About 172 kms west of Rawalpindi/Islamabad by road about half an hour by air lies the last major town of Pakistan, the ancient and legendary Peshawar, city of proud Pathans. Peshawar the capital city of North-West Frontier Province, is a frontier town, the meeting place of the sub-continent and Central Asia. It is also a place where ancient traditions jostle with those of today, where the bazaar in the old city has changed little in the past hundred years except to become the neighbor of a modern university, some modern hotels, several international banks and one of the best museums in Pakistan.
No other city is quite like old Peshawar. The bazaar within the walls is like an American Wild movie costumed as a Bible epic. Pathan tribesmen stroll down the street with their hands hidden within their shawls, their faces half obscured by the loose ends of their turbans. (With his piercing eyes and finely chiseled nose, the Pathan must be the handsomest man on earth). On the other side of the railway line is the cantonment, its tree-lined streets wide and straight as they pass gracious gardens. Clubs, churches, schools, The Mall, Saddar Bazaar and the airport round out the British contribution to the modernization of Peshawar. Further west is University Town, Peshawar’s newest section and the site of Peshawar University.
A local book, Peshawar, History City of the Frontier, by A.H. Dani and published by Khyber Mail Press in 1969, makes a good first purchase. It provides a detailed account of Peshawar’s history and a tour of this city walls and ancient monuments.
The fortunes of Peshawar at inextricable linked to the Khyber Pass, the eastern end of which it guards. The pass seems to have been little used in prehistoric times, and even in early historic times it was generally shunned as too narrow and thus too prone to ambush. Not until the powerful Kushans invaded Gandhara and pacified the area in the first century AD did the Khyber become a popular trade route. Peshawar owes its founding 2,000 years ago to those same Kushans. In the second century AD, Kanishka, the greatest of the Kushan kings, moved his winter capital here from Pushkalavati, 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the north. His summer capital was north of Kabul at Kapisa, and the Kushans moved freely back and forth through the Khyber Pass between the two cities, from which they ruled their enormous and prosperous empire for the next 400 years. After the Kushan era, Peshawar declined into an obscurity not broken until the 16th century, following the Mughal emperor Babar’s decision to rebuild the fort here in 1530. Sher Shah Suri, has successor (or, rather, the usurper of his son’s throne), turned Peshawar’s renaissance into a boom when he ran his Delhi-to-Kabul Shahi Road through the Khyber Pass. The Mughals turned Peshawar into a ‘city of flowers’ (one of the meanings of its name) by planting trees and laying our gardens. In 1818, Ranjit Singh captured Peshawar for his Sikh Empire. He burned a large part of the city and felled the trees shading its many gardens for firewood. the following 30 years of Sikh rule saw the destruction of Peshawar’s own Shalimar Gardens and of Baba’s magnificent fort, not to mention the dwindling of the city’s population by almost half. The British caused the Sikhs and occupied Peshawar in 1849 but, as much as Sikh rule had been hated, its British replacement aroused little enthusiasm. More or less continuous warfare between the British and the Pathans necessitated a huge British garrison. When the British built a paved road through the Khyber Pass, they needed to build numerous forts and pickets to guard it.
Qissa Khawani Bazaar:
Extending from west to east in the heart of the city is the romantic ‘Street of Story-tellers’ – the Qissa Khawani Bazaar. In olden days, this was the site of camping ground for caravans and military adventures, where professional story-tellers recited ballads and tales of war and love to throngs of traders and soldiers. Today the story-tellers are gone but the atmosphere lingers on. Bearded tribesmen bargain with city traders over endless cups of green tea. Fruit stalls look small colorful pyramids. People from everywhere throng the crowded street. Afghans, Iraqis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Afridis, and Shinwaris move around with ease and grace in their colorful native robes and run shoulders with the Western tourists-lost in a world so different, so enchanting.
‘The Street of Partridge Lovers’ lies on the left hand corner of Qissa Khawani Bazaar. It derives its name from the bird-market which stood here till a few decades ago and has now been replaced by stores and shops selling exquisitely engraved brass and copper ware. However, a single bride shop still remains as a long reminder of the not too distant past.
Bala Hisar Fort:
Built on a raised platform from the ground level, the Bala Hisar Fort stands at the north-western edge of the city. The original structure was raised in 1519 AD during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Babar. It was reconstructed in its present form by Sikhs who ruled over Peshawar valley between 1791 and 1849 AD.
Same 16 kms from Peshawar, on the Khyber road, an old battle-ship attracts the eye: this is Jamrud Fort. Looking ruggedly majestic with its jumble of towers and loop-holed walls, the fort contains the grave of its builder, the famous Sikh General Hari Singh Nalwa, who died here in action against the forces of the Amir of Kabul in 1837 AD.
Excursion from Peshawar
The gigantic multi-purpose Warsak Dam is situated 30 kms north-west of Peshawar in the heart of tribal territory. It has a total generating capacity of 240,000 kms and will eventually serve to irrigate 110,000 acres of land.
Situated on the Grand Trunk Road in the Cantonment area, the museum houses a rich treasure of art, sculpture and historical relics, particularly of the Gandhara period (300 BC – 300 AD). The pieces on show at the museum include Graeco-Buddhist stone and stucco sculpture, gold, silver and copper coins, antique pottery, armor, old manuscripts, Buddha images, terra-coat plaques, antiques of ivory, shell and metal and a replica of the famous casket which contained the relics of Lord Buddha.
Situated atop a 160 meter high hill are the remains of a famous Buddhist monastery at Takht-e-Bhai, about 80 kms from Peshawar. This site has produced fragmentary sculptures in stone and stucco that indicate the highly developed sculptural sense of their creators. This site dates back from 2nd-3rd century AD.
Potentially one of the most important ancient sites of Asia is represented by a group if imposing mounds at Charsadda, 30 kms north-east of Peshawar. The site has long been identified with Pushkalavati, the pre-Kushan capital of Gandhara. This city was captured in 324 BC after a siege of 30 days, by the troops of Alexander the Great and its formal surrender was received by Alexander himself. It has been established beyond doubt that this city was the metropolitan centre of Asiatic trade and meeting place of oriental and occidental cultures even as long ago as 500-1,000 BC.
Mahabat Khan’s Mosque:
This mosque was built in 1630 AD by Mahabat Khan, the Governor of Peshawar, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan (1628-1658 AD). It is a fine massive structure with lofty minarets. Situated in the Andar Shahar Bazaar, it is the finest mosque in the city.
The historic Khyber Pass being at a distance of 16 kms west of Peshawar and extends up to the Pak-Afghanistan border at Torkkam, 55 kms away. Starting from the foot-hills of the Slueman Range it gradually rises to an elevation of 1,066 meters above sea level.
Khyber Pass has been a silent witness to countless events in the history of mankind. As one drives though the Pas at a leisurely pace, imagination unfolds pages of history, the Aryans descending upon the fertile northern plains in 1,500 BC subjugating the indigenous Dravidian population and settling down to open a glorious chapter in the history of civilization, the Persian hordes under Darius (6th century BC) crossing into the Punjab to annex yet another province to the Achaemenian Empire; the armies of Alexander the Great (326 BC) marching through the rugged Pass to fulfill the wishes of a young, ambitious conqueror; the terror of Ghanghis Khan unwrapping the majestic hills and turning back towards the trophies of ancient Persia; the white Huns bringing fire and destruction in their wake; the Scythians and the Parthians, the Mughals and the Afghans, conquerors all, crossing over to leave their impact and add more chapters to the diverse history of this sub-continent.
The Khyber Train:
For trail enthusiasts, the Khyber Railway from Peshawar to Landi Kotal is a three-star attraction. The British built it in the 1920s at the then enormous cost of more than two million pounds. It passes through 34 tunnels totaling five kms (three miles) and over 92 bridges and culverts. The two or three coaches are pulled and pushed by two SG 060 oil-fired engines. At one point, the track climbs 130 meters in little more than a kilometer (425 feet in 0.7 miles) by means of the heart-stopping Changai Spur. This is a W-shaped section of track with two cliff-hanging reversing stations, at which the train wheezes desperately before shuddering to a stop and backing away from the brink. The Khyber train currently runs only by appointment. Groups of 20 to 45 passengers can book one bogey for an all day outing to Landi Kotal and back, a ride lasting ten to eleven hours, for US $ 1,000. But you can easily see the train at rest at Peshawar Station.
THE OLD CITY:
Until the mid-fifties Peshawar was enclosed within a city wall and sixteen gates. Of the old city gates the most famous was the Kabuli Gate but only the name remains now. It leads out to the Khyber and on to Kabul.
You come across two-and -three story houses built mostly of unbaked bricks set in wooden frames to guard against earthquakes, Many old houses have beautifully carved heavy wooden doors and almost all have highly ornamental wooden balconies. There is a tall and broad structure whose lofty portal look down upon the street. This historical building houses the police offices and the site was occupied centuries ago by a Buddhist stupa, then by a Hindu temple and then by a Moghal sarai. It was, in Sikh days, the seat of General Avitable, an Italian soldier of fortune in the service of Ranjit Singh.
As you move up, the Qissa Khawani Bazaar turns left and here begins the bazaar of coppersmiths whose jewel-like engraved and embossed jars, bowls, ewers and plates are piled up in shops like glistening treasure trove. Other famous bazaars of Peshawar are the Khyber Bazaar. Bird Bazaar and Meena Bazaar, Jewellery Bazaar and Mochilara (Shoe Makers’ Bazaar).
In fact, the variety of craft in which Peshawar excels even today is amazing and this is a part of the city’s character often eclipsed by its martial tradition. Remember that it was in this valley of Peshawar that there flourished that remarkable school of Ghandhara sculpture, which is one of the glories of Pakistan’s heritage.
Soon you reach the central square called chowk Yadgaar the traditional site of political rallies. The two routes from the old city meet here. Parking of cars can safely be done only at this place in the old city.
BALA HISAAR FORT:
The mighty Bala Hisaar Fort lies on both eastern approaches to Peshawar city. It meets the eye when coming from Rawalpindi or from the Khyber. It is a massive frowning structure as its name implies, and the newcomer passing under the shadow of its huge battlements and ramparts cannot fail to be impressed. Originally built by Babar, the first of the Moghals in 1526-30, it was rebuilt in its present form by the Sikh Governor of Peshawar, Hari Singh Nalva, in the 1830’s under the guidance of French engineers. It houses government offices at present.
These houses are situated in Mohallah Sethian and can be approached from Chowk yadgaar. These are highly decorated style of building with carved wooden doors, partitions, balconies, mirrored and painted rooms. The Sehtis are the traditional business community of Peshawar. The main house was built in 1882 AD. by Haji Ahmed Gul who migrated from Chamkani (a near village) almost 6 generations ago.
Across the railway line was built the new modern Peshawar, the Cantonment, like the ones which the British built near every major city for their administrative offices, military barracks, residences, parks, churches and shops.
The Peshawar “Sadder” (Cantonment) is a spaciously laid out neat and clean township with avenues of tall trees, wide tarred roads, large single storied houses with lawns and a pervading scent of rare shrubs and flowers that is Peshawar’s own.
The heart of the sadder is the Khalid bin Walid (Company) Bagh which is an old Moghal Garden. Its huge ancient trees and gorgeous big roses are a sight to remember. Two other splendid old gardens are the Shahi Bagh in the north-east and the Wazir Bagh in the south-east, all of which give the character of a garden city to Peshawar.
In Sadder, there are the splendid modern state bank building, Governor’s house, hotels, old missionary Edwards collage ,archly stocked museum, fine shopping area and right in the middle is the tourist Information center at Dean’s hotel (Phone:279781).
The Peshawar of the hoary past is the old city, the Peshawar of the British period (1849 to 1947) is the Cantonment but the Peshawar of independent Pakistan is the vast extension of the city west and east.
Westward, on the road to the Khyber, where in the days gone by, no one was safe from tribal raids, today stretches a long line of educational and research institutions, such as the Academy of rural development, the teachers training college, the north regional laboratories of the council of scientific and industrial research and many others.
But the pride of Peshawar today is its university, a vast sprawling garden town of red brick buildings and velvet lawns, which comprises a dozen departments and colleges of law, medicine, engineering and forestry. Special mention must be made of the Islamia college, which was the pioneer national institution that ignited the torch of enlightenment in this region,67 years ago.
The road stretching out east towards Rawalpindi is lined for miles upon miles with factories producing a variety of goods and also orchard producing some of the world’s finest plums, pears
and peaches. Rice, sugar-cane and tobacco are the rich cash-crops of the well-watered Peshawar valley through which flows the Kabul River and at the end of which the mighty Indus forms the district boundary for 48 1/2 Kms (30miles),the two joining near the historic Attock fort.