On a bright winter morning lines of plane trees and immaculately tended rose bushes fall away down terraces where men crash out on carpets and sheepish young couples sit as close together as they dare. The plants are fed by a central water channel, the signature feature of a Mughal garden. Below is the brown smog of Kabul; beyond, snowy mountains.
The tomb of Babur, the first Mughal emperor, blasted and pock-marked during the civil war of the 1990s, has been lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Some visitors come because it is now Kabul's most tranquil public space; some because Babur is emerging as an unlikely national hero in a country short of leaders worth admiring. People pray at the foot of his low, simple grave. One enthusiast sacrifices a buffalo to him every year and distributes the meat to the gardeners who tend the place.
Born far to the north of modern Afghanistan, Babur went to Kabul only because he had failed in Central Asia. It was Samarkand he dreamt of capturing. Yet when the demands of building an empire drove him south, he yearned to return to Kabul.
For a man who achieved so much, he is strangely unknown outside Afghanistan. Not only did he create a dynasty whose empire stretched from Afghanistan to southern India and which gave the world some of its greatest cultural riches, he also wrote an autobiography which, though half a millennium old, is a far better read than most of the political and business memoirs churned out today.
The Baburnama recounts the barbarity and hardship of a princeling's life in a chaotic world; but it is also full of delight and humanity. Sometimes self-aggrandising, sometimes self-critical, Babur emerges from his autobiography as a real person in a way no other great leader except Churchill does.
And because the author is so open and the style so clear, the book offers an intimate view of a world the reader would otherwise struggle to imagine.
"Rarely can such a sophisticated mind," says Bamber Gascoigne in The Great Moghuls, "have recorded so wild an existence which combined to an extraordinary degree the romantic and the sordid." It was first translated into English in 1922 by Annette Beveridge, mother of William Beveridge, architect of Britain's welfare state. The Garden of the Eight Paradises, a recent biography of Babur by Stephen Dale, has done it more than justice, yet it still lacks the fame it deserves.
Babur's pedigree primed him for greatness. On his father's side he was descended from Timur-i-Lang (Tamurlain), whose empire stretched from the Caucasus to Delhi, and on his mother's side from Genghis Khan, who conquered Asia from the Black Sea to Beijing. But by the time Babur was born in 1483 the empires had crumbled and the emperors' descendants had multiplied into a horde of princelings fighting for loot and territory. The problem was not unique to Central Asia.
As E.M. Forster put it: "At the time that Machiavelli was collecting materials for The Prince, a robber boy, sorely in need of advice, was scuttling over the highlands of Central Asia. His problem had already engaged the attention and sympathy of the Florentine; there were too many kings about and not enough kingdoms."
They got going early in those days. Babur's father died when he was 11, while tending pigeons in an ill-constructed dovecote that toppled into the ravine below the palace, leaving his son in charge of a small province, Fergana. At 13, Babur headed off to capture Samarkand — the former imperial capital, a jewel built by craftsmen Timur had kidnapped from raids into India, Persia and Arabia.
When he got there, he found a couple of young cousins already besieging the place (though one was more interested in the daughter of a local noble than in the city). The lover got the girl but Babur did not get Samarkand.
He tried again the next year, succeeded briefly and was ejected three months later. In the meantime, a Mongol enemy put his 12-year-old brother on the throne in Fergana. So Babur was homeless; most of his followers had left him; treacherous relations had murdered his tutor. "It was very hard for me. I could not help crying a good deal." He was, after all, only 14.
Babur struggled on in Central Asia for a while but was crushed between Uzbeks, Mongols and Timurid princes. His lowest moment came when he was chased into the hills and caught by enemies, who were careful with their valuable prize. "It was winter. It was very cold. They found an old sheepskin coat; I put it on. They found a cup of millet soup; I drank it. I was greatly comforted." How he got out of that particular pickle is unclear; but soon he decided to try his luck elsewhere. He considered going east to the lands of his Mongol relations but regarded them as savages (and would have been horrified to learn that the Persian word for Mongol stuck to his dynasty). Hearing that Kabul was vulnerable, he set off southwards.
Though homeless, he was not alone. In this nomadic society, which had only recently acquired the habit of settlement, princes moved around with soldiers, retainers and relations.
But Babur's entourage was not grand. He had 200 to 300 people with him, "mostly on foot, holding staves, wearing rough boots and poor cloaks", and two tents, one of which his mother occupied.
Then, in an astonishing reversal of fortune inconceivable in the modern world but commonplace in those uncertain times, Babur gained an army. It happened because of the collapse of a noble who, amid tough competition, was an outstandingly nasty man. Khusrau Shah, formerly a retainer of one of Babur's relations, had taken Kunduz, murdered one of Babur's cousins (Baysunghur Mirza, a famous poet) and blinded another (the lover from Samarkand, his ward).
He was unpopular even among his own people, many thousands of whom, faced with sustained attacks from Uzbeks, defected from him to an ambitious princeling with a decent reputation and a lineage that gave him a claim to Kabul. Khusrau Shah was beheaded by the Uzbeks; Babur, with his new following in tow, virtually walked into Kabul.
Rise to power
He was not impressed by his new dominion. It was, he said, a "trifling place"; but with Uzbeks and Timurids threatening all around, it had its advantages. Surrounded by mountains that were impassable for most of the year, it was "a fastness hard for a foreign foe to make his way into".
To cement his power, Babur needed to see off rivals. He attacked Kandahar, where Kabul's previous occupants hailed from, and beat them soundly.
He was distinctly pleased with his generalship: "I prepared an excellent order of battle. Never before had I arranged things so well." He also needed to give his subjects security — especially from his own troops. When one of the defectors from Khusrau Shah — an undisciplined lot — stole some cooking oil from a local, he had the man beaten to death.
"His example kept the rest down." But early on, he made a serious mistake. To feed and reward his huge retinue, he took 30,000 donkey-loads of grain from Kabul and Ghazni. He soon regretted it. "The tax was excessive and under it, the country suffered very badly."
That a new ruler bled the land he had conquered was not surprising; that he had the honesty to admit it, and the wit to learn from it, is.
Though Kabul was not rich in grain, it was a cosmopolitan city — Babur reckoned that 11 or 12 languages were spoken — on the trade route between Central Asia and India. "Up from Hindustan come ten, fifteen, twenty thousand caravans bringing slaves, cotton cloth, refined and unrefined sugar and aromatic roots. Many merchants are not satisfied with 300 per cent or 400 per cent profit."
Dale reckons that merchants provided most of the revenues for Babur's remarkably sophisticated taxation system. They were taxed at 5 per cent on gold coins and 2.5 per cent on silver.
There was also a tariff on foreign trade (of 5 per cent or 10 per cent, depending on whether the merchants were Muslim) an income tax on harvests (a third to a half) and a progressive wealth tax on flocks (one sheep from a herd of 40 to 120, and two from herds of 120 and up).
But Babur's orderly state-building could not solve a problem that has troubled Afghanistan's rulers through the ages: the tribes. They not only failed to pay their taxes but also, by holding up caravans, threatened the prosperity of the merchants who did. And the mountains that protected Babur from foreign invaders also protected the tribes from Babur.
He had no sympathy for them. Although he had spent much of his youth wandering around Central Asia with a tent, he was at heart a city boy.
He prized the civilised pursuits — literature, science and music — that flourished in an urban environment and regarded tribesmen as "stupid peasants".
Babur's approach to the problem was not constrained by modern notions of human rights. Shortly after his arrival in Kabul, he attacked Kohat and killed hundreds of tribesmen. Some of the survivors put grass into their mouths — a way, locals explained to him, of saying "I am your cow".
But he had them killed anyway and a tower built of the victims' heads. Many similar raids followed and similar towers built to encourage submission to the authority of Babur.
But it was not all fiscal policy and decapitation. Babur enjoyed himself too. He loved nature and describes the local flora and fauna in exquisite detail. "The flying squirrel is found in these mountains, an animal larger than a bat, with a curtain, like a bat's wing, between its arms and legs … Tulips of many colours cover these foothills: I myself counted 32 or 33 different sorts."
He developed a lifelong passion for gardening. He bought some land at Istalif, north of Kabul. He loved the place: "Few villages match Istalif, with vineyards and orchards on either side of its torrent, its waters cold and pure."
But the zigzagging stream offended his sense of order: "I had it made straight and regular, so the place was very beautiful." His grandson Akbar had this scene illustrated for an edition of the Baburnama.
Istalif is still beautiful; deodar trees still grow in the garden. But these days it overlooks Bagram airbase, where 40,000 American servicemen live on imported burgers and where locals have been beaten to death. In the management of recalcitrant tribesmen, brutality has not entirely gone out of fashion.
A longing for poetry
Unlike the despised Mongols, the Timurids were cultured. Babur longed to be a great poet, writing admiringly of the fame of his unfortunate cousin Baysunghur Mirza. His diary is scattered with poems, his own and others'. His poems are not, unfortunately, much good but his advice on prose style is. In a letter to his son Humayun, he complains about the obscurity of the young man's vocabulary: "In future write without elaboration; use plain, clear words. It will be less trouble for you and for the reader."
Poetry went with another taste Babur developed in Kabul: for wine. As a young man, he did not drink. When on a visit to Herat his cosmopolitan cousins encouraged him to: "Up to then, I had not committed the sin of wine-drinking or known the cheering sensation of comfortable drunkenness." He would have tried it but his prime minister, who was travelling with him, told the cousins to lay off.
Babur's life became a long series of parties interspersed with brief interludes of warfare and administration. In October 1519, for instance, Babur rode out to Istalif with friends: "Its lawns were one sheet of trefoil; its pomegranate trees yellowed to autumn splendour, their fruit full red."
They drank, off and on, for several days. At one point one man said some "disturbing" things, fell down drunk and was carried away. Another could not mount his horse.
At that moment some Afghans approached. Somebody suggested that, rather than leave the drunk to the tribesmen, they should chop his head off and take that home. That was, Babur points out, a (rather 16th-century) joke; eventually they got the man back in the saddle and headed home.
At one party Babur saw a very surprising sight: a woman drinking. She made a pass at him: "I got rid of her by pretending to be drunk." Babur was not much interested in women. He explains he had married early and neglected the girl.
But poetry and parties were not enough. Babur was ambitious and his dominion in Kabul was limited by the Afghans' insubordination. He needed to expand elsewhere. He tried again to take Samarkand and was again beaten back.
So he raided what is now Pakistan, found the people of the plains easier meat than the mountain tribes and, by 1523, pretty much controlled Lahore.
Delhi was in his sights. Because it had been part of Timur's domains, Babur maintained that it was legitimately his and wrote to the ruler (a Lodi, originally from Afghanistan) to stake his claim. Sultan Ebrahim, understandably, ignored him, so Babur marched south and defeated him at the battle of Panipat. The sultan was killed, along with 15,000 to 16,000 of his troops.
Babur stayed in Delhi to consolidate his power but hated India. His list of complaints offers a good indication of the things that mattered to a 16th-century emperor:
"Hindustan is a country of few charms. There are no good-looking people, there is no social intercourse, no receiving or paying of visits, no genius or manners. In its handicrafts there is no form or symmetry, method or quality. There are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, musk-melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or food cooked in the bazaars, no hot baths, no colleges, no candles, torches or candlesticks."
The only things Babur liked about India were the abundance of gold and silver and the weather after the monsoon. He built gardens to remind him of Kabul but flowers do not do as well in India as in the crisp Afghan air.
His friends could not stand the heat and went back to Kabul. But as ruler, he was stuck there, pining for the jollity of the old days.
In 1528 he wrote to one of his oldest friends, Khwajah Kalan: "With whom do you spend time? With whom do you drink wine?"
It was not just the friends that Babur missed. He had given up drinking because of his health and admits that "the craving for a wine party has been infinite and endless for two years, so much so sometimes that it has brought me close to tears."
The knowledge that wine was forbidden sharpened his yearning for "the permitted flavours of melons and grapes" that flourished in Kabul.
When he once cut open a melon, he wept. "How can one forget the pleasures of those lands?" Once he had managed to get his affairs sorted in India, he wrote, he would "set out immediately".
He never did. His health failed and two years later he was dead, at 47. He was buried in Agra, disinterred sometime between 1539 and 1544 and buried again on a green hillside with a stream running through it.
An inscription placed there by his great-great-grandson Shah Jahan, creator of the Taj Mahal, describes it as "this light garden of an angel king".