Must see attractions in Kabul

  • Sights in Kabul

    Kabul Museum

    The Kabul Museum was once one of the greatest museums in the world. Its exhibits, ranging from Hellenistic gold coins to Buddhist statuary and Islamic bronzes, testified to Afghanistan’s location at the crossroads of Asia. After years of abuse during the civil war, help from the international community and the peerless dedication of its staff means the museum is slowly rising from the ashes. The museum opened in 1919, and was almost entirely stocked with items excavated in Afghanistan. As the fall of communist Kabul became apparent with the Soviet withdrawal, many of the most valuable pieces were moved into secure storage, but the majority of exhibits remained in situ. Unfortunately the museum quickly found itself on the frontline of the mujaheddin’s terrible fight for Kabul. Between 1992 and ’94 the museum was used as a mujaheddin base. During this period the museum was massively looted – not just ransacked – but with care taken to select the most valuable pieces for resale on the illicit antique market (the museum’s library and inventory was also lost at this time, to hamper efforts to trace the provenance of stolen goods). Among the priceless treasures lost include many of the Bagram Ivories, the Kunduz Hoard of Graeco-Bactrian coins and unique Gandharan statues of Buddha. During this looting, the museum was further damaged by a rocket attack that destroyed its upper floor. When the Rabbani government regained control of the area, soldiers posted to guard the site continued ad hoc looting of their own. On capturing Kabul in 1996 the Taliban vowed to protect what remained, but it was a short-lived promise. In March 2001, as the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan were being levelled, soldiers entered the museum with hammers and smashed what statues and other image-bearing exhibits they could find. The oxymoronically-titled Minister for Culture led the destruction. That a museum still stands is little short of a marvel. Less than a third of the collection survives, but there’s a surprising amount on display. In the entrance hall is a 15th-century black marble basin from Kandahar, known colloquially as the Buddha’s Begging Bowl because of the carved lotus at its base. To the left is a large Greek inscription from Ai Khanoum and to the right is the Rabatak Tablet found near Pul-e Khumri in 1993, covered with yet-to-be deciphered Bactrian script. Further on, a pair of glass cases display Graeco-Bactrian Buddha statues from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD in limestone and schist, the few to escape the Taliban’s rage. Other treasures downstairs include a lovely carved marble door from Kabul, and a reconstructed stucco section of a 12th-century mosque from Lashkar Gah. Exhibits are interspersed with photos of looted items and the half-demolished museum. The highlight of the museum is the Nuristani gallery upstairs. It is filled with huge wooden deities and ancestor figures, carved before the 1890s when the region was still pagan. Goddesses ride mountain goats, warriors sit astride horses and loving couples are carved on posts for the marital bed. As works of art they’re radically different to anything from elsewhere in Afghanistan; the flat mask-like faces seem more Central African than Central Asian. The statues were chopped up by the Taliban, but have been magnificently restored. Security is tight at the museum, with bag checks as you exit as well as on entering. While you wait, take a moment to read the plaque outside the front door: ‘a nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’. The old royal palace of Darulaman sits opposite the Kabul Museum. Built by Amanullah in the 1920s, in grand European style, the palace is now little more than an empty shell. Don’t explore the palace too closely as there are still unexploded ordnances (UXOs) in the area. Between the two look out for the rusting steam train, more evidence of Amanullah’s ill-fated experiment in modernity – only a few miles of track were ever laid.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Babur's Gardens

    Laid out by the Mughal ruler Babur in the early 16th century, and the site of his tomb, these gardens are the loveliest spot in Kabul. At 11 hectares, they are also the largest public green space in the city. Left to ruins during the war, they have been spectacularly restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). The garden was laid out in the classical charbagh (four garden) pattern, with a series of quartered rising terraces split by a central watercourse. The garden was used as a pleasure spot by repeated Mughal rulers, but fell into disrepair after the dynasty lost control of Kabul. Abdur Rahman Khan restored much of the grounds at the turn of the 20th century. Public access was allowed in the 1930s, but the gardens were despoiled and many trees cut for firewood in the anarchy that swept through Kabul during the civil war. The garden is surrounded by high walls, rebuilt by the local community. Visitors are greeted by a large traditional caravanserai which is planned to open as a visitors centre, showing many of the finds excavated in the archaeological dig that preceded the restoration. Although modern, it stands on the footprint of an older building of the same plan built as a refuge for the poor in the 1640s. From the caravanserai the eye is immediately swept up the terraces, following the line of the white marble watercourse. On either side the grounds are deeply planted with herbaceous beds and saplings. Many species chosen for replanting are specifically mentioned in the Baburnama, including walnut, cherry, quince, mulberry and apricot trees. In the centre of the garden is a pavilion built by Abdur Rahman Khan, with a series of information boards on the restoration programme. Above this there’s a delicate white marble mosque built in 1647 by Shah Jahan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal. While on a much smaller scale, the similarities in style are evident in the clean carving of the stone. Overlooking the whole of the garden from the top terrace is Babur’s tomb, inside a simple enclosure. Babur wished to be buried under the open sky so his grave is uncovered, surrounded by a simple marble screen. The headstone says it was erected for ‘the light-garden of the God-forgiven angel king whose rest is in the garden of Heaven’. Given the near-miraculous resurrection of the grounds, it’s an easy poetic sentiment to agree with.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Sultani Museum

    This private museum in the same grounds as the National Gallery is something of a curiosity. It was set up in 2004 by Ahmad Shah Sultani, a gold trader and sometime antiques dealer, who spent much of the civil war in exile in London. Here he collected a large collection of Afghan antiquities, aiming to preserve them for the country. Much of his collection is of looted or smuggled items, but those recognisably from the Kabul Museum have been returned. His collection has yet to be properly catalogued, but is thought to contain over 3000 pieces. Sultani’s ultimate plan is to donate his collection to the state. The museum is heavily locked, and on issuing your ticket the chowkidar (caretaker) goes through the laborious process of disabling the security alarms. The first room is full of Islamic-era manuscripts and some beautiful Qurans in just about every conceivable calligraphic script. The following rooms are a treasure-trove of Afghan history, with artefacts from all periods jostling for space on the crowded shelves. Wooden stamps for stuccowork in mosques sit next to a delicate and stunning gold coronet, possibly of Kushan origin. There’s a large display of coins – Graeco-Bactrian, Kushan, Sodgian and even Roman. Opposite are rare examples of Ghaznavid and Ghorid pottery, nearly 1000 years old, and Nuristani wood carvings. Poor labelling lets the exhibition down, often leaving you wondering exactly what you’re looking at, and thirsting for more information (the ‘cookie mud’ from which many finds seem to have been dug remains a mystery). It’s frustrating, but an oddly appropriate metaphor for the troubled state of Afghanistan’s heritage.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Omar Land Mine Museum

    This is a museum that only a country like Afghanistan could host. Run by the Organisation for Mine clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation (OMAR), it acts as a training and education centre for land mine and UXO clearance. The exhibit holds more than 60 types of mine that still litter the countryside, from small anti-personnel mines to those the size of dinner plates aimed at vehicles. There are mines made by almost any country you care to think of, except Afghanistan itself. The most sobering by far are the Russian ‘butterfly’ mines often picked up by children mistaking them for plastic toys. Where most mines are deliberately camouflaged, these come in a range of bright, kid-friendly colours. OMAR is the country’s leading demining organisation, with over 500 Afghans working in mine-clearance. Education is an important second facet to their work. Murals and posters depicting types of mine and UXO can be found everywhere in Afghanistan – visual education aids being particularly important in a country with low literacy levels. OMAR is also working in partnership with the UK charity No Strings (www.nostrings.org.uk), which uses puppet theatre to teach land mine safety information to children. Mines kill and injure more children than adults, and the use of story to illustrate what happens when a mine is picked up or disturbed is a highly effective educational tool. In addition to the theatre, a mobile cinema has been set up showing a No Strings film called Chuche the Little Carpet Boy, a modern Afghan version of the Pinocchio story, where a grandmother who has lost her family to land mines makes herself a new child out of carpet rags.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Mausoleum of Nadir Shah

    King Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1933, the time-honoured way that most Afghan leaders meet their fate. His monumental tomb sits overlooking east Kabul at Teppe Maranjan. It has suffered considerably in war.

  • Sights in Kabul

    European Cemetery

    This cemetery was built in 1879 by the British army for the dead of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The cemetery contains around 150 graves. Most are from members of Kabul’s international community from before the war. Only a few of the original British Army headstones remain, now mounted in the south wall. They have been joined by newer memorial stones added by the British, Canadian, German and Italian ISAF contingents. The cemetery’s most famous resident is Aurel Stein, the acclaimed Silk Road archaeologist of the early 20th century. Stein spent much of his career obsessed by Alexander’s campaigns in the east, but his British citizenship meant that the Afghan authorities always refused him permission to dig in the country. In 1943 he got the go-ahead at the age of 82, only to catch the flu and die a few days after arriving in Kabul. His grave is marked with a large cross and frequently a wreath. More recently, the cemetery saw the burial of the French aid worker Bettina Goislard, murdered in Ghazni in 2003. The cemetery has been maintained since the 1980s by Rahimullah, supported by a small stipend from the British Embassy. His story of meeting a disapproving Mullah Omar (the Taliban had a guesthouse next door) is worth the hearing, and always popular with journalists.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Ka Faroshi Bird Market

    Entering Kabul’s bird market is like stepping back in time a hundred years, to a corner of the city untouched by war or modernisation. Also known as the Alley of Straw Sellers, it’s a narrow lane tucked away behind the Pul-e Khishti Mosque, lined with stalls and booths selling birds by the dozen, plus the occasional rabbit. King of all the birds on sale is the kowk (fighting partridge). These are prized by their owners who lavish great care on them, and keep them in domed wicker cages that are almost works of art in themselves. Kowk are fought on Friday mornings in quick bouts of strength (the birds are too valuable to allow them to be seriously harmed), with spectators gambling on the result. Their highly territorial nature also lets them act as decoys for hunters, attracting potential rivals who end up in the pot. Similar to the kowk is the budana, a small lark-like bird. These are also fought, especially among Kandaharis. Unbelievably, their small size means that their owner frequently keeps them tucked in his trousers, bringing them out for contest and display. More benign are the myriad canaries and finches, kept simply for their song. At the far end of the bazaar are the kaftar (doves), a common sight in Kabul’s late afternoon skies.

  • Sights in Kabul

    National Archive

    Holding over 15,000 documents, the National Archive is housed in a palace built at the end of the 19th century by Abdur Rahman Khan for his son. Important documents are on display (although some are copies, with the originals too valuable to show) including the treaty with the British Empire in 1919 that finally gave Afghanistan full independence. Accompanying this is a host of newspapers, period photos and old banknotes, although most labelling is in Dari. Older documents are present too, including a 14th-century letter written by Timur, and several Qurans dating from the Durrani period. Although scholars will get the most out of a visit, the archive is still worth visiting for the building, with it’s attractive painted ceiling and carved woodwork. It’s a slightly incongruous sight among the metal workshops that line this section of Salang Wat.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque

    Called the 'Mosque of the King of Two Swords', the Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque on Kabul river must be one of the most unusual in Islam. Built in the 1920s during Amanullah's drive for modernisation, it looks like it would be more at home in Versailles or Vienna. The facades are all Italianate baroque with stucco detailing, picked out in white against a lurid lemon yellow paint-job. That it has two storeys is even more peculiar, and only the tiny minarets disclose the building's true purpose.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Bibi Mahru Hill

    Also called Teppe Bemaru, the low Bibi Mahru Hill overlooks Wazir Akbar Khan. It's popular with some expats living in the district for walking, and has reasonable views. At the top there's an Olympic-size swimming pool built by the Russians that's barely been full since it was built due to the difficulties of pumping water uphill. During the war the diving board was notorious as an execution spot.

  • Sights in Kabul

    National Gallery

    The National Gallery contains a mix of historic pictures and paintings by modern Afghan artists. Like Kabul’s other cultural institutions, it didn’t escape the Taliban’s zealous attentions, as the cabinet displaying ripped up watercolour portraits attests. Amazingly, however, the gallery’s staff fought back as only artists could. Knowing the Taliban’s juncture against images of living things, many of the exhibits were over-painted with watercolours, hiding a horse behind a tree, or turning a person into a mountain view. Over 120 paintings were saved from destruction in this way when the zealots came with their knives.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Mausoleum of Timur Shah

    Timur Shah was the first to make Kabul the capital of a unified kingdom. He died in 1793, but it was another 23 years before his mausoleum was built, possibly due to the chaos after his death, caused by his leaving over 20 sons and no nominated successor. The building is a copy of the Indian Mughal style, an octagonal brick structure surmounted by a plain brick drum and shallow dome. The mausoleum stands in one of the oldest surviving parts of Kabul, with its traditional street plan, houses and winding lanes. This area has been at the centre of a restoration project by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Mausoleum of Abdur Rahman Khan

    The tomb of the 'Iron Amir' sits in Zarnegar Park. Originally a palace, the building has a bulbous red dome atop a whitewashed drum, and fussy decorative minarets. The park is surrounded by market traders but can be a good place to escape from the nearby bustle and traffic. The mausoleum itself is closed to visitors. On the opposite side of the park a huge new mosque was under construction when we visited, named for its private benefactor - confusingly called Haji Abdul Rahman (no relation to the amir).

  • Sights in Kabul

    Royal Palace Of Darulaman

    The old Royal Palace Of Darulaman sits opposite the Kabul Museum. Built by Amanullah in the 1920s, in grand European style, the palace is now little more than an empty shell. Don't explore the palace too closely as there are still unexploded ordnances (UXOs) in the area. Between the two look out for the rusting steam train, more evidence of Amanullah's ill-fated experiment in modernity - only a few miles of track were ever laid.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Ghazi Stadium

    Kabul’s main stadium hosts football matches most Friday afternoons. In the winter months and at Nauroz there are occasional buzkashi matches.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Bala Hissar & City Walls

    The old seat of royal power, a fortress has stood on the site of the Bala Hissar since the 5th century AD, and quite possibly before. It sits at the foot of the Koh-e Shir Darwaza mountains, guarding the southwestern approaches to Kabul.

  • Sights in Kabul

    Kabul Zoo

    The zoo is a popular place for Kabulis in need of recreation. Western animal lovers might find it more than a little depressing. Visitors are greeted by a bronze statue of Marjan the lion, the zoo’s most celebrated animal. A present from West Germany in the 1960s, Marjan survived life on the frontline and a Taliban grenade attack, only to expire soon after Kabul’s 2001 liberation. He has since been replaced by a pair of lions presented by China. A couple of sloth bears can be seen in a pit, pacing like asylum inmates. Some wolves do the same nearby, next to a cage of grumpy-looking black vultures. Only the colony of macaques look happy with their surroundings, with the young diving pell-mell into their moat (this could be an illusion though – one effected an escape during our visit, and was rounded up by visitors using the time-honoured method of throwing chairs at it). The zoo sits on the Deh Mazang roundabout, in front of the newly rebuilt Traffic Police headquarters (until recently one of the most spectacularly smashed buildings in Kabul). The Minar-e Abdul Wakil Khan stands in the centre of the roundabout, erected for a Nuristani general who fought against Bacha Saqao’s rebellion in 1929.