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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 August 2006, 07:55 GMT 08:55 UK
Restoring Kabul's lost beauty
By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Kabul

Boy stands in ruins of old Kabul
Much of Kabul was destroyed during years of war

In the 17th century, the poet Saib-e-Tabrizi wrote about the beauty of Kabul with words still recited in the Afghan capital today.

My song exalts her dazzling tulips
And at the beauty of her trees I blush
How sparkling the water flows from Pul-i-Bastaan!
May Allah protect such beauty from the evil eye of man!

Few poets write about the city's dazzling tulips these days.

Many of its "bricks more precious than the treasure of Shayagan" lie in piles of rubble.

The Kabul River is now a feeble and filthy stream, and most of the trees have been cut down for firewood.


War, tyranny and Soviet-inspired urban planning have all left their mark on the Afghan capital.

The worst period was during the 1990s when the historic heart of the city, which Saib-e-Tabrizi wrote his love song for, became a battleground for competing factions of Mujahideen.

Kabul's old buildings took a pounding during years of war

The mud-brick walls of mansions, courtyards and mosques were no match for the bombs.

"This was the centre of the fighting," says Khalilullah, who stayed through the bad times.

"Every day, 20 to 30 rockets hit these houses. Many people were killed."

After five years of relative peace in the city, the crowds have returned to the bazaars of Old Kabul.

The city is enjoying something of a revival and what cannot be bought in the packed street markets is being crafted in the noisy workshops.

But the buildings have not recovered so easily.

Those still standing are close to collapse. Many of the original streets are buried under metres of debris and rubbish.

"We want to rebuild our houses but we can't afford to," Khalilullah says. "They are historic monuments."

Artisans needed

Two organisations are now helping restore Old Kabul.

Kabul resident Khalilullah
If you can properly restore the city, foreign tourists will come
Kabul resident Khalilullah

The Aga Khan Development Network has rebuilt a residential quarter, while the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, headed by the Prince of Wales and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has started work in Murud Khane, the oldest area on the north bank of the river.

It is now at risk from "very aggressive and unscrupulous property developers", says author and former diplomat, Rory Stewart, who runs the foundation.

The return of millions of refugees has pushed up property prices in the city, and dozens of large, square blocks, with blue or green mirrored windows, have been built with remarkable speed.

Most are far from the centre, but that could change.

"They want to put up shoddily-built, cheap, multi-storey buildings which don't retain anything of what is so wonderful about Old Kabul," Mr Stewart says.

The foundation plans to restore a series of historically-important buildings to house, among other things, a school of Afghan arts.

Any hope Kabul has of rediscovering its identity is going to depend on allowing these communities to flourish and these buildings to flourish
Rory Stewart,
Turquoise Mountain Foundation

It also wants to build new homes using traditional skills and designs.

This requires the instruction of a new generation of craftsmen and women.

"The war took away a large number of our artists and cultural traditions," says Yusuf Suratgar, who teaches the carving of intricately-designed wood doors and shutters.

"Most of our artists were either killed or disabled, or they moved to neighbouring countries."

'Lost identity'

"If you can properly restore the city, foreign tourists will come," Khalilullah believes.

Restorer in Kabul
A whole generation of craftsmen has been lost

"We don't want modern buildings here," he says. "This is the place of our fathers and grandfathers. We're happy here."

One restoration project already attracting visitors is Babur's Gardens.

Here, Kabuli families picnic in landscaped grounds built originally in the 16th century for the tomb of the founder of the Moghul empire, and now restored by the Aga Khan's organisation.

The mood in the gardens is peaceful and playful. It is possible to forget about the conflict in south-east Afghanistan, and the dire living conditions of most Afghans.

One visitor, Akhtar, thinks this is a good thing: "Kabul needs more places like this for families."

His son, Limur, disagrees: "Actually we don't need gardens, we don't need trees, first of all let's make peace."

But Rory Stewart argues that it would be a mistake to abandon Afghanistan's heritage.

"Any hope Kabul has of rediscovering its identity is going to depend on allowing these communities to flourish and these buildings to flourish. They are the last traces of an identity that was lost during the civil war."

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