It had snowed overnight, leaving little more than a dusting in Kabul, as Maura and I prepared for an early morning start to Istalif, the Baburnama in hand as our guide. Fortunately, a young political officer at the US embassy, Bruce Ehrman, offered to take us by jeep, and we headed north under leaden skies. We began a gradual climb as we turned off the highway up a dirt road obscured by the fresh snow (fig. 1). My excitement was building; of the gardens near Kabul mentioned in the Baburnama, I was particularly interested in the garden in Istalif, because Babur may have buried his mother there.

Houses in front of snow-covered mountains in Afghanistan
1. Snow-covered Afghanistan. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

Istalif is about thirty miles north of Kabul, off the well-paved highway to the Salang Pass, following the sixteenth-century route through the broad Koh Daman Valley. A mountain village settled almost a thousand years ago, it is a remnant of Afghanistan’s ancient past; historically, it has been controlled by whoever ruled in Kabul. Ulugh Beg Mirza, Babur’s paternal uncle, was given Kabul and its dependencies as a fiefdom by Abu Sa’id Mirza—Timur’s grandson and Babur’s grandfather—when he became the ruling Timurid. When Ulugh Beg Mirza died, there were no eligible sons to succeed him. Babur, his restless twenty-one-year-old nephew, laid claim to Kabul and took it without a battle in October 1504.

In the months that followed, Babur described the gardens that surrounded Kabul:

Most of the Kabul dependencies are located on the slopes of the mountain. All sorts of fruit, especially many grapes, are abundant in the orchards. Among the villages, none are like Istalif and Istarghij.… (Baburnama, f. 136)

Snowy view from Istalif
2. The view from Istalif. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

A Magical Forest

Chinar trees
3. The towering chinars of Istalif. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

We made our way up toward the village, situated at 6,233 feet, along the face of the mountain. Then, after pulling up a grade, we suddenly halted; opening to our right was a wide, level area with a view over the Shomali Plain. Far in the distance, the snow-capped ranges of the Hindu Kush trailed off. It was a stunning sight, but the immediate view was more surprising, we were in Babur’s garden facing a row of towering chinars (Oriental plane trees) leading to the edge of the promontory (fig. 3). It was just as Babur described it:

Outside the garden are large plane trees, with pleasant, shady green spots at their bases. A one-mill stream flows constantly from the middle of the garden. On the banks of the stream are plane and other trees. The stream used to run higgledy-piggledy until I ordered it to be straightened. Now it is a beautiful place. (Baburnama, f. 136b)

Standing in the snow, looking up into the tangle of the trees’ mottled branches and their spreading crowns, we could imagine these magnificent chinars providing the densest possible shade in the blazing heat of the Afghan summer. The chinars were more than eighty feet tall, but because they were deciduous, they now stood stripped of their glorious leaves. At the base of each tree, hard turf mounds up as high as eighteen inches, circled the massive trunks—a charming Timurid tradition in which grass mounds served as seats. If the trees were planted by Ulugh Beg Mirza, these mounds may have been shaped almost five hundred years ago. Chinars are exceptionally long-lived trees; it is not unusual for them to live hundreds of years, but it is unusual to find a row of such healthy old trees. The Afghans, like the Kashmiris, had a reverence for chinars, which were thought to have magical properties. They were never cut down, just allowed to hollow out and die naturally.

Pencil drawing of the garden
4. The author’s drawing of the garden in Istalif. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

Babur mentions that Ulugh Beg Mirza built a few gardens in Kabul and that he generally maintained Timurid taste and traditions, just as he had in Istalif. Ulugh Beg Mirza’s watercourse in Istalif was well proportioned and reflected the great chinars, but there was no Timurid khanah, no house, only a modest modern structure placed to let visitors take advantage of the breathtaking view. A row of young pines (fig. 4) planted opposite the chinars swayed beside a low stone wall, actually the top of a retaining wall shaping the terrace on the spur. During the more than twenty years that Kabul was his base, Babur enjoyed gathering close friends and riding out into the countryside to camp by a pool or a stream in a garden for a few days of drinking wine, quoting poetry and song. In cold weather, they hunted.

Chinar leaves
5. The author’s collection of Chinar leaves. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

Some of Babur’s excursions to garden sites are the subject of beautiful, detailed sixteenth-century Mughal paintings that were made as illustrations for the Baburnama after it was translated from Babur’s Turki into Persian for his grandson, the emperor Akbar. Chinars with their large dark green and gold leaves (fig. 5) dominate many of the folios. The chinar leaf is very large—often measuring twelve inches across, and deeply serrated, resembling a giant maple leaf. One of the most frequently painted scenes depicts Babur visiting Istalif, exploring the spring at the base of the mountain spurs and creating another garden:

Below the villages and a league or a league-and-a-half above the flatland in a hollow in the foothills is a spring called Khwaja Seyaran that is surrounded by three types of trees. Huge plane trees that give magnificent shade, and to either side of the spring, on the hills at the base of the mountain, are many oak trees—these two oak groves are home to the only oaks in the mountains to the west of Kabul. In front of the spring, in the direction of the flatland, is a large grove of Judas trees—the only ones in the province. They say that these three sorts of trees—plane, oak, and Judas—are miracles of the three saints for whom the spring is named. I had the spring surrounded with stonework plastered and mortared into a ten-by-ten pool, such that the four sides would form straight, symmetrical benches overlooking the entire grove of Judas trees. When the trees blossom, no place in the world equals it. In the foothills, yellow Judas trees bloom together with the red ones. (Baburnama, ff. 136b–137)

Again it was just as Babur described it, for when we walked between the row of chinars and the pines along the low garden wall, we could see there were actually two spurs on the mountain; one with the garden where we stood, and across a steep decline the picturesque village of Istalif, perched on the second spur, rose up a rocky hill with a snow-capped mountain behind it. Filling the entire space between the two spurs was a huge vineyard that appeared to run to the valley bottom (fig. 6).

Valley and surrounding mountains
6. View of the surrounding mountains and valley. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection

Adventures in Istalif

Istalif was a frequent destination for Babur; from there he embarked on several excursions. One began after two days in the village:

The next morning we rode out of Istalif and passed through the Sinjit valley. When we were near Khwaja Seyaran, a huge snake as big around as a man’s forearm and a fathom [two yards] long was killed. From inside the snake came a smaller snake that must have just been swallowed: it was completely whole. The smaller snake was only a bit shorter than the big one. Then, from inside the smaller snake came a big rat. It too was whole, and none of it had been digested.

Having reached Khwaja Seyaran, we had a wine party. This same day, Kichikkinä the night watchman was sent with orders and a rendezvous for the begs on the other side to say that the army was being mounted and that they should take care to reach the rendezvous as appointed.

The next morning we rode out and ate some maʿjun. At the confluence of the Parwarn River we threw some fish drug into the water, as the people there do, and caught a lot of fish. (Baburnama, ff. 240–240b)

August 16, 17, and 18, 1519, were spent riding, sleeping in orchards, and on an exciting day of rafting; they returned to Kabul the next evening, the nineteenth. The responsibilities and symbols of rule followed him; affairs of state were decided, messengers arrived and departed, attendants set up the tent poles for colorful awnings or fully carpeted tents, and the Timurid protocol was followed, even among his friends, and captured in the paintings. More often Babur’s excursions were military missions—to check on or punish various mountain tribes. Before he could make a serious move toward Hindustan, he needed to secure his route through the country between Kabul and Lahore, which took years of lightning raids, pitched battles, and negotiations.

Often Babur went on excursions to observe and enjoy the natural world such as the autumn harvest at Istalif:

At dawn we reached Khwaja Hasan, at the foot of Istalif. We rested for a while, had some maʿjun, and toured the harvest. The sun was up when we stopped at the Istalif garden, where we ate some grapes.…

The next morning we had some food, got on our horses, and toured the Padshahi Bagh below Istarghij. We saw an apple sapling with beautiful autumnal foliage that had five or six leaves arranged regularly on each branch—if painters had exerted every effort they wouldn’t have been able to depict such a thing. (Baburnama, ff. 247b–248)

The Throne

Where Ulugh Beg Mirza’s house once stood at the far edge of the terrace, a small modern hotel stands, which, with Babur’s “halting place”under the great chinars, is called The Takht (Throne). We learned this was a popular spot for present-day (1978) Kabulis to visit, but the terraced garden on the hillside above the road was almost unknown. (The use of takht, meaning throne, for this site is interesting; takht also means platform and usually refers to a funerary platform for a gravestone or a tomb. I have never found a reference to a Bagh-i-Kalan by Ulugh Beg Mirza in Kabul; only this garden at Istalif. If the term takht was used in the sixteenth century, it could have been a reference to the ruler.)Opposite the majestic chinars and site where the road cut through the garden and passed on to the village, the hill rose sharply. Brushing away the wet snow, we climbed over a barrier and up the hill and could distinguish terraces on the narrowing spur. It was slippery and, hindered by the snow and scrub, I estimated there were five terraces with pools on two of them. On a terrace about two-thirds of the way to the summit, there were enough visible remains in place to indicate there was once a square pool. The finished stone edging and facing had been carried off, revealing that the original walls had been constructed from large, heavy blocks of stone backed by rows of smaller stones tightly packed in sod. There were chinars at three corners; a fourth tree was missing, for it was customary to plant a chinar at each corner of a square pool to ensure daylong shade as the sun moved. These were the only plane trees on the garden terraces.

A dam over a stream
7. Small pool in the main terrace controlled by a dam. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

Indentations in the snow suggested a watercourse with a fall between levels. However, no water was visible until we returned to the main terrace between the chinars, where water bubbled up into a small pool controlled by a simple dam (fig. 7). Surprisingly, no spring was visible on the terraces, but given the weather, any flow could have been frozen. The path to the summit was lined with ancient rose bushes; one bare, gnarled trunk was sixteen inches around, and wild mulberry and poplar trees were everywhere. There was no evidence of any walls, but Babur usually left untamed natural settings surrounding his symmetrically laid out baghs.

The summit had been leveled, and snow-covered stumps revealed that trees once circled the edge. Babur had boldly shaped the landscape, and the view down the narrow terraces provided a dramatic perspective. In his gardens, Babur preferred unusual locations and sweeping views, and he achieved both at Istalif.

The Devoted Son

In his autobiography, Babur devoted pages to candid character sketches of the Timurid-Mongol ruling class. He made original observations about flora and fauna. He revealed a great deal about his activities and his companions. But though respectful, he wrote with little emotion about the women in his family. Intrigued by his mother’s life, I found Babur’s brief account of her death and burial in one of his gardens very moving:

In the month of Muharram (June 1505) my mother, Qutlugh Nigar Khanïm, fell ill with spotted fever. She was bled without effect. A Khurasani physician named Sayyid Tabib prescribed watermelon in accordance with the treatment in Khurasan. As her time must have come, she passed away six days later, on Saturday.

Ulugh Beg Mirza had constructed a garden called Bagh-i-Nawrozi on the mountain slope. With the permission of the heirs, Qasim Kükäldash and I bore her to the garden on Sunday and entrusted her to the earth. (Baburnama, ff. 156b–157)

Through his references to her, Babur’s devoted mother, Qutlugh Nigar Khanïm, emerges as a strong and courageous individual who endured years of hardship and danger as she followed her high-spirited son through reversals in his fortune and other misadventures. Sadly, she died only eight months after reaching the relative security of Kabul.

Annette Beveridge, translator of the Baburnama (1922), states in her translator’s notes that Babur’s mother was buried at Bagh-i-Kalan—Ulugh Beg Mirza’s garden in Istalif, which Babur called the Garden of the New Year or New Year’s Garden. Other researchers, however, assume Babur buried his mother in a garden in Kabul. I had failed to confirm where Qutlugh Nigar Khanïm was buried; his ambiguity about his mother’s grave does not fit with Babur’s candid record of his life. He had only been in Kabul less than a year when she died and had not yet built any gardens, so Mrs. Beveridge’s assumption could be correct.

Hoping to learn more and perhaps answer this question at Istalif, I’d re-read various accounts about the village, including those in Constance Villiers-Stuart’s wonderful Gardens of the Great Mughals, published 1913. Her references to the garden added poignancy to our visit, because she had assumed Babur was buried at Istalif:

A garden of this description must have been acquired by purchase or fair means, else its possession would entail misfortune—Babur alludes to this idea when he mentions that he paid the full price of the Bagh-i-Kalan and received a grant of it from its proprietor. This was the beautiful garden in the district of Istalif, in which he was finally buried.

Mrs. Stuart studied many Mughal garden sites, but she never made it to Kabul to see Babur’s final resting place. However, she was so familiar with his writing and his distinctive approach to the landscape, it is easy to understand why she assumed his garden at Istalif was his chosen grave site. It was so clearly his favorite.

I like to think that Babur buried his mother in this incomparable setting, one of his favorite gardens. Babur wrote that his mother, Qutlugh Nigar Khanïm, Yunus Khan’s second daughter, “was with me during most of my guerilla engagements and interregna” (Baburnama, f. 11). Yunus Khan, descended from Chagatai Khan, the second son of Genghis Khan, had been sent to Tabriz to be educated; then he lived among intellectuals in Shiraz for eighteen years before he was unexpectedly brought back to rule the Mongol Ulus. Babur’s shrewd Timurid grandfather, Abu Sa’id Mirza, arranged the marriage of three of his sons to Yunus Khan’s three daughters, thus joining the ranking Timurids and Chagatai khans. The cultured Yunus Khan apparently enjoyed long visits with Babur’s family and must have been an interesting and worldly influence on the household. Yunus’s Chagatai wife, Isan-daulat, Qutlugh Nigar’s mother, one of the strongest and most unforgettable characters in Mughal history, was also a major influence on Babur during his childhood. Like her mother, Qutlugh Nigar was unfazed by danger and more than once forcefully sought support for Babur from her half-brothers after they succeeded Yunus as leaders of the Mongol tribes. The daughter of the khan, his mother had an enduring loyalty to Babur, which reinforced his claim to dynastic legitimacy, so all-important in that intensely competitive Turkic-Mongol world.

Babur’s description of his mother’s burial led Mrs. Beveridge to suppose Istalif had been his mother’s grave garden. One of her translator’s notes explains how the Islamic custom regarding grave sites might apply in this case: “… Musalmans [Muslims] are most scrupulous not to bury their dead in ground gained by violence or wrong.”Babur scrupulously adhered to this custom; when first describing Istalif, he described how he acquired the garden: “Ulugh Beg Mirza confiscated one of the gardens called Bagh-i-Kalan, for which I then paid the owners” (Baburnama, f. 136b).The entries in the Baburnama where he first describes Istalif are not dated, so we do not know whether he bought the garden some time before his mother’s death or at the time of her burial. However, Babur’s daughter, Gulbadan, commissioned by her nephew, Emperor Akbar, to record her memories of Babur, suggested he paid his relatives at the time of the burial: “His Majesty paid 1,000 coined misqalto his kinsmen, the owners of the garden, and laid her there.”

Until someone documents otherwise, I’ll continue to think of Qutlugh Nigar Khanïm as laid to rest in the Bagh-i-Kalan at Istalif. She deserved this perfect site; she had earned it.

Babur’s Choice

Writing about Babur’s death, Mrs. Stuart wrote, “Babur was buried in his favorite Garden of the New Year near Kabul.” She regretted not being able to see this garden: “Few of us can follow the pilgrims to the Garden of the New Year.” Had she seen this terraced hillside with its circular crown of trees, I’m convinced she’d have thought it a perfect setting for the grave of the man she called “the most romantic, gallant, genial Prince of Oriental history.”We may never know for certain, but Istalif could have been Babur’s original choice for his own gravesite. In his feverish condition during his last days, he issued many instructions: he named his son Humayun as his successor and chose husbands for two of his daughters, all while yearning for the arrival of his youngest son, Hindal Mirza. He was preparing for his death. Many family members were with him during this time, and their overwrought accounts have come down to us, confirming his wish to be taken back to Kabul, but no instructions about his gravesite are known—to date. Apparently when he built what is now called the Bagh-i-Babur, on the edge of Kabul, where he is buried, he never gave it a formal name; it was enlarged and developed by his descendants.

On the Istalif terraces there were several dark-gray stone grave markers and one fine white marble gravestone. Was it Qutlugh Nigar Khanïm’s? I took a photograph of the inscription (fig. 8), but there wasn’t enough contrast to have it translated, and I regret I did not make a rubbing. In Babur’s time, graves and tombs were often placed in gardens. His descendants in India established the Mughal garden tradition, building alluring gardens with elegant pavilions and pools, which were enjoyed during a patron’s lifetime and became the sites of their tombs when they died. It is not known if the Istalif garden was identified as a maqam (burial place); we saw no graves on the level with the chinars.

Modern Musings

Graver marker jutting up from the snowy ground
8. Grave marker with inscription. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

Maura, Bruce, and I stood admiring the breathtaking view; it was extraordinary, as was Babur’s gift for site selection. The sky brightened and briefly turned a brilliant blue, the threatening snowfall had held off, but it was really cold. The Central Asian wind whipped around us as we grabbed onto the venerable rose bushes to check our speed as we slid back down the hill.

When we visited in 1978, Istalif was still known for its sun-dried raisins, and as we walked to the village past the rows of bare grape vines, it could have been 1504, when Babur wrote:“There are few places known to equal Istalif. A large torrent [fast-moving stream] that runs through the middle of the village has orchards on both sides. Verdant, pleasant small garden plots abound, and the water is so pure and cold, there is no need for iced water” (Baburnama, f. 136b).

The steep hillsides were essentially terraced and densely planted with alternating rows of grapevines and thin poplars; irrigation ditches along the roots of the vines were held in place by the poplars, which also shaded the vines during the hot summer months. The vineyards were well watered, and there was no obvious mechanism to control the flow of water in the ditches. During the Taliban years, wine was banned, and vineyards producing wine were uprooted. Hopefully Istalif’s crop of raisins saved their vineyards. Throughout history, the village has been resilient; during the disastrous nineteenth-century Anglo-Afghan Wars, it was heavily assaulted and destroyed but never abandoned. We found it very open, lacking any obvious old fortifications or gates of any kind. Smoke rose from the chimneys above the narrow houses and, except for a few men sitting together in the weak late afternoon sunshine, everyone stayed inside, out of the winter cold.

9a-f. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection

Istalif is also known for its glazed turquoise pottery, but we were there on a Friday, and none of the kilns appeared to be firing. No shops were open, but a group of friendly village boys trailed along after the three of us, the toddlers carried on the backs of their older brothers. A few were barefoot in the snow, but they all wore hats, some round and woven like baskets; some had colorful pointed knit caps, and some wore embroidered skullcaps (fig. 9). Central Asian headgear sometimes indicates the wearer’s home village or province. When we came to an unusually open snow-covered area edged with thin, bare trees, resembling a park, we built a snowman. The boys watched, rooted to the spot, absolutely silent and puzzled; they had never seen anything like it. Maura encouraged the biggest boy, who was perhaps twelve years old, to join us, and the bashful child shaped the snowball into a snow rabbit and laughed (fig. 10).

Young boy placing a snow rabbit on top of a snowman.
10. Young boy placing a snow rabbit on top of a snowman. Elizabeth Moynihan Collection.

It was a wonderful day, but a mystery clung to the Bagh-i-Kalan. Was it meant to be the family gravesite of the first great Mughal? The New Year’s Garden, as Babur referred to it, though neglected, still had a strong character, and the atmosphere throughout the extraordinary site was exhilarating, but sadly, the garden has been destroyed by good intentions. I do not know how much of the damage was due to UNESCO’s efforts in 2005 to build a community education center on the summit—with cement steps. Complaints were made to the Afghan minister of information and culture in Kabul about the huge metal sheds constructed against the chinars. Those ugly containers have since disappeared, but so has the Bagh-i-Kalan.

It is interesting to note that the combative sixteenth-century, hot-tempered, ferocious steppe warriors were more sensitive to nature and had better taste than the bureaucrats of today.