Afghanistan Dispatch

In Afghanistan, Visiting Kabul's Old City

  • The Turquoise Mountain Foundation has been working for almost five years to restore Murad Khane, a quarter in Kabul's Old City. The area was built in the 18th century by Afghanistan's first ruler, Ahmad Shah Durrani. Here, an Afghan construction worker washes up before evening prayers.
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    The Turquoise Mountain Foundation has been working for almost five years to restore Murad Khane, a quarter in Kabul's Old City. The area was built in the 18th century by Afghanistan's first ruler, Ahmad Shah Durrani. Here, an Afghan construction worker washes up before evening prayers.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • Craftsmen hand cut and carve all of the lumber that will be used for door and window frames in the district.
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    Craftsmen hand cut and carve all of the lumber that will be used for door and window frames in the district.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • Work to restore this ancient part of Kabul has been ongoing since 2006. Here, Hedayatullah Ahmadzai, the head engineer of the restoration, stands in one of the alleys that will be paved in stone.
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    Work to restore this ancient part of Kabul has been ongoing since 2006. Here, Hedayatullah Ahmadzai, the head engineer of the restoration, stands in one of the alleys that will be paved in stone.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • A man walks on the roof of a restored building in the Old City district. A sea of used tires stretches from the ancient quarter to the Kabul River. Many of the mud-walled houses in Murad Khane were buried under trash after 30 years of war and neglect.
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    A man walks on the roof of a restored building in the Old City district. A sea of used tires stretches from the ancient quarter to the Kabul River. Many of the mud-walled houses in Murad Khane were buried under trash after 30 years of war and neglect.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • Shoshana Coburn, managing director of Turquoise Mountain, walks through buildings in Murad Khane that will eventually be used for offices, meeting rooms and classrooms.
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    Shoshana Coburn, managing director of Turquoise Mountain, walks through buildings in Murad Khane that will eventually be used for offices, meeting rooms and classrooms.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • Construction gloves rest on shelves of newly completed ornate plaster work in one of the homes in Murad Khane.
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    Construction gloves rest on shelves of newly completed ornate plaster work in one of the homes in Murad Khane.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • The district was originally a residential quarter, built in the shadow of the Royal Palace for merchants and royal courtiers in the late 18th century.
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    The district was originally a residential quarter, built in the shadow of the Royal Palace for merchants and royal courtiers in the late 18th century.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • A girl runs past men sitting in the shade in the Old City. In recognition of Murad Khane's unique value as one of the last remaining sites of such a traditional urban environment, it was listed on the World Monuments Fund's 2008 Watch List.
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    A girl runs past men sitting in the shade in the Old City. In recognition of Murad Khane's unique value as one of the last remaining sites of such a traditional urban environment, it was listed on the World Monuments Fund's 2008 Watch List.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • Alongside the historic buildings under conservation, Turquoise Mountain is constructing a number of new buildings, combining traditional Afghan building techniques with modern ones.
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    Alongside the historic buildings under conservation, Turquoise Mountain is constructing a number of new buildings, combining traditional Afghan building techniques with modern ones.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • Afghan craftsmen stand in the evening light.
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    Afghan craftsmen stand in the evening light.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • A worker throws an extra brick away from a newly constructed wall.
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    A worker throws an extra brick away from a newly constructed wall.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • Afghan children are seen in an alley in Kabul's Old City. The buildings of Murad Khane were originally built to house members of the Afghan ruler's court and family.
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    Afghan children are seen in an alley in Kabul's Old City. The buildings of Murad Khane were originally built to house members of the Afghan ruler's court and family.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • A window reflects the newly renovated buildings. The Turquoise Mountain Foundation is working to conserve the historical richness of Murad Khane.
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    A window reflects the newly renovated buildings. The Turquoise Mountain Foundation is working to conserve the historical richness of Murad Khane.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • A little girl steps inside her home. In Murad Khane, timber framed houses with earthen walls and decorative cedar shuttering are arranged around private courtyards and accessed via a traditional Islamic street pattern, providing for privacy, family life and commerce.
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    A little girl steps inside her home. In Murad Khane, timber framed houses with earthen walls and decorative cedar shuttering are arranged around private courtyards and accessed via a traditional Islamic street pattern, providing for privacy, family life and commerce.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR
  • An Afghan window framer puts the finishing touches on a newly installed pane of glass. Emergency repairs to the quarter's private homes have made them structurally sound and weatherproof.
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    An Afghan window framer puts the finishing touches on a newly installed pane of glass. Emergency repairs to the quarter's private homes have made them structurally sound and weatherproof.
    Photos by David Gilkey/NPR

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Venturing deep into the corners and warrens of Kabul's Old City, we stepped over gullies of exposed sewer pipes and tip-toed around an open swath of earth where men were laying the foundation for a new building.

Airborne sawdust coated my microphones. The sounds of hard work were everywhere: iron hammers, the roll of rusty wheelbarrows, the shouts of men, the trickle of a water pump, the pull of mud on boots and sandals.

Haidarab lives in Kabul's Old City, where he helps supervise a project to restore centuries-old homes and courtyards.

Haidarab lives in Kabul's Old City, where he helps supervise a project to restore centuries-old homes and courtyards. Jim Wildman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Wildman/NPR

There in a small part of Kabul's Old City called Murad Khane, centuries-old homes and courtyards were being restored. Long ago, craftsmen had carved these structures out of wood. Years of war and poverty and neglect had left the place all-but-withered and full of trash.

New builders were there now, backed by the non-profit Turquoise Mountain Foundation. The effort is trying — quickly — to restore this portion of Kabul's dignity and history before it is lost forever.

We were in awe of their astonishingly well-crafted work.

Until we met Haidarab.

He supervises a portion of a renovation project — and as soon as he told us his family had been living in Murad Khane for generations, the art of the old wood around us became a lot less interesting.

Haidarab's ancestors were the very ones who came to this city centuries before. They were the jewelers and tailors and others who'd been imported from Afghanistan's hinterlands to serve an early king. The Old City had been built for them so they'd be close to the king's beck and call.

Haidarab's forebears had been among those servants of the ancient court.

And — yet again in Afghanistan — I was learning about the country's ancient history from the face (and the smile) of a man standing before me.

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