Afghanistan's Great Wall of Bones

By Kevin Sites

Everyone knows that walls are more metaphor than impenetrable brick and mortar.

This is especially true in Kabul, where concrete blasts slabs and giant, stone-filled wire baskets called Hesco barriers ring high value targets within the city, creating, as they did in Iraq, a sense of perpetual siege.

However, there is one wall in Kabul that is useless in this war, but provides a physical timeline of Afghanistan’s history of conflict, which stretches back more than a thousand years.

The Great Wall of Kabul runs atop the Sher Darwaza (Lion’s Door) mountains, towering over the city below. Hard historical fact is difficult to come by in a place where rumors are as ubiquitous as weathered faces, but legend has it that the wall was the project of King Zamburak Shaw in the sixth century, built to keep out Muslim invaders. It played a role in subsequent wars against the British invaders, as well as Afghanistan's own civil war in the mid-90s.

The wall’s creation story is a dark one. Zamburak was said to have been a brutal monarch, forcing all his male subjects to work on the wall. Those who refused or became too sick to continue were said to have been killed on the spot, their bones encased within the wall, which is almost ten-feet thick in some places.

But along with the alleged bones, the wall also contains some poetic justice. One tale has it that King Zamburak was visiting the wall to see its progress when he was killed by his own workers/subjects. They buried his bones along with the others in the wall.

While the climb to the wall is cited as an invigorating hiking spot in Lonely Planet and other guides, I didn't know anyone who had made the trip. That is until I met Al Haj Aq Masoomi, the Kabul Municipal District Chief. Masoomi makes the three-hour hike nearly every Friday, along with his pal and boss, Kabul Mayor Mohammad Younas Nawandish.

They go to visit a copse of fruit trees they planted a few years ago in an effort to create an oasis of peace in this war-torn place. They have also created an elaborate pipeline running up the mountain to make sure the trees have adequate water.

Masoomi agreed to take us to the wall late in the afternoon. As he pulled on his white sneakers, he was clearly excited to get climbing.

The climb wound through hundreds of homes built on the unforgiving cliffs of the mountains. The people who live there are from other provinces and build with great skill and accuracy on these treacherous cliffs. They also build without permission. They are squatters.

We met children hauling heavy yellow water containers and green propane tanks, which they had fetched at the base of the mountain and were carrying back to their homes. Climbing twice a day for these living essentials is the price of free housing. The other is a lack of sanitation. Open sewage and garbage filled the channels between homes.

After just 40 minutes on the trail, as he scurried up the shale remnants at the start of the wall, it became clear that Masoomi was part mountain goat.

We told him we didn't have time for the full three-hour climb to the top, which clearly disappointed him. By way of consolation, we accompanied him to an impressive section about an hour’s trek from the bottom.

When we got there, we were buffeted by both the wind and wonder of this place. The wall, more than a thousand years old, is still standing high, pockmarked by artillery rounds and the bombardment of Afghanistan's civil war.

Despite both the legend and the actual history of the wall, the place felt remote, peaceful—showing us Kabul bathed in a quiet beauty. A quality that seemed unattainable in these days of weekly suicide bombings.

It was at the peak of our climb that Masoomi finished the story for us.

“These walls,” he said, “were built from the blood of people.” We nodded, having heard the legend. But he continued, “Three months ago, bones were found within the walls.”

Then he had our attention.

“They’ve been taken away and sent for scientific evaluation,” he told us.

If examined and accurately dated, the bones may help to turn the dark legend of the wall into a macabre truth. Masoomi was excited by the find and happy to revel in blood-laden history, while still hoping peace will take root in Afghanistan, beginning with an explosion of fruit trees at the top of Kabul’s wall of bones.

Watch Kevin's climb in the video below: 

 

 

All video and photos by Kevin Sites unless noted otherwise.

Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement.” Kevin is currently traveling through Afghanistan covering the tumultuous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US withdraw. Keep coming back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.

More from Kevin Sites: Confessions of a Taliban Fighter

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @kevinsites

And visit his personal website: KevinSitesReports.com

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