The threat by the President of the United States to bomb cultural sites in Iran (since rescinded) serves only to remind us that this country has been complicit, together with many other countries, in the destruction of many of the sites that mark the emergence of civilization. As first the British, French, and German colonizers, and then their American and Russian successors, have fought over the resources of present-day Syrian, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and the countries of the Caucasus, they have left a violent legacy in their wake. Beyond the foremost and horrendous reality of human suffering, they laid waste to the remains of great cities, religious monuments, and other markers of how humans first established the orders and agricultural environments that we now think of as among our most permanent achievements.
I gained a fuller perspective about the depth of that history when I spent the holidays reading a translation of the Baburnama. The book is the unfinished autobiography of Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire in India. It traces his transformation from a young chieftain and warlord from the Fergana Valley (today split between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) to the conqueror of much of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Along the way, he spread not only death and mayhem but also culture: A writer of poetry and collector of art, Babur had gardens and monuments built all over the lands he conquered. He also helped establish bureaucratic systems of government that lasted for four centuries. As India seeks to suppress that legacy, it is well to remember not only his and his descendants’ misdeeds, but also its achievements.
Babur was certainly a man of contradictions. In the book, he goes from descriptions of the excellence of melons in one area to the nonchalant reporting of the number of heads he had severed, sometimes in one paragraph. Unabashedly fond of young boys, he rails against pederasts. A devout Muslim, he goes on epic bouts of drinking and eating opiates. Along the way, he describes a landscape of mountains and valleys filled with both fertility and danger, through which he crosses to reach the great plains of the Indian subcontinent. When he conquers Samarkand, he pauses his narrative for a leisurely stroll in which he describes some of the city’s many features:
On the western side of Khak Hill was constructed a garden called Bagh-i-Myadan, in the middle of which was built a superb building called Chil Sutun, two stories high with columns of stone. On its four towers are raised four towers, like minarets, through which are the passageways to the top. In all other places there are columns of stone, some fluted in spirals, and on the four sides of the upper story are porticos with columns of stone…
When he is done with his tour of the city, he describes the “excellent” and “beautiful” meadows around it, pointing out how much water is in their streams and what orchards those irrigate. He praises the “abundant and good fruit” of the area and seems to have had a particular passion for the comparative tasting of melons wherever he goes (he finds the ones if India wanting). When he moves to Kabul, he also describes which fruits go well and which don’t (he has melon seeds brought in), and counts 32 varieties of tulips. He plants a garden, geometric and flat, to commemorate and enjoy what he sees as an almost paradisiacal climate. He continues the practice of having gardens built as he moves through Afghanistan and then into northern India. One of his favorites was Bagh-i-Wafa, which he loved visiting when “it was full of clover, and the pomegranate trees had turned a beautiful autumnal bright yellow. The fruit on the trees was bright red, and the orange trees were green and fresh….”
Babur’s world was one of valleys and mountain ranges, riverine areas along which he floats on rafts, and towns that control these places. His life is one of taking, holding, losing, and often retaking (as in the case of Samarkand) cities, but also of camping in and enjoying the agricultural bounty and natural beauty of the areas outside of these cities. Born to a nomad heritage, he spends more time describing the latter than the former.
It is perhaps no wonder that Babur never felt comfortable in India, finding it a “strange land” and commenting that “the cities and provinces of Hindustan are all unpleasant. All cities, all locals are alike. The gardens have no walls, and most places are flat as boards.” His response? Lay out gardens. “Thus,” he comments with satisfaction, “in unpleasant and inharmonious India, marvelously regular and geometric gardens were introduced. In every corner were beautiful plots, and in every plat were regularly laid out arrangements of roses and narcissus.” When he finds a waterfall he likes, he orders “more than a thousand stone carvers” to create a scalloped pool while he waits. He also builds dams and bridges, as well as fortresses, and came to admire some of the palaces and temples he found, even if he found their depictions of naked bodies indecent.
By the end of the tale (which comes in 1529, less than a year before Babur died), he has amassed an immense treasury as well as vast tracts of land and spends most of his time doling those out to secure loyalty—even though he is betrayed many times. He also regularizes the administration of the land, sets up a postal system, and seeks to promote irrigation and other measures to enhance agricultural production and food security. This is not to say he gives up his murdering ways: to the end, he is sending and receiving severed heads.
What speaks through the Baburnama is how life and death, fertility and murder, valleys and plains, are all interconnected not just in a natural manner, but through the exercise of power. It is humans who turn the flat areas into places of bounty, and humans who then fight over these territories. It is humans who translate that wealth into objects they both import and trade, as well as into palaces, mosques, and gardens, and it is these objects and structures that become the subject of wars and looting. The landscape of this book is one of nodes of human wealth and beauty cut off by natural barriers and connected through trade and warfare. The Baburnama is an assembly of episodes describing these places, animated by alternating violence and enjoyment.
Today, such specificity in time and place is gone. Instead, we have continual warfare, carried out by remote control and by insurgents, isolating bombings, and other forms of localized violence. Over all of this lies a sheen of control, ensured by security devices and considerably more effective and efficient state systems than the Mughals were ever able to establish. We also seem to think, perhaps in ignorance of history, that these are states that are as natural as the landscapes through which their borders cut, and that there thus is an immutable reality to Syria (founded in 1961), Iraq (founded in 1932), Afghanistan (ironically, given its continual quasi-civil wars, the oldest of them, founded in 1747), India, and Pakistan (both founded in 1947).
Is this condition better than the instability that was the norm when Babur came on the scene? Is the controlled violence of today, with its supposed rules and regulations (even though Babur also claimed to adhere to certain standards) better than what existed before the 16th century? That is difficult to say. What is certain is that our current rulers and their enablers seem to have little of the same love and regard for both the natural and human-made places that Babur and his descendants had (it was Babur’s grandson, Akbar, who built the Taj Mahal). It would be well that we remember that these are not just abstract territories over which we are fighting, but real places inhabited by real people.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.