a wooden flute and play it.
Babur saved the most stunning view for himself. His tomb at the very top of the many series of terraces looks down at the gardens he laid out, past the wall and over the city he made great, and over at the mountains through which he walked, alone and unsupported, to found an empire. Seldom is the effect of awe realized as fully as it was intended.
After leaving the gardens, we drove to the kharabat. Ever since I read that Kabul has a quarter that historically belonged to musicians and dancers, I was excited about my first visit. We turned off the main road beneath the Bala Hissar, the ancient fortress overlooking the city. The car carefully straddled either side of an open sewer as it inched up the narrow street. Kids quickly surrounded the car, waving cheerfully. Some were dressed in colorful, sparkly outfits; other wore tattered clothes.
We reached a point where the car could go no further, so we walked towards an ancient shrine. In the eighteenth century, the first musicians formally invited to the city camped out there, and the kharabat quarter grew up around the shrine. Bearded, turbaned old men smiled and welcomed us into the dimly lit interior, where intricately worked timber lined the walls. In the center, beautifully ornate wood in a lattice pattern completely surrounded the graves of three small children descended from the Prophet. As one of the old men kindly unlocked the wood surrounding the graves and showed us the three painfully tiny stone markers, I felt a sense of reverence overpower me, knowing that I stood at a place sacred to both musicians and Afghan Muslims.
Back in the car, we drove past the Bala Hissar to the graveyard. The Bala Hissar stood more or less intact from the time it was built in the fifth century until 1992. Now, its hilltop ruins eerily crown Kabul's skyline. Thousands of feet in the air above us, a security blimp cast a wary eye over the city. The graveyard air sizzled with smoke as families who had come to pay their respects cooked a light meal.
We had come to visit the grave site of Ahmad Zahir, the Afghan Elvis. On his death anniversary, the site is mobbed by his female fans, though today, just a few young men were hanging out. We took a picture and left for a restaurant guarded by two ANA soldiers with machine guns. The shrine and the grave showed what Kabul was, the restaurant showed what it is, but old as they are, Babur's gardens point the way toward the future. As the sunlight glints off the marble walkways and families picnic in the shade of purple-flowered trees and the great emperor magnanimously watches over all, nothing else but beauty can be imagined for this country.