An exhibition that reproduces the precious treasures of Mughal art in their original setting in Kabul’s Babur Garden opened this weekend, bringing a rare moment of cultural relief to a city pounded by war for decades. “King Babur’s Kabul: Cradle of the Mughal Empire” displays a selection of high quality reproductions of some of the masterpieces of the Timurid and Mughal periods from the mid-16th century, one of Central Asia’s richest cultural eras.
It follows a similar exhibition in December held in the historic citadel of the western Afghan city of Herat, at one time the seat of the powerful Timurid dynasty and one of the great centres of the Persian world. At the Kabul exhibition’s launch on Saturday, Michael Barry, a world authority on Afghan art and culture who curated the exhibition reminisced about a visit he made to the city at the height of the brutal 1990s civil war.
“Here in the Bagh-e Babur, what we saw in 1994 was wreckage, broken trees, shells fired. The beautiful 17th century marble mosque here was full of bullet holes. All we saw was despair and ugliness.” The Bagh-e Babur or Babur’s Garden, one of the oldest surviving Mughal gardens, was named after the first emperor of the Mughal dynasty, which came to rule over much of India in the following three centuries.
Babur loved Kabul and was buried in the garden which he ordered to be created after he conquered the city in 1504. It was largely destroyed in the 1990s but was restored with the help of the Agha Khan Foundation in 2008. The garden remains a popular picnic spot with Kabul families but the artistic riches of the Mughal court have disappeared from the city, with not a single original painting from the period known to be left in Afghanistan.
Barry said he had formed the determination to bring not just humanitarian aid to Afghanistan but to help restore some of the cultural heritage lost to the country through years of war. “In this garden, we will bring back the magnificent paintings which so influenced world civilization, back to the Afghans, right here in this historical environment,” he said.
Over the centuries, all of the originals have been dispersed outside Afghanistan and while their removal undoubtedly saved many precious art works from destruction, their loss has deprived Afghans of a central pillar of their cultural heritage.
Using state-of-the-art printing techniques, dozens of miniatures have been reproduced on metal and put on display, showing a fabled world of poets, rulers, hunters and scenes of court life and making clear the considerable interplay that existed between European and Mughal art.
“Many of these disappeared from Afghanistan over 500 years ago, and even then only Shahs (kings) and Wazirs (ministers) and maybe senior scholars had an opportunity to see them,” said Thomas Barfield, President of the American Institute of Afghan Studies, which oversaw the organisation of the exhibition. “People may remember poetry but they cannot see the art.”