Legendarily founded by Cain and Abel, Kabul is an ancient city, repeatedly fought over by all the region’s great empires and religions. Known in antiquity as Kabura, it was an Achaemenid outpost 2500 years ago, later renamed Parapamisidae by the Bactrian Greeks who built a city here. In the centuries that followed, Kabul became a Buddhist city during the Kushan era, Hindu under the Indians and finally Muslim with the Arab expansion from the east. Kabul’s first Afghan rulers were the Ghorids in the 12th century.
The whirlwind of destruction wreaked by Genghis Khan had largely blown itself out by the time he reached Kabul, and the city escaped the worst of the Mongol destruction. Kabul prospered under Timur in the 14th century, who even married the sister of one of Kabul’s rulers, and used the city as the base for his conquest of India. In 1504 Kabul was captured by Babur, founder of the Mughal empire.
Babur loved Kabul, and had rhapsodised about its many delights. Even as his ambition drove him eastward to India he dreamed of the city, writing ‘I have a longing beyond expression to return to Kabul. How can its delights ever be erased from my heart?’. His body was returned to Kabul for burial.
As Mughal interests became centred on India, Kabul’s fortunes waned. A period of Safavid Persian interest was cut short by the meteoric rise to power of Ahmad Shah Durrani, who captured Kabul from his Kandahar base, forging the modern Afghan kingdom in the process. His son, Timur Shah, moved the Afghan capital to Kabul in 1772.
Kabul was never a secure throne. When Dost Mohammed became amir in the 1820s, he found himself squeezed not just by Afghan rivals, but by the British and Russian empires. Initially courted by both powers, the British eventually sent an army of occupation to Kabul in 1839, putting their own puppet on the throne. It was an early round of the Great Game that ended in disaster for the British – their resident hacked to pieces by a mob, and the Kabul garrison massacred as it tried to retreat from the city. The British sent an army of retribution to Kabul in 1842 and dynamited the medieval covered bazaar, but also allowed Dost Mohammed to slip back in to the country and quietly regain his throne.
Incredibly, the British failed to learn their lesson, and were back again in 1878 trying to impose their rule. There was another massacre of British residents and another punitive army sent to Kabul (this time it was the Bala Hissar to be destroyed). At the end of the war, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan was left master of his kingdom.
At the start of the 20th century Kabul was the focus of an ambitious modernising program under King Amanullah. The model quarter of Darulaman was built on the southwest of the city, with tree-lined avenues and a European-style palace. Kabul boomed for the next 40 years. The USA and Soviet Union competed to provide vast amounts of aid, which helped pay for the paving of the city and the opening of Kabul University. The capital became a cosmopolitan place, and welcomed tourists from around the world.
Things started to change following the Soviet occupation in 1979. On the surface Kabul continued to prosper. Women made up nearly 40% of all governmental jobs, and the city’s shops were well stocked. The population largely sat out the war that raged across the country, although resistance groups increasingly infiltrated Kabul’s tight defences to carry out guerrilla attacks and bombings.
If a smooth change of power was expected following the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989, events quickly proved otherwise. The victorious mujaheddin entered the capital in April 1992 and straight away fell into a murderous battle for control of the city. Kabul’s residents slid into a nightmare.
Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Tajiks nominally controlled the presidency and most of Kabul, but they were immediately attacked by the forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose preferred military tactic was the mass shelling of the city. Also jostling for power were General Dostum’s Uzbeks and the Hazara militias. At different times, all fought with or against each other, but the effects of these ever-changing allegiances held little meaning for Kabul’s suffering population.
The factional fighting devastated Kabul, which was divided into a patchwork of competing fiefdoms. The west and south of the city were flattened under continuous bombardment, and countless atrocities were committed against civilians. Around 50, 000 Kabulis lost their lives between 1992 and 1996, and a flood of refugees left the city.
The puritan Taliban might have been welcomed as a group that could return the rule of law, but they quickly disposed of this notion. Their first action on capturing Kabul in September 1996 was the public lynching of the former communist president Najibullah. The illiterate Taliban held a strong distrust of Kabul and its educated Persian-speaking population, and ruled the city with a harsh fist.
The Taliban’s Vice and Virtue Police quickly squeezed the life out of Kabul, beating women for wearing high heels under their burqas, and imprisoning men whose beards were too short. Mullah Omar only visited Kabul once, and Afghanistan’s capital effectively returned to Kandahar.
Under American bombardment, the Taliban fled Kabul in November 2001 and the Northern Alliance walked back in to power. Another army followed, this time of aid workers, contractors and returning refugees. Reconstruction continues, but it’s a slow and often very frustrating process.