Kabul: A History

Willem Vogelsang

The present book is a translated and revised edition of an earlier study by the same author, Kaboul 1773-1948: Naissance et croissance d’une capitale royale (Naples 2008) and covers in great detail the many changes that took place over the centuries, when Kabul grew from a modest township along the age-old caravan tracks between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, into the capital of Afghanistan and the bureaucratic centre of the country.

For most people, the name of Kabul evokes different images. On the one hand an exotic town that in the 17th and 18th centuries was famous for its gardens and attractive climate. After all, Kabul was the place where the Central Asian adventurer, Babur, after conquering most of northern India and thereby establishing the Mughal dynasty, desired to be buried. His burial place, the Bagh-i Babur, recently restored, is still one of the most popular places in Kabul, both with the Afghans and with the foreign visitors and workers. On the other hand, the modern city of Kabul, ever since the start of the civil war in the late 1970s, has been a place of continuous violence, artillery bombardments and suicide attacks. But it already went through dramatic changes ever since the 1940s, when buildings were pulled down and main roads were constructed through the heart of the old city.

In her book, the author, who for many years lived in Kabul, describes meticulously the history of the town and the changes that took place until the mid-1940s. In doing so, she makes use of a wide variety of sources, including Afghan, Indian, Iranian, and Western reports, poetry, photographs, and oral accounts. Her knowledge of the town, as is clear from her book, is extensive. On the basis of Indian and Iranian reports she describes the gardens laid out by the Mughal emperors in the 17th century. The gardens have almost all disappeared underneath modern developments (the exceptions being the Bagh-i Babur and the park surrounding the tomb of Timur Shah), but Schinasi combines the available sources to evoke the layout and splendour of the Mughal town, which remained under Indian Mughal control until 1739, when the town was occupied by the Iranian ruler, Nadir Shah.

Kabul in the Great Game

The town of Kabul, hitherto a modest place, became the capital of the Afghan kingdom of Afghanistan shortly after Timur Shah had acceded to the Afghan throne in 1772. In her book, Schinasi discusses the many changes that occurred after this crucial moment in Kabul’s history. Timur Shah was the son of the founder of the Kingdom, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who had established his capital at Kandahar in the south of the country and whose mausoleum is still a conspicuous monument that dominates the ancient centre of the town. Timur Shah moved his court to Kabul, and upon his death, in 1793, he was buried there in a mausoleum that has recently been restored and that was erected in what used to be a Mughal period garden. This mausoleum later, it could be added, also became the ignominious burial place of one of Timur Shah’s sons, the infamous Shah Shujah, who was installed by the British in 1839 but was murdered shortly after the disastrous (from a British point of view) ‘retreat from Kabul’, which occurred in January 1842.

Shah Shujah belonged to the Sadozay dynasty of Ahmad Shah Durrani and his son, Timur Shah. He was planted on the Kabul throne to replace rulers of another Pashtun clan, namely the Mohammadzai, who had replaced the Sadozay and gained supremacy in Kabul in the 1820s. Apart from the brief interval of 1839-1842 and a few months in 1929 when Kabul was occupied by a Tajik adventurer from north of Kabul, they would remain in power until the late 1970s. Schinasi sketches the development of Kabul throughout the reigns of the various amirs: first that of Dost Mohammed Khan from c. 1826 to 1863, then Amir Sher Ali, from 1863 to 1878 (with brief intervals), and finally the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, from 1880 to 1901.

During much of the 19th century Kabul changed little; it was the place where the British built their cantonments during the First and Second Afghan War (1839-1842 and 1878-1880 respectively). During British occupation, many of the monuments of Kabul were destroyed or severely damaged, including the fortress (Bala Hisar) and parts of the bazaar. The bazaar, discussed at length by the author of the book, was known as the Char Chatta bazaar, and was built on the orders of a Kurdish governor of the town, Ali Mardan Khan, on behalf of the Mughal rulers from India. In the mid-17th century he ordered many more works to be erected in what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Shalimar gardens in Lahore.

Kabul only changed drastically with the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (r. 1880-1901), who built a new fortress/palace (generally called the Arg) along the left, or northern banks of the Kabul river, and started the development of more residential and trade centres close to the Palace. This process would continue well into the 20th century. Schinasi’s discussion of the development of Kabul in the late–19th century is fascinating; she describes the building of the Arg, the palaces on the grounds of the Arg and the various public buildings. She also describes extensively the many smaller residences built in Kabul outside the Arg and beyond Kabul proper.

State building and town planning

It is the 20th century that forms of backbone of the book under review. Under Amir Habibullah (r. 1901-1919), Amir/King Amanullah (r. 1919-1929), Nadir Shah (r. 1929-1933) and Zahir Shah (r. 1933-1973), Kabul witnessed dramatic changes and extensions. The author records meticulously the changes that occurred , and why. She informs the reader about the growing bureaucracy, and their need for prestigious buildings and office space. But she also refers to the particular wishes of the various rulers: Habibullah who, like his father, was keen on building prestigious palaces, while his son used many of the palaces to house various ministries. Amanullah also embarked upon the design and building of a completely new part of town, some five kilometres from the centre, called Dar ul-Aman. The author tells about the foreign architects and builders that were attracted, for this new suburb, and about the French and German influence. She also tells how the planning and building of Dar ul-Aman came to an end with the fall and forced exile of Amanullah in early 1929, after which from late 1929 the pace of changes slowed down, only to accelerate again in the 1940s when large ‘modernisation’ programmes for ever changed the appearance of the town.


This book is a well-written account of a town that has gone through enormous changes and has witnessed dramatic events, not only in the 19th century when it was the arena for the struggle between British India and Tsarist Russia for the domination of the ‘Gateway to India’, but especially in later decades, such as with the first ever mass evacuation by air of the Europeans in Kabul in early 1929, and the dramatic events during and after the communist coup of April 1978, which led to the endless civil war that continues to the present day. The book is therefore a treasure trove for anyone interested, not only in the history of Kabul, but also that of Afghanistan and beyond in general. It is also a book that certainly is of great interest to anyone interested in city development and city planning. It is also one of the few books written by non-Afghan scholars that includes oral and written sources from the region itself, and furthermore, through its extensive bibliography, will help any scholar who wants to delve deeper into the subject.