Kabul City

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Kabul City, 1908

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Note: National, provincial and district boundaries have changed considerably since 1908. Typically, old states, ‘divisions’ and districts have been broken into smaller units, and many tahsils upgraded to districts. Some units have since been renamed. Therefore, this article is being posted mainly for its historical value. Capital of Afghanistan, situated in 34 degree 30' N. and 69 degree 13' E., on the right bank of the Kabul river, a short distance above its junction with the Logar, 181 miles from Peshawar; 5,780 feet above the sea. North of the city, on the left bank of the river, stand the suburbs of Deh-i-Murad Khani, Andarabai, and Deh-i- Afghan ; and beyond those is the military cantonment of Sherpur, backed by the Bemaru hill. To the south-east are the Sher Darwaza heights, to the south the Bala Hissar, and to the east the Siah Sang ridge. On the west the Kabul river flows through the gorge formed by the Asmai and Sher Darwaza hills. The number of inhabitants is probably nearly 150,000, of whom 100,000 are Kabulis, 3,000 Durranis, 12,000 Tajiks, 6,500 Kizilbashis, and 4,000 Hindus. The city is 3J miles in circumference and is no longer walled, although traces of a wall remain.

Kabul, though by far the richest city in the Amir's dominions, con- tains no external or internal evidences of grandeur. The older houses are built of burnt bricks ; the more modern ones of sun-dried bricks and mud. Originally there were seven great gates ; now only one remains, the Darwaza-i-Lahauri, on the eastern face. The. city is divided into quarters (muhallos) and streets (kuchds). The principal streets are the Shor Bazar and the Char Chatta : they are badly paved, undrained, and exceedingly dirty. The Shor Bazar extends from the Bala Hissar to the Ziarat-i-Baba Khudi, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile. The Char Chatta consists of four covered arcades at the western end of the street leading from the Darwaza-i-Lahauri. It was destroyed by Pollock in 1842, but restored by Amir Dost Muhammad in 1850. Here are shops tenanted by silk-mercers, jewellers, furriers, cap- and shoemakers, fruiterers, and money-changers, all doing a thriving busi- ness. The Kizilbashis live in the separate walled quarter of Chandaul, by the mouth of the Deh Mozang gorge. A row of fine new shops, called Barzi-i-Nao, has recently been built on the north side of the river, near the Darwaza-i-Ark.

The climate of Kabul is, on the whole, healthy. The great lake of Wazlrabad beyond the Sherpur cantonment has been drained and is now dry ; but the marshes between the Bala Hissar and Beni Hissar give rise to malaria and fevers. The city itself, wedged in between two hills, with its confined streets, want of drainage, and absence of all sanitary arrangements, would seem to labour under strong disadvan- tages. Nevertheless, there are compensations in an excellent water- supply, a fine atmosphere, and delightful environs ; and the death-rate is probably lower than in most Afghan towns. Provisions are abundant and cheap. In ordinary years, barley sells at 22 ½ seers per British rupee (about 34 lb. for a shilling), wheat at 18 seers, and flour at 16 seers.

Kabul is believed to be the Ortospanum or Ortospana of Alexander's march. It was attacked by the Arabs as early as the thirty-fifth year of the Hijra, but it was long before the Muhammadans effected any lasting settlement Kabul first became a capital when Babar made himself master of it in 1504, and here he reigned for twenty years before his invasion of Hindustan. It passed on the death of Babar to his younger son, Kamran, who, after several attacks on his brother Humayun, was defeated and blinded by him (1553). HumayOn left it to his infant son, Mirza Hakim, on whose death, in 1585, it passed to the hitter's elder brother, Akbar. From this time up to its capture by Nadir Shah (1738), it was held by the Mughal emperors of India. From Nadir Shah it passed to Ahmad Shah Durrani, whose son, Tim Or, made it the capital of his kingdom. It continued to be the capital during the Sadozai dynasty, and is so still under the now reigning Barakzais.

The city played an important part in the first Afghan War. In August, 1839, Shah Shuja entered Kabul as king, escorted by a British army. Throughout that year and the next, the British troops remained without molestation, but in November, 1841, the citizens and Afghan soldiery broke out in rebellion and murdered Sir Alexander Burnes-

In December Sir William Macnaghten, our special Envoy, was treacher- ously shot by Akbar Khan, a son of Dost Muhammad, at an interview which had been convened to arrange for the withdrawal of the garrison. On January 6, 1842, the British forces marched out under a solemn guarantee of protection — 4,500 fighting men, with 12,000 followers. Their fate is well-known: of all that number, only a single man, Dr. Brydon, reached Jalalabad, and ninety-two prisoners were sub- sequently recovered. Shah Shuja was assassinated in April, four months after the withdrawal of the British troops. In September, 1842, General Pollock, with the army of retribution, arrived at Kabul, and took possession of the citadel without opposition. Previous to his departure a month later, the great bazar was destroyed by gunpowder, as a retribution for the murder of Sir William Macnaghten.

Kabul was again occupied by British troops in 1879, when an avenging force under General (now Lord) Roberts was sent to exact punishment for the massacre of the British Resident, Sir Louis Cava- gnari, and his party, which took place in September of that year. The city remained in British occupation for nearly a year. During the winter the tribesmen rose in large numbers, and, after heavy fighting for several days, the British troops were compelled to concentrate in the Sherpur cantonment, which remained closely invested by at least 50,000 men. A determined attack was beaten off on December 23, 1879 ; and, on the following day, an additional brigade having arrived and joined General Roberts, the city again passed into his hands, the tribesmen melting away as suddenly as they had appeared. In August, 1880, the British forces evacuated Kabul and returned to India, on the recognition of Abdur Rahman Khan as Amir.

Kabul does not possess many edifices of antiquarian interest The four principal mosques at the present time are the Masjid-i-Safed, built by Timur Shah Sadozai; the Masjid-i-Bala Chaok, by Babar; the Masjid-i-Pul-i-Khishti, by Shah Shuja ; and the large Jama Masjid, by the late Amir. Outside the city are the tombs of Babar and Timur Shah. The surroundings of Babar's tomb have been converted into a garden, beautifully laid out and encircled by a mud wall 30 feet high. It contains a prettily built summer-house. At Indaki, three miles away, overlooking the Chahardeh valley, is another charming summer residence and garden ; and on the slopes of a hill between Shah Mardan and Wazlrabad is yet another, known as the Bagh-i-Bala. All these country residences and several others were built in the reign of the late Amir, and are not the least among the many improvements which he effected.

The old residence of the Amirs used to be in the Bala Hissar, but Abdur Rahman Khan constructed a new fortified palace for him- self, described below. The lower Bala Hissar has been completely dismantled ; the old Residency, the scene of the deplorable outbreak where the gallant Cavagnari, all his British officers, and most of his escort met their death in September, 1879, has almost entirely dis- appeared; and in 1893 the only building inside was Sher All Khan's palace, a mere shell, on the eastern wall. In the upper Bala HissSr, just beyond the Residency site, and under the wall of the citadel, an arsenal and extensive storehouses for grain have been constructed.

The new fortified palace (or Ark as it is locally called) is situated in extensive grounds, not less than three-quarters of a mile by half a mile, between Alamganj and Sherpur. It occupied five years in building, and cost about 20 lakhs of rupees. A considerable portion of the grounds is laid out in fruit and flower gardens. There are two gate- ways, one facing Alamganj and the other looking east towards Siah Sang. The fortified Ark is surrounded by a moat It is a massive structure about 350 yards square ; the width of the ditch is not less than 60 feet at the top.

The works of improvement carried out at Kabul by Abdur Rahman Khan were by no means limited to the construction of palaces and summer gardens for his personal gratification. He showed a remark- able interest in the development of numerous branches of industry ; and the extensive workshops established by him, under European supervision, are a lasting monument to his name. When one remem- bers that on Abdur Rahman's accession, and indeed for nearly ten years later, steam power was unknown throughout Afghanistan, what was accomplished during the second decade of his reign is indeed surprising. On the left bank of the Kabul river, and right in the Deh Mozang gorge, there are now workshops whose out-turn, all circum- stances considered, comes up to European standards. The raison dltre of these shops is the manufacture of war material, but other handicrafts are also practised. One large shop, for instance, is entirely- occupied by men engaged in leather work — boots, saddles, and equip- ment for the army ; another is occupied by steam saw-mills and car- penters ; a soap factory turns out 1 2 tons of soap in a week ; candles are manufactured ; a mint worked by steam coins 40,000 Kabuli rupees a day ; and constant labour is found for skilled workers in silver and brass. In 1893 five steam engines were used in the shops ; others are believed to have been imported since. The initiation of this great undertaking was due to the late Amir, with Sir Salter Pyne as his principal lieutenant. At one time, in 1892, no less than fourteen Europeans were at Kabul in the Amir's employ, among them a doctor, a geologist, a mining engineer, a gardener, a veterinary surgeon, a tailor, a lapidary, a tanner, and a currier. In 1904 there were only two Europeans at Kabul— a gunsmith and an electrical engineer. About 1,500 men are employed in the shops, the majority being Kabulis who have learnt their work from English mechanical engineers and Punjabi artisans, and are now thoroughly efficient.

There is no occasion to describe in detail the fortifications of Kabul. Those left by the British forces on their withdrawal in August, 1880, are kept in repair ; and the cantonment of Sherpur, which afforded accommodation for most of the British force, is now occupied by the Afghan garrison. There are five bridges across the river at Kabul, one of which (now broken) was built by the emperor Babar, and another by Shah Jahan.

Besides the large trade in local products necessary to meet the requirements of the city population, Kabul is credited in the trade statistics for 1903-4 with imports from India to the value of 50 lakhs of rupees, and with exports aggregating nearly 29 lakhs : that is to say, with more than half the entire trade between Afghanistan and British India. The principal imports are British and Indian cotton twist and yarn, piece-goods, manufactured leather, hardware, indigo, sugar, tea, and spices. The principal exports are fresh and dried fruits, asafoetida and other drugs, and furs.

Kabul has attained an enviable reputation for its practically unlimited supply of fruit. Throughout the Kabul valley orchards extend for miles, and hardly a country house is without its large walled garden. The grape here grows to great perfection, the vines never having suffered from the phylloxera of Southern Europe. All the known European fruits, such as the apple, pear, quince, plum, apricot, peach, cherry, mulberry, are found in abundance; and a variety of melon, known as the sarda, which is said to grow only in the Kabul district, is exported to every part of India.

Macroyan Kohna district

As in 2020

By David Zucchino, Photographs by Kiana Hayeri, Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting., In Kabul’s Heart, Soviet Towers Harbor Decades of Tales, April 9, 2020: The New York Times

The Macroyan Kohna apartment district, built by the Soviets a half-century ago, still flourishes despite many eras of trauma.

KABUL, Afghanistan — The scars from four decades of war are etched into the boxy apartment towers known as Macroyan Kohna, a dreary neighborhood built by the Soviets in central Kabul a half-century ago as a testament to modernity. Like other parts of the Afghan capital, Macroyan Kohna has been pummeled by rockets, mortar shells and car bombs since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began just over 40 years ago. But the leafy neighborhood of shrapnel-pocked apartments has been rebuilt and expanded several times over.

Macroyan, a corruption of the Russian word for “micro-complex,” offers a micro-history of Afghanistan’s four decades of war. Built for pro-Soviet Afghan elites, Macroyan Kohna today is a worn but vibrant neighborhood of middle- and upper-class Afghans who have reinvented it as a shabby chic refuge.

Yet among the original 1960s gray “Khrushchevka” buildings, emblems of violence are everywhere, some decades old and some as fresh as the latest car bomb.

There is the modest grave of an Afghan girl named Nahid, who residents say leapt to her death from an apartment window to escape a rape attempt by mujahedeen gunmen in 1993. Her grave is an informal shrine, decorated with tattered flags and banners and marked by a faded gray headstone.

Other makeshift graves around the complex were hastily dug in the early 1990s, when Macroyan Kohna was on the front lines of a brutal civil war between mujahedeen factions. Transporting the dead to a cemetery was perilous, so rocket attack victims were buried in gardens late at night.

The graves remain, some studded with small tombstones and others left unmarked. They are part of the district’s landscape, like the rose gardens and the drooping laundry lines strung between buildings and trees, or the plaintive cries of vendors hawking yogurt and grilled ears of corn.

There are also fresh shrapnel holes and shattered windows from a car bombing on Sept. 5, cited by President Trump as the reason he called off Afghan peace talks. An American soldier was among those killed nearby.

“We’ve been scarred by war for all these years, with barely time to breathe,” said Faroq Abdullah, an engineer who first moved into Macroyan Kohna in 1975, and whose apartment windows were blown out by the Sept. 5 bombing.

Mr. Abdullah, who is in his 70s, was granted his apartment by the Soviets, who had a strong presence in Afghanistan for many years before their 1979 military invasion. He had helped them install a central heating system — a rarity in Afghanistan — in 1968 in the first phase of Macroyan Kohna, or Old Macroyan.

Like many longtime residents, Mr. Abdullah has lost and regained his apartment more than once. He said the Afghan government confiscated the flat just before the Soviet invasion, when Mr. Abdullah was imprisoned for a year for “anti-revolutionary activities.”

The apartment was returned to him in 1981, he said. But it was looted by mujahedeen fighters in the early 1990s, when he and his family lived in the building’s basement to escape rocket attacks.

Many apartments were also seized or looted during the Taliban regime, from 1996 to 2001, he said. Some became offices of the feared Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which doled out public beatings for women who lacked veils, among other punishments.

Mr. Abdullah said he lived in dread that the Taliban would discover that he had worked for the Soviets — a crime punishable by jail or execution.

Today, Mr. Abdullah’s apartment is nearly bereft of furniture. He said he sold most of it to pay to replace windows shattered by the September car bomb. Macroyan Kohna was jolted again on Nov. 24, when a bomb nearby killed an American worker for the United Nations.

For a brief period in the 1980s, Soviet technicians and advisers lived in 25 or 30 apartments in Macroyan Kohna, said Viacheslav Nekrasov, who directs the Russian cultural center in Kabul.

Mr. Nekrasov, 65, who briefly lived in a flat there in 1982, said the first apartments were considered ultramodern and luxurious — “a special presentation project” to promote Soviet expertise.

“A lot of rockets have hit Macroyan Kohna, but as you can see it is still standing strong,” Mr. Nekrasov said. “These are very solid homes.”

Since 1984, a fourth-floor apartment in Block 8 has been occupied off and on by Rena Baum, a Russian who married an Afghan student she met at a university in St. Petersburg in 1974. Ms. Baum, a silver-haired woman with striking blue eyes, waged a successful six-year court battle to reclaim the flat after it was occupied by squatters while she visited Russia.

She moved back into the flat in 2014 — the only Russian in Macroyan Kohna, she said. She works for the government-run Radio Afghanistan, translating news on the Russian-language service. She speaks fluent Dari, a version of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. Ms. Baum’s apartment block is hulking and charmless, and sometimes the electricity and water service fail. The flats are so small and dark that some Afghans call them “pigeon coops.”

Ms. Baum said she missed the Macroyan Kohna of the old days, when it was home solely to government ministers and professors. “Now there are a lot of uneducated people — they’re friendly, but I don’t really get to know them,” she said.

Wesal, 72, a retired army officer who goes by one name, has seen the complex expand through five phases since his father bought a flat in 1968. The latest iteration is Fifth Macroyan, a cluster of 18-story apartment towers now under construction, featuring balconies and large windows on a flat lot populated by clucking chickens.

Mr. Wesal said he reclaimed his father’s 1968 apartment after it was seized by mujahedeen fighters in the early 1990s. “Any memories I have of those days are dark and sad,” he said.

He said he was old enough to remember a time when Afghanistan was at peace. “I’ve seen war and I’ve seen peace,” he said. “I prefer peace.”

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