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The Tower Of Babur: The Legacy Of Babur The Great

Kandahar's famous Forty Steps, built by Babur the Great.
Kandahar's famous Forty Steps, built by Babur the Great.
The Julian calendar marks December 26, 1530, as the day Babur the Great died. Though the Central Asian monarch didn’t know it at the time, the Moghul Dynasty he founded would survive until 1857.

The current issue of “The Economist” includes a feature titled “Babur, The First Moghul Emperor, Wine and Tulips in Kabul.” The piece profiles Babur the Great, a Kabuli who founded the Moghul (Mongol) Dynasty in South Asia in the 16th century. At heart, Babur longed for the Afghanistan where he spent much of his adult life.. He chose to be buried there rather than in the Indian lands he also conquered.

Babur became a minor Moghul prince in the Ferghana Valley at the tender age of 11 when his father died suddenly. By age 13, he was already waging war against Samarkand. Eventually, he settled on Kabul as his first capital and fell in love with the city. He consolidated his power there before launching an invasion of northern India -- Hindustan, as it was then known -- which was under the rule of a dynasty of Lodi Pashtun tribesmen.

Between military conquests, parties, and naturalist expeditions, Babur recorded his life in the “Baburnama“ -- or “Book of Babur” -- hailed as the earliest example of an autobiography in the Islamic world. Mysteriously, over a decade of his life is missing. The missing text covers much of Babur’s time in Kabul and is, ironically, the period which is the focus of “The Economist” feature.

Babur’s Kabul, as "The Economist" notes, was a stronghold surrounded by mountains, impassible during winter. Indeed, the ebb and flow of warfare in Afghanistan is almost just as beholden to the seasons today. "The Economist" points out that Kabul was an important stop for goods from India. Herbs, sugar, textiles, and slaves were brought to Kabul for destinations in Central Asia and beyond. Yet “The Economist” leaves out the most valuable Central Asian good traded in Kabul: horses.

Oil is the strategic commodity of our time. Ready access to cheap oil has launched empires, and much blood has been shed to control it. But in Babur’s day, horses were the great resource upon which states were built.

Harvard History professor Scott Levi says, "By the Moghul period, cavalry had become arguably the most important element in the Indian military." Jos Gommans, a Dutch Historian, maintains that at its peak in the 18th century the number of war horses in India ranged between 400,000 and 800,000.

Today, Afghanistan has yet to realize the full potential of its strategic location vis-a-vis regional petroleum markets. Afghan pipelines -- like the agreed-upon TAPI pipeline linking Central Asian gas with South Asian outlets -- are just as imaginary as Babur’s dream of controlling Samarkand.

During the Moghul era, Afghanistan capitalized on its location, becoming the hub of a blossoming horse trade. In "Baburnama," Babur explains that 7,000 to 10,000 horses arrived in Kabul annually, while several thousand more arrived in Kandahar and other Afghan locales. While waiting for the snows to melt in the mountain passes, the horses were fattened in pastures surrounding Kandahar and Kabul.

Over the next centuries, the trade grew to such an extent that some records claim that as many as 100,000 horses could be purchased in a single season by Indian merchants in Afghanistan. The 17th-century French traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier estimated that 60,000 Uzbek horses were brought to Kabul each year.

Babur used the expansive horse trade to provide his army with war horses and to fill his coffers with taxes. In turn, he provided traders with a secure atmosphere in which to conduct business. The Lodi Dynasty that Babur’s invasion displaced in India had also risen to prominence by dominating the horse trade. Only 19th century advances in infantry weapons changed these dynamics and broke the geopolitical significance of Kabul.

As it often does, trade liberalization promoted tolerance. Kabul -- like so many other trading centers -- became a center for religious and cultural tolerance. “The Economist“ notes that Kabul was home to speakers of 11 or 12 different languages during Babur’s rule and was more religiously tolerant when compared to many of its contemporary states in Europe. Babur forged marriage ties to the Sunni Sufi Naqbashandi orders in Kabul while also maintaining close ties with the Shi'a Sufi Qizbilash troops in his army. Babur had a similar approach to ethnic groups as well. Babur’s army was also diverse, containing Pashtuns, Arabs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and other Central Asian ethnic groups.

“The Economist” article is one of an increasing number of works over the last decade that have focused on Babur. In Afghanistan, Babur remains popular despite his foreign origin and often irreligious attitudes. Stephen Dale, a historian of the Moghul period, notes that, “Some Afghans think that Babur personified the qualities that they vocally admire in themselves: spontaneous bravery, social informality, and a refined appreciation of natural beauty."

Babur was a talented and brutal military leader. But his legacy should not be that of a great military hero.

Instead, Babur offers more important lessons. Under Babur, Afghanistan flourished. He unlocked growth by encouraging trade, enforcing a simple and clear taxation system, embracing pluralism, and raising an army reflective of the diverse groups he ruled.

Modern state builders in Afghanistan would do well to recall these aspects of Babur’s legacy.

-- Joseph Hammond