A GARDEN for courting couples from 500 years ago is to be re-created in Kabul as a potent symbol of the end of Talebanís austere rule in Afghanistan.
The Aga Khan has pledged millions for the restoration of the 16th-century Paradise Garden, with its lakes, woods and love pavilions, which was orginally designed for the founder of the Moghul dynasty.
When Taleban militiamen roamed the streets of the capital, couples would never dare be seen together for fear of suffering a public beating or worse. Courting was carried out in strict secrecy and the death penalty awaited anyone accused of adultery.
Like everything in Kabul, the garden is now in ruins.
During the five-year civil war in the mid-1990s the Paradise Garden straddled territory disputed between the warring militias fighting for control of the capital. Some of those responsible for its destruction are today part of the ruling elite that is organising its restoration.
During the war anything of value was plundered and the trees were stripped for firewood. Hidden beneath the weeds are scores of landmines and unexploded bombs.
The gardenís original plans have long since been destroyed, so architects and restorers are searching any remaining books or photographs that show the gardens in their former glory.
Some, however, question whether a decorative garden should be high on the list of priorities for rebuilding when so many of Kabulís residents live in squalid poverty. The designers believe that the city needs symbols of its return from the dark ages of the Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies.
The garden, which is in the south of the capital, contains the remains of the Emperor Babur, one of the countryís more successful rulers, who founded the Moghul empire.
As part of an ambitious regeneration scheme, the Aga Khan has asked architects to recreate the gardens as they would have looked in 1528, when Emperor Babur created a private residence for recreation and pleasure in Kabul. The Aga Khan first expressed an interest in the project when he visited Kabul this year and pledged £1.3 million to help the Loya Jirga, or tribal grand assembly, which established the countryías new administration. He also committed almost £50 million more towards the countryís reconstruction at the Tokyo meeting of Afghan donors.
Among other restoration projects already under way is that of the 19th-century mausoleum of Timur Shah, a squat rotunda in the heart of Kabul built for the son of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of modern Afghanistan.
Although nothing substantial remains of the original garden, the Aga Khanís team has speculated that it was built along classical Moghul lines, like the Nishat and Shalimar gardens in Srinagar, Kashmir, with streams and ornamental ponds between love pavilions and profusions of flowers.
An artistís recreation of how Baburís garden looked 500 years ago depicts a wooded and verdant area of parkland where privileged young lovers from the ruling aristocracy could meet.
In the future the garden will be open to everyone.
Four years after Emperor Babur died in Agra, his Afghan wife, Mubarika Begum, had his body exhumed and taken to Kabul. It was buried in a simple grave covered in marble and onyx.
The grave appears to be untouched, although a prayer platform, mosque and restaurant were flattened during the civil war. The fighting also ruined all the restoration work undertaken after the 1842 earthquake in Kabul. The garden had been transformed into a public place in the 20th century by King Nadir Shah, who had a reservoir built at its centre. Years later city planners built a swimming pool in the grounds.
Work on the gardenís reconstruction is expected to begin later this year, when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture completes its assessment of the costs. Local craftsmen will be asked to recreate the original design, where possible. It is not certain how long the project will take to complete.
Aly Mawji, the Aga Khan Development Networkís resident representative in Kabul, said that several Western governments had shown interest in contributing to the costs.
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.