Foreign invaders have always had a difficult relationship with Afghanistan. The diary of Babur, the first Moghul emperor, offers some lessons in how to manage—and to enjoy—the place. From The Economist Christmas edition:
ON A bright winter’s 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 Moghul garden. Below is the brown smog of Kabul; beyond, snowy mountains.
The tomb of Babur, the first Moghul 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 dreamed 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, but 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. More: