Kabul and Zabul


A.H. Habibi


Kabul and Zabul are two old names which have often been mentioned in historical documents and people use them until this day. If we glance at historical documents we see that the beautiful region of Kabul has been mentioned as Kubahar in Rig Veda, the old Aryan book.[1] In Avesta it has been named Vaekereta and considered as one region of the nineteen Aryan lands.[2] From historical research we cannot tell as to when the present name of Kabul came into use.

What we know is that the Greek considered this city to be in the central Parapomaisus province and the Kabul valley has been named as Kohphen.

Ptolemy, the famous Greek geographer, and historians of that period, have named the city of Kabul as Kabura and Ptolemy calls its inhabitants Kabolitae. He names some of the areas surrounding Kabul as Argarda (Arghanda), Lokarna (Logar) and Bagarda (Wardak).[3] Even though former scholars and linguists did not consider these names to be valid but recent philological work rescinds this mode of thinking. When linguistics studied the roots of words in different languages they found similarities in the structure of the words. Based on this reasoning I would like to discuss the names of Kabul and Zabul in this article.


One Rule:

At the end of the names of a lot of cities and places we see the letter (lam ل). In Aryan languages this principle signifies an adverb of time and place. In Pashto language this rule has been preserved in a number of words such as borjal بورجل (house), katal کتل (slaughter house), and darshal درشل (entrance). Beside the name of places the letter (lam) has been used to donate names of different times also. As such the word maal مال, meaning period, has been used in its short form mal مل, in old Pashto literature, to describe different periods of the day such as barmal برمل (afternoon), larmal لرمل (evening) and tarmal ترمل (night time).

Skarandoi Ghori, the Pashto poet of the court of Sultan Shahabuddin Ghori (around 1200 CE) in his ode  writes:

“In the morning, afternoon, evening, sunset, and at night, Shahab’s soldiers will not still sit and these young men will continue their march.” [4]

In the Nuristani language the letter (lam) also represents and adverb of time and place. It is used with the addition of the letter (gaf گ) at the end of names of places such as Nurgal and Dewgul. Based on this principle we will study the structure of the names Kabul and Zabul.


Literary records:

Even though the old forms of these names, such as Kawul and Zawul, are not in use in today’s literature but we see their use in their present form. Zabul as used by Firdawsi:


        There was only one road to Gunbadan

        So he turned his army toward Zabul.[5]

Zabulistan as used by Firdawsi:

        With the passing of time the guardian

        Turned in the direction of Zabulistan[6]

Kabul and Zabul as mentioned by Firdawsi:

        Headed with difficulty toward Zabulistan

        Was the commander from Kabulistan.

In the majority of cases Firdawsi writes the two names in their contemporary form such as we see from the above examples.[7] On the other hand we see in Garshasap Nama of Hakim Asad Tousi (1066 CE) the name has been written in both forms.

        Until the border of Kabulistan

        The king of Zabulistan sought vengeance.[8] 

Kawul and Zawul as used by Asadi:

        He sent him to Zawul again

        To engage in battle in Kawul.

Zawalistan and Kawalistan as used by Asadi:

        After this I head in direction of Zawalistan

        To capture the kingdom of Kawalistan.[9]

From these examples it is clear that during the time of the Aal-Subuktageen both forms were in use in literature. The use of these names in Zain-al-Akhbar of Gardezi, Majmal-al-Tawarekh, Al-Biruni’s writings, Tarekh-e Seistan, and Hudud-al-Alam it is clear that Zabul and Kabul were more frequently used than Kawul and Zawul. But the names were also written with the later spelling as we see it in Tarekh-e Guzeida of Hamdullah Mustufi, which was written several centuries after Firdawsi and Asadi in 1330 CE. Mustufi has written the name as Zawul. He states:

“Mahmud Zawuli, his mother was the daughter of the chief of Zawul and this is why he is called Zawuli.”[10]

It looks as though the spelling of Kawul preceded Zawul and both forms are close to the original root of the word.


The roots of the two names:

If we are to analyze the words Kabul and Zabul and consider the letter (lam) of each name as an adverb of place what is left from the first word is (kab) and (zab) is the remaining form of the later word. If we are to write these two forms in their old spelling we get (kaw and zaw). I believe these are the original roots of the words.

Now we will look at the historical and philological background of these two roots.




This root has importance in old Aryan languages and is seen in the structure of old names of people. The dictionary of Shahnama states: “kaw کاو: means great, in the old days it was kawi کاوی and later became kai کای such as Kaikawus, Kaiqubad. Kia کای also means the same thing and the ko کو of Shahnama relates to the same root and the short form of kaw کاو has been used to mean esteemed.”[11]

The names Kawagan (related to the Kawa family) and Kawa (the name of an ironsmith which means great) are related to the same root. In Kawanama of Ahangar (ironsmith), as mentioned in Shahmana, we see:

        He roared and addressed the king

        That I am Kawa asking for justice.

Kawian in Shahnama:

        The fine silk bedecked with jewels

        Illuminated like the bright star of Kawiyan

Kawagan in Shahnama of Firdawsi:

        Like the hero, Qaran, of Kawagan

        And leaders such as Sher and Awgan.

        Their leader was Qaran Kawagan

        Of the army of Awgan.

In old Persian literature kawa کاوه, kei کی, kiyan کیان, kaw کاو, gan گان and go گو were in use. However, this root was in use before the formation of Persian language and it dates back to the time when a distinct civilization of the Aryan people was living in Bactria. In Avista this title has been given to Vishtasap, the king of Balkh, who was a guardian and aid to Zoroaster.[12] This word is used as a prefix in the names of the Bactrian kings as Kawi کاوی, Kiyani کیانی or in its short form as Kie کی. These kings were from the Kawiyan=Kiyan and Kiyaniyan families. 

This root has been mentioned in the book of Veda as kawi and kaawi, meaning a leader and learned person[13] and some of the gods were also called Kawi.[14] In Sanskrit kawiya was a poet or singer.[15]

From the information available to us from Veda and Avesta  we can come to the conclusion that from ancient times the Aryans words kawi, kuwani, kie and kawa meant a leader and learned person and this very root is seen in kawa of Pashto with the same meaning. Around 1010 CE, Shaikh Reza Ludi, brother of Shaikh Hamed, the king of Multan, went to the Suleiman mountain to propagate Islam. Shaikh Reza learned that his nephew, Nasr, had embraced paganism and had converted from his religion so he sent this ode to his nephew:

        Nasr you are not one of us

        You are not a Ludi by kawa.[16]

Meaning: Oh Nasr you are not from our family and not enlightened like the Ludis. In Pashto, which is a remnant of the old Aryan languages, the root of kawa was used to mean knowledge and enlightenment. In my opinion the first part of the names, Kabul and Kawul, are also from this same Aryan root. In the Aryan languages the letters (wow و) and (bae ب) are exchangeable. As a result the first part of the word kaw has been converted to kaab. We have a lot of examples for this kind of distortion in Aryan names and titles. For example, Kuwat, the name of an old Bactrian king, was converted to Qebad, and the letter (wow) has been converted to (bae). Similarly, Kawus, which has the same root has been converted to Qabos. This is  an excellent example of the conversion of Kawul to Kabul.

If we are to examine the roots of words, in light of their old meanings, the name Kabul should thus be translated as the abode of Kawiyan, meaning knowledgeable and enlightened people. In the Vedic name, Kawbahar, and the Greek Kufar the old root of kokaw is seen. We see that this example shows us the originality of the root and we can come to the conclusion that this root and name is pure and indigenous.

The history of the Kawian family of Bactria dates back to the time of Veda and Avesta, about three and half centuries ago, and we can say that the names, Kawul and Kabul, are also associated to this period. From this ode of Firdawsi we can ascertain that ko and kaw we in use in the language and culture of the people.

        The son of Tahmasap, a Farkiyan

        Belonged to the people of ko.


Zo, Zaab and Zaw:

We will now evaluate the old root of the name Zawul and Zabul. If we remove the last letter of (lam ل) from these words we are left with Zaw and Zab. According to historians, Zaw or Zow was the name of a king, who was the son of Tahmasap and grandson of Nowroz. He was the king mentioned in Aryan fables and Tabari considers him to be Zo, son of Tahmasap, son of Menocheher. Menhaj Seraj states: “Actually this Zo is Zaab, and when he became the king, he attacked Garshasap, his uncle…”[17]

This name was common among the Bactrian Aryans[18] and according to linguists its old form was Zawa which meant an esteemed and respected person. Firdawsi says:

        Good tidings they convey to Zow

        That Fereidun’s crown is for you.

        Leaving his crown rose Zow

        To start a new life enow.[19]

In mythological history (Zow=Zaab) is related to the time of Kiyan and this ode by Firdawsi is a testament to this claim:

        When Zow sat on the throne

        He sought to be praised alone.

         Someone from the Kiyan ancestry

        Will now sit on Kei’s throne.

At any rate Zaw or Zow, which according to the eminent historian, Menhaj Seraj Jouzjani is Zaab, was a prominent name among the Bactrian Aryans. In Sanskrit the word jow also meant a gentleman and a superior.[20] As a rule the letter (zae ز) was converted to (jeem ج). From these historical documents we can say that Zabul or Zawul meant the abode of respected and audacious people. This is corroborated from the fact that the region was, in ancient history, the cradle of heroes and respected people. The period of the Zawuli kings is famous in the history of Afghanistan and this brach was prominent among the Yaftali tribes of Afghanistan. The leaders and elders of this lineage were famous governors during the period of Akhsnur, the famous Yaftali king. Later these leaders became rulers of the area. Turamana (which means a swordsman) and Mehrakola (from the family of sun; in Pashto kol means a family) were celebrated kings of this lineage. Their kingdom was in Zawlistan. These two personalities, whose names are  Pashto, consider themselves to belong to the Jauvla tribe, as indicated in their inscriptions and coins. In a Greek script, dating to the Kushani period, this word has been written as Zubal.[21] These historical documents attest to the old roots of these words as explained in this article.



1. Rig Veda, Vol. 1, p. 522.

2. Avesta, Vol. 2, p. 10.

3. History of Afghanistan, Vol. 1, p. 80.

4. Pata Khazana, p. 55.

5. Shahnama of Firdawsi.

6. Shahnama of Firdawsi.

7. On rare occasions the word has been written as Zawul in Shahnama of Ferdawsi such as: They all flocked toward Zawulistan.

8. Garshasap Nama.

9. Garshasap Nama.

10. Tarekh-e Guzeda, p. 395, London.

11. Farhang-e Shahnama, p. 215.

12. Yasna, 14-42, 16-51, 2-53.

13. Vedic Religion, Vol. 2, p. 338.

14. Gatha, p. 93.

15. Dictionary of  Hindi, p. 55.

16. Pata Khazana, p. 71.

17. Tabaqat-e Naseri (handwritten), Vol. 1, pp. 76, 240.

18. Farhang-e Shahnama, p. 158.

19. Shahnama.

20. Sanskrit Dictionary, p. 295.

21. Tarekh-e Afghanistan,  Vol. 2, p 465.

22. Penjah Maqala, 1362 Solar Hijra, p. 367-377.