Inside the Crumbling Walls of Kabul's Abandoned Palace

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Inside the Crumbling Walls of Kabul's Abandoned Palace

The Dural Aman Palace was built as an earthly attempt at heavenly perfection in the early 1920s. Its name means the “Abode of Peace,” but the palace has been shelled nearly out of existence during the last 30 years of war. Now, it is home to a small...
January 23, 2014, 5:12pm

“I am very, very sorry,” my translator Mr. Mobin informed me, slowly shaking his head, “but if you are not Muslim, you will burn in hell forever. Many times I cry in the night about this.”

I listened to Mobin as Kabul careened past my window: burqas, turbans, minarets, hanging meat, birds in cages, blacksmiths at their forges. The chaos parted reluctantly and only at the brash insistence of our taxi’s speeding prow. We were headed to Darul Aman Palace. The neoclassical structure floated like a mirage atop a hill on the outskirts of the city. With a name meaning “Abode of Peace,” Darul Aman had been shelled nearly out of existence during the last 30 years of war.

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“Study the Qur'an, my brother,” Mobin urged, “and I will be your tour guide in paradise!”

“What is paradise like?” I asked.

“In paradise, there are fruits, like the fruits on earth, but they taste even better. And God gives you beautiful women, and they will never fight with you. Also, everyone gets a building made of precious things like diamonds, emeralds, and lapis.”

Mobin could have been describing the once-lavish Darul Aman in its heyday—an earthly attempt at heavenly perfection. Built in the early 1920s by King Amanullah Khan, the palace was intended as a symbol of Afghanistan’s modernization. That purpose was short-lived. The king was forced from power by religious zealots at the end of the decade, and all of his liberal reforms were rescinded.

Over the coming years, Darul Aman would serve as a medical school, a raisin warehouse, a refugee camp, and various government ministries until Afghanistan’s civil war made it an important strategic position. As an improvised fortress, it was taken and retaken repeatedly by opposing forces.

Now, a small unit of the Afghan National Army occupies Darul Aman. We pulled up to the barbed wire fence surrounding the palace, got out, and shut our doors quietly. The soldiers were lounging under a portico drinking tea, their assault rifles leaning rakishly against the pillars. We smiled and waved casually. They waved back.

At Mobin’s suggestion, I had brought a gift. The men were in need of a volleyball. Placing my hand over my heart, I supplied them with one. Abdil, the unit commander smiled broadly from behind his aviators with a Ray-Ban sticker still boldly obscuring a lens. “Very good,” he said, waving us on.

We stepped through a shell-hole into the building, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness before moving on. There was unexploded ordnance scattered among the rubble—one of the reasons why the ANA guards lived in separate barracks outside.

The walls were covered in graffiti: Qur'anic verses, names of fallen comrades, a monkey smoking a cigarette. In the oval chamber once intended to be Afghanistan’s parliament, someone had spray-painted a picture of a tank with an upraised hand jutting from the turret. It was labeled, “Hi-5 tANK.” In another room someone wrote, “As long as there is battle, we will be steadfast.” A second writer countered, “You will battle as long as you are paid.”

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We ascended a spiral staircase as Mobin resumed his evangelizing. “My brother,” he appealed, “the Qur'an says that one day the sun will die. I saw on the internet that this is true. One day the sun will finish its energy. How could Mohammad know that? Only God could know.” His words echoed through the halls.

We saw dark figures in the corridor: a young man carrying a suitcase, an old bearded man leading a boy by the hand, and finally the squat Abdil and his lanky underling Abdul, who had come to check up on us.

After requesting that we pose for photographs, the two soldiers made beckoning gestures. We followed them to a two-story ladder that led up to the roof. The metal had been twisted and one of the vertical legs severed by the force of an explosion. Abdil and Abdul began to climb without a second thought. I followed close behind. Mobin shook his head and remained below.

“It is dangerous,” he warned.

“Insha’Allah,” I replied, using a phrase he often uttered. Whatever happens is God’s will.

From the roof, all of Kabul lay at our feet. We stood under a suspended sheet of corrugated aluminum. It had been peppered by so much shrapnel that it looked like a sky full of stars. We stepped to the edge of a gaping hole and looked down through all three floors of the palace to a large crater punched into the earth. An American warhead had done this in a battle against the Taliban early in the war.

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The soldiers were playful—an Afghan version of Laurel and Hardy—pretending, with raucous laughter, to jump from the roof, to push each other off, and (with flapping arms) to fly away. Abdil pulled out his keffiyeh and draped it over Abdul’s head like a shawl. “My darling!” he exclaimed in proud English, wrapping his arm around the man to fondle an imaginary breast.

The men hoisted themselves even higher, through a window, and up the iron skeleton of what had once been a dome of glass, every shard of it now long gone. At the summit, Abdul triumphantly unfurled the Afghan flag he wore around his neck. We all watched it billow in the wind. Then, slowly we descended, back to the patient Mobin.

As the sun began to dim, my translator began to make vague warnings about kidnappers. He started us on our way back to the car. As we took the stairs down we passed a young man and woman coming up. The couple stared at their shuffling feet, willing themselves invisible.

“Who let them in?” Abdul asked his superior.

Abdil puckered his lips and made a loud kissing sound. “Let them enjoy,” he chuckled.

Mobin, hearing this, drifted back until we were shoulder to shoulder. “Listen, my brother,” he whispered, turning his lips to my ear, “Allah says this world is like two children playing. It is a game. Please believe what I say. The next world is not a game.”

(Photographs by Roc Morin)

Roc’s new book, And, was released recently. You can find more information on his website.