Myself and Friend Nawab standing at the entrance to Chicken Street
As I’ve stated in earlier posts, Afghanistan was once famous as a passage from East to West for trading empires. And Kabul, while an ancient city, was not really historically the center of Afghanistan, until relatively recently.
Kabul used to be a place where livestock and other trading goods were exchanged and stored. It is my theory that the city was founded where it is because the Kabul River came so close to the mountains in the part of Police District 1 known as “The Lion’s Gate”, that it made a handy place to pen up livestock. Traders only really needed to put some barriers across the narrow corridor there and they had an instant pen.
Bala Hisar circa 1879 – Photo by John Burke
From there, the city grew along natural patterns based on terrain and socio-cultural pressures. The area just past “The Lion’s Gate” made up the Shar-e Bazaar of Kabul, which was dominated by the fortress Bala Hisar. The other main fortress was across the Kabul River in farm country, and that fortress was called Sher Pur.
In 1879, the British invaded Afghanistan for the second time, (the first time was from 1838 – 1842, which ended in the complete destruction of the British Army there) and when the British consul was killed, they burned the original Shar-e Bazaar, which was located at the foot of the Bala Hisar, in what is now known as Police District 1.
Map from the paper “Recent Developments in Kabul’s Shar-e-Naw and Central Bazaar Districts” by Andreas Dittmann
The area still has an extensive market, but the city grew northwest, across the river, towards the Sher Pur fort after the destruction of the old Bazaar, in an area that is now known as Shar-e Naw, which means “New City”. And when the Civil War came, Bala Hisar was fought over extensively, which resulted in even more destruction of Shar-e Bazaar.
Shar-e Naw was largely untouched by the Civil War, which preserved two of its most noted features; Shar-e Naw park and the Central Bazaar, more popularly known as “Kuchi Murgha” or “Chicken Street.”
Chicken Street is a wondrous place, where Westerners may come to see, smell, touch, and purchase nearly everything that is exotic about the East. 80 carat Emerald? I’ve seen and fondled one there. Lapis lazuli, rubies, tourmaline, you name it. Afghan carpets? Tons of them. Exotic foods, to include a French bistro, where one can hang out with supermodel-looking girls? Check. How about a one of a kind Model 1895 big game rifle, just like Teddy Roosevelt used? I’ve played with one there.
There are artists painting and selling their paintings. Fresh fruits, vegetables and exotic spices, including really high quality saffron at bargain basement prices. Nuristani carved furniture. I’ve even seen the cape from an endangered Snow Leopard. Ancient coins and other antiquities abound. And the beggars are plentiful and even entertaining, with my favorite being a young man who does a comedic imitation of a beggar, intentionally making ridiculous claims of his families’ hardships and then laughing about it after.
But starting about 2010, the people who own the property made a huge mistake. In their excitement to maximize profits and to make the experience more modern, they started destroying the cozy run down little shops that made the experience so cool. Some of the old shops are still there. My friend Wahid, whose carpet shop appears to be an 8 x 10 foot room, but if you check out as being “ok” you are invited back to a rat’s warren of passageways until you arrive at the upper floor, which is large and luxuriant. Some of my best memories are of sitting at his table, drinking chai and eating his Herati snacks while discussing the problems of Afghanistan, America and the world.
Rubble from the shop tear down
Modern buildings replace the old
But these little shops are gradually being torn down and are replaced by huge, chrome and glass multi-story mega-complexes. Unfortunately, as this construction is going up, potential customers for the business they promise were not going to Chicken Street anymore because of Western risk aversion and withdrawal from Afghanistan. And for Westerners, the greatest attraction to Chicken Street was its cool and exotic feel. Ironically, if you want the flavor of the “old” Chicken Street, you need to go back South East, over the river to Shar-e Bazaar. Shar-e Bazaar has been somewhat restored to its mysterious, intriguing and inviting self. But I have yet to see another Westerner there. Really adventurous shoppers will stop and have a bowl of Shorwa, or soup, at one of the many mobile carts, there.
Friend Zok, for once in front of the camera, at the literal “end of Chicken Street”