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Monday, 12 November, 2001, 16:36 GMT
Kabul: City of lost glories
Kabul resident next to the ruins of his home
The air raids have destroyed some Kabul homes
By the BBC's Malcolm Haslett

There are several stories about how Kabul got its name. The most poetic is that it was formed by the Persian word "ab" (water) in the middle of the word '"gul" (flower).

It is now an Islamic city but in its long history, it has seen several religions come and go. It was a centre of Zoroastrianism, and then Buddhism. Its fame spread through Persia and Central Asia, India, China and Ancient Greece.

Kabul was much praised for its beauty by Persian and Turkish poets alike

The ancient Indian songs of the Rigveda praise it as an ideal city, a vision of paradise set in the mountains.

It grew up round the ancient fortress of Bala-Hissar, which is set on a hill overlooking the city. It was a crossroads, with routes leading east to India, west to Kandahar and Iran, and north to Samarkand and the cities of Central Asia.

Kabul was much praised for its beauty by Persian and Turkish poets alike, and in the 16th century became the favourite city of the first Moghul Emperor, Babur. He laid out a series of new palaces, mosques and gardens in the city, and was himself buried in the middle of his favourite garden.

'Best and cleanest in Asia'

The first European to visit Kabul was the 18th century English traveller George Foster, who described it as "the best and cleanest city in Asia". Foster confirmed for himself what the Emperor Babur had described in his memoirs, that Kabul was a melting pot for many peoples and languages.

Kabul signpost
Kabul used to be revered for its beauty
Here Pashtun mixed with Persian, Turk with Indian. Babur noted that 13 different languages were spoken in the city. And it retained this cosmopolitan atmosphere right up to modern times.

The Pashtun Durrani dynasty, which founded the state of Afghanistan, made Kabul its capital in 1776, rather than its own Pashtun stronghold of Kandahar. The city was captured briefly by the British in the 19th century, but their forces were soon driven out.

Kabul's golden age

In the 19th and 20th centuries, and especially under the last king Sahir Shah, many modern buildings were added to the city. Shops, offices and schools were constructed, and the population expanded rapidly to well over a million.

Kabul retained its older quarters where traditional dress predominated, but there were also modern streets and squares, with cinemas, restaurants and other amenities.

Kabul street scene in the 1990s
Kabul is very different now from in its 'golden age'
People who lived there under King Zahir Shah describe the period before civil war broke out in the 1970s as a sort of golden age. The different ethnic groups - Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and others - lived together harmoniously and thought of themselves first and foremost as Afghans. They intermarried and mixed socially.

That began to decline, however, after the pro-Soviet coup in 1978. Both sides in the first civil war - communists and Islamic mujahideen - were split by factionalism.

The mujahideen, what's more, were divided into groups with a regional and often ethnic base. Their constant quarrels, the extensive damage done in successive waves of fighting, and the severity of Taleban rule have transformed the face of Kabul.

In recent years it has become a tense and suspicious place. And this tension is all the higher since the start of the air raids.

See also:

11 Nov 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Caution urged over Kabul
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Inside Afghanistan
05 Nov 01 | South Asia
Under attack: Life in Kabul
09 Nov 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Afghanistan's recurring nightmare
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