Afghanistan’s Unlikely Wine Hero
The unlike story of a man who build an Empire out of Afghanistan, based on armies, pleasure and wine.
After something of a break from writing, I’ve been casting around for inspiration for my next post. I needed a character, a figure who “jumped out of the pages” and out of history. The wine connection is always nice too, of course. I always try to look for the unusual, the kind of countries or times in history you look at and think “they grew vines? They really had time to drink wine?”. It turned out what I was looking for man named Babur, who created an Empire based on military success, political nous and wine – all from his capital of Kabul.
Modern day Afghanistan, you may be somewhat surprised to know, still has around 123,500 acres of vineyard, largely used for drying grapes or table wine. But to the entrepreneurial 16th Century mind, Afghanistan was an ideal location for wine, positioned as it was on that great lifeline to the East – the Silk Road. The ribbon of trade which tied east to west. It also made it a perfect location on which to found an Empire. Babur was the man of the hour, a descendant of both Ghengis Khan and Timur. A man with ambition, suitably and an axe to grind.
Babur could so nearly have been a tiny footnote in history. By the age of 14 he was homeless, supporter-less and adrift. His rise to power is worth seeking out, but for the purposes of this article it is important to note that he left us a legacy, his autiobiography, which is a supremely honest tome and brings to life a period in time and a character which we can easily relate to. But what really comes across in his writings is his love for two very clear things in life – horticulture and wine.
For a man who did not drink until he was aged twenty nine, he took to it with impressive alacrity. His own writings are twinged with a certain degree of regret for having not tasted wine sooner. He wrote “Up to then, I had not committed the sin of wine-drinking or known the cheering sensation of comfortable drunkenness.” It is fair to say however, that in his thirties Babur made up for missed opportunities. The tales recounted in his own writings are rife with amusing anecdotes about he and his aristocratic ruling circle getting uproariously drunk. There are tales of parties in the Afghan wild where not a man can recall getting on their horse to return home (which I hardly need draw modern day parallels too). Another tale recounts how after a night’s session, one man was unable to mount his horse at all – despite the appearance of Afghan tribesmen who were incredibly hostile to the new ruling class… Babur suggest chopping off his friend’s head and returning to Kabul minus one drunken body (I’m not quite sure about the modern day parallels with this one, however). Babur himself said ; “wine maketh a man act like an ass in rich pasture.”
For all his indulgences, it would be unfair to purely draw up an image of a lout. He was clearly an incredibly astute politician, managing to tailor his humble beginnings into one of the greatest Empires the world had known. By his death in 1530 the Moghul Empire encompassed a hefty chuck of central Asia, including Afganistan, but also deep into India with its capital as Delhi. He seemed to have an innate knack of summoning men to him, whether for a drinking party or as an army.
But here lay the problem for Babur. His life in Kabul had centred around passion, for wine and the gardens of the city. His ambition had taken him far beyond Afghanistan’s somewhat dubious comforts, deep into India. His letters back to his friends lie heavy with his regrets. “Who are you drinking wine with now?” his perennial question. He resolved to leave off wine during his stay in India for the sake of his health. Now in his forties he planted tulips all around, but the gardens of his new Empie wilted and his love for Kabul’s pleasures drew him back. He resolved to make the journey, but died at the age of forty seven before he could complete his wish. The Empire he left behind however, would last for centuries.
In modern day Kabul his tomb has become something of an oasis of calm. During the fierce conflicts of the 21st Century, his star began to rise in Afghan culture. One journalist in 2010 put it- “Babur is emerging as an unlikely national hero in a country short of leaders worth admiring. People pray at the foot of his low, simple grave. One enthusiast sacrifices a buffalo to him every year, and distributes the meat to the gardeners who tendthe place.” An usual epitaph perhaps, but for a man who went beyond the need to merely survive – a rather fitting one.