Kabul was once known as the ‘city of gardens’. Five hundred years ago, when the Timurids and then the Mongols made it a capital from which to maraud across Central Asia, walled enclaves were built as havens from the harshness of the desert and mountains.
Lines of trees were planted, flowerbeds laid, and fruit grown. The Mongol Emperor Babur was even buried in his garden in Kabul, his tomb ordered left open so wild flowers could grow around him.
Such tranquillity is rare nowadays in war-torn Afghanistan. Yet one significant remnant still survives. It does so perhaps in the most unlikely spot of all: the presidential palace that serves as the heart of the country’s government.
You would not know from the outside. First laid out in 1883, the building was built as a fortress complete with a moat. These are now augmented by blast walls and rolls of razor wire.
Visitors pass through four checkpoints, have all personal belongings – even pens and cigarettes – removed, and are scrutinised by sniffer dogs. Inside, however, is a different world. Roses bloom and gnarled trees provide welcome shade. Uniformed gardeners diligently keep the lawns manicured.
The ambience harks back to the site’s pre-Taliban incarnation as home to Afghanistan’s royal family. Indeed the children of the last king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, still have a house within its 83 acres.
Food is served on white, linen tablecloths. Paintings of pastoral scenes hang in waiting rooms. The furniture is painted gold, and the curtains made from rich maroon cloth. At times the effect may be more Hyatt Regency than Palace of Versailles, yet the intent is one of refined civility.
Only the ever-present security cracks the illusion. Dark-suited security guards lurk in corridors. An official escort has to accompany visitors from one building to the next.
Even the President, Hamid Karzai, cannot move freely. Security guards trail behind him, ear-pieces in place and bulges under their jackets. Each morning, two black Land Cruisers shadow him the hundred yards across the palace to his work from the house he shares with his wife and two young children.
The palace may be his office and also his home but, whatever its cultivated tranquillity, this is clearly no haven. Danger lurks just as it does on the far side of its turreted walls.
Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of the Evening Standard and The Independent newspapers.
Photographs by Lalage Snow