If there’s one thing you should know about Kabul, it’s that this incredible city is full of surprises. Current news stories usually reveal little about the Afghan capital. However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see a place that is home to some truly special and unexpected features.
Some of the most unique things you can find in Kabul include:
Evidence of a long, rich history
Did you know that humans have been living on or near the site of Kabul for over 3,500 years? The first mention of a settlement here appears in the Rigveda, an ancient Hindu scripture which dates back to the year 1500 BCE. The city then makes a further appearance in the writings of the Alexandrian scholar Ptolemy, who lived in the second century CE. This long history makes Kabul one of the oldest settlements in the world, and evidence of its amazing past can still be found in the centuries-old monuments and buildings that survive to this day.
Tucked into a narrow valley between the soaring peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range, Kabul is one of the world’s highest capital cities (only 10 other capitals are located at higher altitudes). Kabul’s elevation is an impressive 5,873 feet above sea level; this is about the same elevation as the city of Denver, Colorado, which is popularly known as the “Mile-High City.”
A century-old bird market
In the heart of Kabul’s old city lies the Ka Faroshi Bird Market. Tucked away behind a mosque, the market occupies a narrow alley that is lined with stalls selling all types of birds. For many Afghans, keeping birds is a passion and a much-needed source of solace and comfort in challenging times. Birds that can be found at the market include canaries, finches, fighting cocks, roosters, and doves, but a particular favorite is the elegant chukar partridge, a reddish-gray bird with a red beak, black stripes on its side, and a distinctive black band across its eyes and throat.
Among outsiders, Kabul may have a reputation as an arid desert city, but in fact, the capital is home to many beautiful green spaces. The largest and best known of these is Bagh-e Babur, or Babur’s Gardens, an 11-hectare oasis of peace and tranquility in the heart of Kabul. The gardens were founded in the early 16th century by Babur, the first Mughal emperor who used Kabul as his capital city for two decades. An avid gardener and nature enthusiast, Babur designed his gardens according to the traditional principles of Islamic gardens, which include key features such as a quadrant layout, flowing water, shade, abundant foliage, and perimeter walls. Although they fell into disrepair, Babur’s Gardens have been spectacularly restored with the support of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Open to visitors since 2008, the gardens stand today as one of Kabul’s most beloved public spaces, and a home for cultural performances and other special events.
A museum dedicated to land mines
Many of Kabul’s museums, such as the National Museum of Afghanistan, highlight and celebrate the country’s rich cultural history, but some also commemorate the more sobering aspects of Afghanistan’s recent past. Among these is the OMAR Mine Museum, which teaches visitors about the history of landmines in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. This museum, operated by the Organization for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation, features displays about the different types of mines and military hardware that have been used in Afghanistan, and the ongoing work being done to remove mines and make the land safe for use again.
An unusual mosque
In the center of the city, just off the Kabul River, sits one of the most surprising examples of Islamic religious architecture to be found anywhere in the world. Built in the 1920s, the Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque boasts two stories, a lemon-yellow façade, and Italianate stucco detailing: all very unusual features for an Islamic place of worship. The design for the mosque was modeled after Istanbul’s Ortakoy Mosque, and some describe the overall effect as “Afghan Baroque.”
A skate park
When Australian skateboarders Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan first came to Kabul in 2007, they couldn’t have foreseen that over a decade later, they would be running a hugely popular skateboarding school and international charity. Today, Skateistan continues to pursue its mission of using skateboarding to engage Afghan children, and to help increase their access to education, health care, and cultural opportunities. The school and skate park, which serves around 300 students, is built on land donated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee.
Featured Image courtesy Teseum | Flickr