7 Amazing Things You Can Find in Kabul

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.

High altitude

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.

Lush gardens

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

A Delicious Look at 3 Famous Afghan Fruits

Did you know that Afghanistan has long been famous for its many delicious types of fresh fruit? Despite the popular image of Afghanistan as an arid, rugged desert, the country in fact possesses fertile soil and a warm and dry climate that provide the perfect growing conditions for a rich variety of fruit.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock, at least 1.5 million tons of fruit are produced every year, two-thirds of which are consumed within the country. Read on to learn more about some of Afghanistan’s most popular and delicious fruits: grapes, melons, and pomegranates.

Grapes

Given their high productivity and significant commercial value, it’s not surprising that grapes are one of the most attractive horticultural crops in Afghanistan. Grape production tends to be concentrated in a handful of central Afghan provinces, where lush green vineyards are a common sight. Hussaini, taifi, kata, and kasendra are among the more popular varietals for fresh grapes; varieties for raisin production include the keshmeshi and shondakhanai.

A unique way to keep grapes fresh

In order to keep grapes fresh for months after they are harvested, some Afghan farmers rely on a preservation technique developed centuries ago in Afghanistan’s rural north. Known as kangina, this method involves packing fresh grapes into homemade mud containers, which are then sealed with more mud and stored in a dry, cool place. The clay-rich mud keeps air and moisture away from the grapes and insulates them from the cold, thus allowing them to stay perfectly fresh for around six months. Typically, grapes are preserved using kangina in the autumn so that they can then be eaten fresh at Nowruz, or new year, which falls on the spring equinox.

Transforming grapes into raisins

Grapes that are not eaten right away or preserved using the kangina method are dried and made into raisins. This drying process can take place naturally in the sun, but it’s also common for grape growers to dry their fruit in traditional “raisin rooms” known as keshmesh khanas. While fresh grapes are certainly delicious, raisins are usually easier to store and preserve, and often fetch a higher price than their fresh counterparts.

Melons

Along with grapes, melons are one of Afghanistan’s most prized fresh fruit exports, as well as a popular crop for domestic consumption. Kabul in particular is renowned for its bountiful melon market. While melons are grown all over the country, the best melons are generally agreed to come from Kunduz in northern Afghanistan.

Dozens of different varieties

Melons of all shapes, sizes, and colors are grown in Afghanistan; in fact, the country produces an estimated 38 varieties of melon. Some of the most famous types include the sawzmaghz, a green, not-too-sweet melon that is prized for its thirst-quenching properties; the zormati, a round, medium-sized bright yellow melon that smells strongly of flowers; the qashoqi, a large, pale yellow melon with pulp so soft that it must be eaten with a spoon; and the arkani (or qoter), which has a very thick and resistant skin that allows the melon to be easily transported or stored through the winter. Watermelons are also widely grown.

The preferred fruit of royalty

Afghan melons were a particular favorite of Babur, the first emperor of the Mughal dynasty who made Kabul his capital for two decades in the early 16th century. When the Mughals shifted their capital to the Indian city of Agra, Babur, who was also an avid gardener, had melon seeds and an expert agronomist brought with him so that Afghan melons could be grown in the royal gardens there.

Pomegranates

Embedded in myths and stories over thousands of years of human history, few fruits are more famous than the pomegranate, and Afghanistan’s pomegranates are particularly renowned. Pomegranates are grown all over the country—the season lasts from October to January—but an especially prized variety is the Kandahar pomegranate, which boasts an exceptional sweetness and hefty size. This pomegranate can weigh up to one kilogram!

A medicinal fruit

The pomegranate has long been valued for its many health benefits, and it is still an important medicinal ingredient in many Afghan households today. Just about every part of the pomegranate, including the leaves, flowers, and bark of the tree, can be used for a medicinal purpose. For example, dried pomegranate skin can be ground into a powder to treat anemia, while the juicy pomegranate seeds, known as arils, can help prevent a great variety of conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

A fruit worth celebrating

A special festival celebrating the red pomegranate blossom is held in mid-February in the Kandahar region. During the festival, which is known as the Anar Gul, poets gather together to honor the pomegranate, often by reciting verses featuring the fruit that are drawn from Afghanistan’s rich poetic heritage.

A Look at the Unique Plant Life in Afghanistan

Although Afghanistan is a dry country that primarily encompasses arid desert and rugged mountain ranges, it is home to an incredibly diverse array of plant life. In fact, according to some botanists, when it comes to plants and vegetation, Afghanistan is one of the world’s most important centers of biodiversity. Read on to learn some fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s surprisingly rich and unique plant life.

Afghanistan has more species of flowering plants than Central Europe.

It would be easy to assume that a region like central Europe, with its damp climate so favorable to plant growth, would have a wider variety of flowering plants than arid Afghanistan. Interestingly, however, the opposite is true. Afghanistan has far more species and sub-species of flowering plants than central Europe. Approximately 4,500 distinct flowering plants have been identified in Afghanistan, and botanists believe that there are many more still to be found and named. Afghan flowering plants encompass more than 600 species within the legume/pea family; 500 species in the daisy family, including nearly 150 different types of thistle; and 205 species in the mint family.

Nearly one-third of Afghanistan’s flowering plants are not found anywhere else.

Afghanistan’s flowering plant life is not only exceptionally diverse, but it’s also unique. Approximately 30% of all of the country’s flowering plants are endemic to Afghanistan, meaning that they don’t grow anywhere else in the world. (In contrast, the UK—another region with a damp climate that is ideally suited to plant growth—only has about 1,700 species of flowering plants, and a mere handful of these are endemic.)

Afghanistan’s valleys helped to shape its floral biodiversity.

Afghanistan’s extraordinary floral biodiversity owes a great deal to the country’s distinctive landscape, particularly the fertile valleys that lie in between its soaring mountains. Over the course of millions of years, these valleys served as a refuge for plants, helping to preserve and protect floral life through a series of global ice ages that wrought destruction elsewhere (to take the UK as an example once again, that region was wiped relatively clean of species with each successive Ice Age due to the area’s fairly flat topography). Furthermore, because the valleys are isolated from one another, many new species were able to evolve in the different areas, each specially adapted to the highly specific local conditions.

Foraging for plants plays an important role in rural Afghanistan.

Given the rich diversity of plants found in Afghanistan, it’s hardly surprising that plant foraging is an important activity in the country, particularly in rural and remote areas. For many Afghans living in rural communities, foraged plants can provide an important source of food, medicine, and sometimes income (foragers often sell their finds by the roadside or from carts in urban areas). The following are some commonly foraged plants:

Rhubarb—Known as chukri or rawash in Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is the Afghan forage plant that is most recognizable to people in the west, particularly northern Europeans. In Afghanistan, wild rhubarb is a springtime delight that is usually an ingredient in salads, or simply sprinkled with salt and eaten raw. Since rhubarb is rich in key nutrients (such as calcium, manganese, potassium, and vitamins C and K), it is an important type of food for rural Afghans, particularly during drought years when other crops are more scarce.

Liquorice root—A member of the legume/pea family, liquorice is known for its pale purple flowers and sharp, distinctive flavor. Foragers dig up liquorice roots and boil them to make a tea, a common treatment for stomachaches. Dried liquorice roots are also an important Afghan export typically destined for markets in India and the Emirates.

Caraway—Zira-ye Kohi, as it is known in Afghanistan, is a delicious spice that is from the carrot family. It is frequently used in Afghan cuisine, especially as an addition to rice dishes.

Afghanistan is one of eight regions in the world where crops were first grown.

The richness and diversity of Afghanistan’s wild plants is also closely related to the country’s history of plant domestication. According to scholars, Afghanistan is part of the “Vavilov Centers,” a term used to describe the regions of the world—eight in total—where humans began domesticating plant crops. In order for this process of domestication to be successful, it is important for early growers to have ready access to each crop’s wild relatives. The fact that wild plants such as wheat, peas, and lentils existed so plentifully in Afghanistan thousands of years ago is what allowed their eventual domestication to take place.

A groundbreaking book on Afghanistan’s plants was recently published.

For those interested in the native plants of Afghanistan, more information can be found in the groundbreaking 2010 book Field Guide Afghanistan: Flora and Vegetation. The culmination of decades of work by a team of Afghan, German, and British biologists and scholars, the book is highly detailed, but easily accessible to non-specialists. Written in Dari and English, the book is used at many schools, universities, and research institutes throughout Afghanistan.