Report

A Taliban Challenge: To Learn the Lessons of History

What an ancient citadel can teach us about Afghanistan’s past—and its potential future.

The Bala Hissar historical compound in Kabul
A laborer walks past the rusting remains of a Russian tank as he works on the Bala Hissar historical compound in Kabul on July 27. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

Leaving Afghanistan

There was a time, long ago, when Kabul sat at an axis of global power, its rulers enthroned in a vast citadel, surrounded by Buddhist monasteries, on the crossroads of trading routes that took wealth and learning to all points of Asia and beyond. Today, the remains of that citadel tell the story of thousands of years in the history of what is now a very different Afghanistan.

The site is called Bala Hissar or “High Fort.” It’s located just to the south of the modern city of Kabul. What remains of the citadel are some ancient walls and crumbling fortifications, home now to feral dogs and—at least until the Taliban took power—teams of archaeological excavators. Pottery shards dating back to the fifth century have been unearthed deep below the surface. But above ground are mostly modern artifacts, including the rusting hulks of burned-out tanks from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. A military base later built by the Americans, now inherited by the Taliban, is situated just below the site.

A place of settlement since the Bronze Age, Bala Hissar has been witness to the long ebb and flow of fortunes in Afghanistan. It has seen many invaders come and go and countless dynasties rise and fall.

the Bala Hissar historical compound in Kabul

A laborer walks past the rusting remains of a Russian tank as he works on the Bala Hissar historical compound in Kabul on July 27. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

There was a time, long ago, when Kabul sat at an axis of global power, its rulers enthroned in a vast citadel, surrounded by Buddhist monasteries, on the crossroads of trading routes that took wealth and learning to all points of Asia and beyond. Today, the remains of that citadel tell the story of thousands of years in the history of what is now a very different Afghanistan.

The site is called Bala Hissar or “High Fort.” It’s located just to the south of the modern city of Kabul. What remains of the citadel are some ancient walls and crumbling fortifications, home now to feral dogs and—at least until the Taliban took power—teams of archaeological excavators. Pottery shards dating back to the fifth century have been unearthed deep below the surface. But above ground are mostly modern artifacts, including the rusting hulks of burned-out tanks from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. A military base later built by the Americans, now inherited by the Taliban, is situated just below the site.

A place of settlement since the Bronze Age, Bala Hissar has been witness to the long ebb and flow of fortunes in Afghanistan. It has seen many invaders come and go and countless dynasties rise and fall.

“The history of this site is exactly the history of Afghanistan. Invaders, people who made huge civilizations with incredible commercial networks,” said Philippe Marquis, head of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, as he escorted me through the site recently. “What we want is an education center—to get kids from the schools and teach them the history of their country. … It’s always been a place for the history of Afghanistan. And the future—what is going to happen here in coming months—will be very interesting to see.”

Philippe Marquis

Philippe Marquis, head of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, talks about the Bala Hissar compound in Kabul on July 27. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

Marquis was speaking to me shortly before the Taliban suddenly swept to power in Kabul. Excavation at Bala Hissar was happening then against a backdrop of uncertainty as militias and army units battled for provincial capitals. Now, as the United States ends its nearly 20-year occupation of Afghanistan in a chaotic exit, that uncertainty is only more profound.

Taliban spokespeople suggest the movement has evolved, that it has become less severe in its radical fundamentalist outlook. In February, they released a statement calling on their followers to “robustly protect, monitor and preserve” the country’s archaeological relics. “No one is allowed to excavate, transport and sell historic artifacts anywhere,” the statement said.

But it’s unclear how genuine such assurances and prohibitions are. The last time the militant group was in power, from 1996 to 2001, its fighters looted museums and destroyed irreplaceable treasures. Most infamously, they used dynamite, anti-tank mines, and rocket launchers to blow up the massive Buddhas of Bamiyan, which had been carved into cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley during the 6th century.

Marquis, who left Kabul prior to the Taliban takeover, is trying to remain hopeful. By phone from Paris, he noted programs related to historical preservation create employment, and the Taliban understand this. “I won’t be surprised if the Taliban ask for support in the protection of cultural heritage,” Marquis said. “It’s not a contradiction for them, for sharia.”

His immediate concern was random looting, whether by the Taliban or others.

A statement from the National Museum of Afghanistan last week expressed a similar worry about the safety of its collections. “The National Museum of Afghanistan urges security forces, [the] international community, Taliban and other influential parties to pay attention to the safety and security of objects and do not let the opportunists to use this situation and cause the deterioration and smuggling of the objects and goods of this institution,” the statement said.

The Archaeology Institute of Afghanistan has already been hit. “According to local informants, it has been looted—cars stolen and property damaged,” Marquis told me. At Bala Hissar, he said, the French excavation site was untouched.

What Bala Hissar tells us about Afghanistan’s past provides no specific clues about its next chapter. But what is abundantly clear is turmoil has enveloped the place again and again, and understanding Afghan history—capitalizing on it, even—is vital to establishing a more peaceful and prosperous future.

Marquis describes the citadel as the key point around which the evolution and development of Kabul was organized. Much of it has been destroyed—notably during the British occupation of the 19th century—and the site looks little more than a collection of stony ruins. Yet it offers a glimpse of Afghanistan’s importance to the development of trade, commerce, philosophy, religion, and how various occupants wielded their substantial power.

The Bala Hissar historical compound in Kabul

Laborers work on the Bala Hissar historical compound in Kabul on July 27. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

The origins of the site are murky. It is believed to have been fortified since the 6th century and “may have seen conflict during Turkish military activity in the area in the late 6th century and during the Arab advances in the 7th century, when the Kabul valley was a main centre of resistance against the rising tide of Islam,” wrote Bill Woodburn, a former royal engineer and expert on the history of ancient forts, in a detailed paper on Bala Hissar for the Institution of Royal Engineers. Kabul was ruled by the Ghaznavids in the 10th century; Mongol leader Genghis Khan stopped by in 1221. “When Tamerlane passed through the area in 1398, on his way to invade India, he already had a grandson as governor there,” Woodburn wrote.

The height of High Fort power came with the Mughal Empire, established in the early 1500s by Zahir ud-Din Muhammad, who ruled as Emperor Babur from 1526 to 1530. A massive rock atop Bala Hissar is carved into the shape of a throne, said to be where Babur would sit to survey his realm.

Those who occupied Bala Hissar had control over the roads in and out of Kabul, which was a trading hub that attracted people from all over the world. There is evidence of an Armenian church as well as a string of Buddhist monasteries that encircled the citadel, Marquis told me.

Above the citadel to the south, climbing up the Sher Darwaza hill, remains of Kabul’s old city walls and lookouts are visible. Some monasteries have been restored as historical monuments, and at least one was converted hundreds of years ago to a mosque. Kabul’s biggest cemetery is located nearby—on the edge of swampland that serves as a stopover for migratory birds on their way to and from the Hindu Kush. Out of respect for the dead, some parts of the site cannot be excavated, a fact that has perhaps also protected buried relics.

The Bala Hissar historical compound in Kabul

Laborers work on the Bala Hissar historical compound in Kabul on July 27. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

“We think most of the monasteries were built in the first century A.D. and were probably used up to the 9th century” when invading Arabs brought Islam to the region, Marquis said. Buddhist monasteries here were likely more devotional than outright political, due to their proximity to the center of power—unlike perhaps in Mes Aynak, around 25 miles south of Kabul in Logar province, where a Buddhist city was established 1,800 years ago on a huge copper deposit and became an important commercial and industrial center in its own right.

“Here [at Bala Hissar], there were people working—pottery makers, jewelers, activity related to court life. But not semi-industrial like we have in Mes Aynak. The monasteries would have had a symbiotic relationship with political power,” Marquis said.

It is believed the site was consistently occupied from the third millennium B.C. until around 1880. It was taken over by British troops during the First and Second Anglo-Afghan Wars in the 19th century. The names of famed British soldiers, explorers, and spies feature prominently in its history—some kept detailed diaries describing the architecture and also made sketches and paintings, many of which are in the British Museum.

The remains of Alexander Burnes—known as “Bokhara Burnes” after his secret travels to what is now Uzbekistan at the height of the Great Game between Britain and Russia, who was killed by a mob at the citadel in 1841—are believed to be in a long-buried dungeon. Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari, who signed the Treaty of Gandamak, ending a phase of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, also died at Bala Hissar, murdered by mutinous Afghan troops in 1879.

The upper part of the Bala Hissar in 1879.

The upper part of the Bala Hissar, an ancient fortress in Kabul, is seen from the gateway above the British Residency during the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1879. John Burke/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Bala Hissar historical compound in Kabul

Laborers work on the Bala Hissar historical compound in Kabul on July 27. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

A succession of Afghan kings ruled from Bala Hissar’s ramparts, including Shah Shuja; Amir Dost Mohammad Khan; Amir Sher Ali Khan; and his son, Mohammad Yaqub Khan, who signed the Treaty of Gandamak with Cavagnari. After British forces withdrew in 1880, the citadel ceased to be a residential town; Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman Khan built himself a palace, called the Arg, in what is now the center of Kabul. That has been home to Afghan leaders, including recently departed President Ashraf Ghani, ever since.

In the 1930s, part of the citadel was transformed into a military academy. But in the late 1970s, during the communist era, and again during the civil war of the 1990s, Bala Hissar was the scene of heavy fighting that left the site littered with unexploded mines and ordinance.

Buddhism, too, has an important role here. “It came into Afghanistan and stayed in Afghanistan [for many centuries], and that was probably the most important moment for the development of Buddhism as a philosophy,” Marquis said. “There was a ‘before’ and ‘after’ this passage in Afghanistan, which is why it is very important.”

Philippe Marquis

Philippe Marquis, head of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, talks about the Bala Hissar compound in Kabul on July 27. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

He was quick to add Afghanistan today is, of course, an Islamic country—there are no Afghan Buddhists. “Still, I would say Buddhism is part of the DNA of this country,” he said. “And even [in the strains of] Islam that have developed in Afghanistan—for instance, Sufism—it is obvious that Buddhism has played a role. … We are learning every day.”

Marquis hopes to return to the country “as soon as possible”—he is supposed to be preparing for a planned exhibition of Afghan artifacts in Paris. But that, of course, will depend on many factors. The decisions and policies of the French government and the broader international community will certainly come into play. But much will depend on whether the Taliban are willing and able to learn from history—their own history, and the broader history of Afghanistan.

Correction, Oct. 19, 2021: A previous version incorrectly said the Aga Khan Trust for Culture facility had been looted by the Taliban.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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