que nadie lo miraba,
          Aminadab tampoco parecía,
          y el cerco sosegaba,
          y la caballería
          a vista de las aguas descendía.
          and there was no one watching,
          neither did Aminadab appear,
          the siege was lifting,
          and the horsemen,
          at the sight of the waters,
          came riding down
                                          Cántico spiritual, San Juan de la Cruz

In 1504, in his early twenties, Zahīr ud-Dīn Muhammad Babur, descendent of Genghis Khan and of Timur, having been driven from his hereditary seat in what is now Uzbekistan, seized the city of Kabul. He made it the base from which he established the Mughal empire, comprising what is today northern Afghanistan, Kashmir, Assam, Bangladesh and most of India. 

A love of war and literature was Babur’s inheritance. His father, Umar Shaikh Mirzar II, ‘a ruler of high ambition … always bent on conquest … [and of] a poetic nature’ (Babur Nama), died when Babur was 11, and the boy was soon ousted by older relatives. William Dalrymple describes how in the years before Babur took Kabul, he ‘liv[ed] with his companions from day to day, rustling sheep and stealing food. Occasionally he would capture a town — he was 14 when he first took Samarkand and held it for four months. But for much of his youth he lived as a brigand, wandering for years across central Asia [with only] a tent [for shelter], displaced and dispossessed.’

Babur expressed fully the disturbing human capacity to be simultaneously responsive to the beauty of the world, which he celebrated both in formal poetry and in prose, and to delight in the exercise of power, and to be inventively cruel in its pursuit. To found his empire, he secured alliances and won the favour and fear of the people by exploiting tribal and ethnic divisions and rivalries just like those that had made him an outcast. He also employed the military technology of the Ottomans – matchlock guns and mortars – against enemies who had not yet adopted these weapons.
Timurid calligraphy, Kattar Langar, Uzbekistan. 
William Dalrymple on the trail of Babur’s paradise lost | Financial Times (

When not on campaign, Babur oversaw the creation of many gardens. In 1528, two years before he died at the age of 47, he caused to be laid out and planted with shade trees and fruit trees and flowers a many-terraced enclosure in Kabul, and requested that when the time came, he should be buried there. This couplet, attributed to the great Sufi poet Amir Khusrau, was his epitaph:

          If there is a paradise on earth
          it is this, it is this, it is this!*

The tomb and the garden have been wrecked by earthquake and war, its marble pavilions toppled and pocked by gunfire, its trees cut down for firewood – and they have also been restored and replanted. 

Now, having passed through many hands since the time of Babur, Kabul itself has fallen again, twenty years after US forces moved in, to a cohort of orphans of a previous war who, radicalised, brutalised – weaponised – are in the process of creating another fatherless and motherless generation of fighters. 

Into cold dark days, from the windbreak comes the two-note entreaty of the first grey robin. A lemon foam of wattle blossom begins to rise in the gullies and here and there a twiggy leptomeria waits for warmth in which to send out its cloud of honey perfume. First flycatcher, first pardalote, first leaf on the flowering chestnut. And independent of seasons, the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread like spilt fuel in the cold wet of this southern winter and in the US and Europe as they burn through their hottest months on record. Governments everywhere scramble to get and distribute vaccines. Wealthy countries grab available supplies and so create the conditions required for new variants to emerge among populations excluded from vaccination. And for the moment, here on the island we continue to watch all this unfold elsewhere, the wave not yet having broken on our already overstretched hospital system, gutted liked the education system by the ironies of just-in-time capitalism. 

Rain and sleet blow crossways on a fierce northwesterly that swings westerly and southerly, bringing eight metre ocean swells and twelve-to-fourteen metre surges rolling onto the west coast. This is the wildest of the winter storms; within its roar I feel the ground tremble as the flow strikes and wrenches trees on the forested slopes below the ridge where the house sits, shuddering. Wrens and honeyeaters shelter close against lee-side walls and venture out between gusts to feed amongst flattened grass-stems; twenty black cockatoos hunker down in the lower limbs of the second windbreak, out of the worst of it. Any early nests exposed to this will be blown away.
As the wind subsides, frogs are deafening in every dam; every puddle that sits long enough will host a wriggle of tadpoles. Wrens gather beakfuls of spiderweb from under the eaves and fly with them to the nest they’re building in the long grass – I hope better positioned than last year. Sun dazzles as a wattlebird talks softly to its mate then makes vertical leaps of flight – I declare this my nesting place – from the tree that overhangs the water pot. The season has turned. Clouds of pollen fly from the pines; white flowers flicker on in the cherry plum hedge; a green haze intensifies around the tips of the elders.

High skies of many layers and rain that blows along the ground. Over the course of several days satellite imaging shows a tongue of cold air pushing up along the eastern seaboard of the mainland, while out in the Tasman Sea a warm equal-and-opposite air mass slides down from the north. At first they rub flanks along a sharp boundary that runs north-south for hundreds of kilometres, then they turn towards each other – the cold stream curls east toward the warm and the warm inclines west toward the cold. They begin to circle until they form a continuous whole around a tightening centre; energy lifts into mountainous clouds, storm winds thrash the coast as the turning heart crosses onto land and there, momentum broken, it dumps flooding rain before it drifts and disperses. 

Cold and dark, hot and dark as it is in this, the only paradise we have, there is a time – it exists now! – where the storm we’re in has passed. Now we feel the chokehold of our history and our choices, our cold anger, our angry heat, and now, gripped by our sickness and its medicine, we turn and turn on each other until seamless, exhausted, we relent. Rain falls and outside our bluegreen garden in the plains of night the campfires of the ancestors burn all around, above, below, encircling.

*  اگرفردوس روی زمین است همین است و همین است و همین است 
For a discussion of the attribution of the couplet, see Rana Safvi. Shahajahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi. HarperCollins India, 2019.


Babur. The Babur Nama: A Memoir. Introduction by William Dalrymple. Trans. Annette Susannah Beveridge. Everyman’s Library. Penguin Random House 2020.

William Dalrymple. ‘The First Mughal Emperor’s Towering Account of Exile, Bloody Conquest, and the Natural World.’ Literary Hub ( 5 November, 2020.

Saint John of the Cross. Poems. Trans. John Frederick Nims. Chicago & London: University of
          Chicago Press, 1979.


  1. Thank you! And the honey-eaters take very splashy baths in the stone bowl
    on the deck of the barn.


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