Herat – Renaissance City

Herat

A key centre for regional powers, Herat’s history stretches back to the Achaemenids circa 500 BC. Since then it has enjoyed the full ups-and-downs of the region’s history. Alexander the Great built a city on its site in 330 BC; the Herat Citadel still stands today and is a testament to his legacy in this city. Herat continued to prosper after the burgeoning Rashidun Arabs wrested it away from the Sassanian Persians in 652 AD. In subsequent centuries it became known as the “Pearl of Khorasan” and  benefited largely from its location on the Silk Road, serving as a linking point in the trade routes between India, the Middle East and China.

The Mongols devastated it in the 13th century before more devastation was brought down by the Turco-Mongolian conqueror Timur who destroyed it in the 1380s, even constructing a skull pyramid after putting its inhabitants to the sword. Timur’s successors, on the other hand, turned Herat into one of the finest cities in the Islamic world during the 15th century. The city served as the capital of Timur’s son Shah Rukh, who made it one of the principle centers of the Timurid Renaissance, a period characterised by increased intellectual and artistic activity. In this period, Herat was home to poets like Jami and painters like Behzad.

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Herat Friday Mosque

The city eventually fell into the hands of the Safavid Persians who used it’s governorship as a training role for the eventual Shah during the 16th century. At the beginning of the 18th century, the nascent Afghans claimed it and ever since then, it has been one of the major cities of Afghanistan. Today Herat is recovering after decades of conflict but the splendour of its Timurid heydays are long-gone. The city has fallen prey to wars and natural disasters. A notable victim of this is the Mousallah Complex, which included a madrasa and a mosque that were initiated at the behest of Goharshad Begum (Shah Rukh’s wife) – it was mostly destroyed in 1885 by the British so the Russians would not be able to use it in case of an invasion (this is now known as the Panjdeh Incident).

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Peshawar

The city of Peshawar, also known as Pekhawar by its inhabitants, is one of the oldest cities in the region and has been a part of various Indo-Iranian empires throughout the ages. It has been known by many names; Purushapura (city of men) in ancient Sanskrit, Vaekereta in Avestan and later Gandhara. The current name was given by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, meaning place on the frontier. Regardless of its name, it has remained a pivotal city in the region from its inception.

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Bab-e-Khyber (Khyber Gate)

Lying between the western banks of the Bara River and at the east end of the  Khyber Pass, it was a province of the Persian Achaemenid Empire from the 6th until the 4th century BC. Eventually it fell to the momentum of the Hellenic expansion under Alexander the Great, who passed through the city on his way towards India in 327 BC. After Alexander’s death, Peshawar fell into the hands of Seleucus I Nikator (a Diadochi* of Alexander) but he gave up the entire Indus River region to the nascent Chandragupta Maurya of the Mauryan empire in exchange for 500 war elephants which Seleucus used in his Middle Eastern campaigns. Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka instituted Buddhism as the official religion of his realm and the Peshawar region became a hotbed of Buddhist culture.  The Peshawar valley then went through a period when it was successively ruled by empires with hybrid cultural backgrounds; Greco-Bactrian, Indo-Greek and Indo-Parthian kingdom – this naturally allowed Peshawar to form quite an eclectic identity.

The city first rose to prominence in the 1st century AD under the Kushan Empire when it became a trading centre between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The population increased to 120,000 making it the seventh most populated city in the ancient world according to the historian Tertius Chandler. The third Kushan King, Kanishka was a great advocate for the Buddhist religion and is associated with building the Kanishka Stupa**, which may have been the tallest building in the world at that time. This stupa was so huge that the 5th century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian says it was 120 metres tall and it could be seen when travelling down from the mountains of Afghanistan to the Gandharan plains. Unfortunately all that survives is the mound due to various fires and lightening.

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Sethi House built by the wealthy Sethi family.

When the White Huns (nomadic Turks from central Asia) came over in the 5th century, Peshawar had already been taken over by the Persian Sassanid’s. The Huns being a nation of fire worshipers, caused great harm to the Buddhist population of the city  and destroyed many of its Buddhist monuments. Buddhism would continue to be the religion of the rulers under the Turk Shahi before it was supplanted by Hinduism under the Hindu Shahi.

Islam’s introduction to Peshawar most likely began and grew under the auspices of the Pashtuns, who arrived in the valley during 1st Millennium BC from the Suleiman mountains in Afghanistan and brought their culture with them. Some Pashtun tribes converted to Islam in the initial annexation of Khurasan during the Rashidun Caliphate. The first Muslim ruler of Peshawar was Mahmud of Ghazni, who conquered the region in 1001.

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Islamia College built during the British colonial period.

By the mid 16th Century, Peshawar had officially became part of the Mughal empire after Babur brought the area under his influence on his way to conquer India. A significant yet under-emphasised aspect of the city’s history was the brief period under the Suri Dynasty (1539-1555). Under this Pashtun dynasty, Peshawar boomed economically because of the extension of the Great Trunk Road which ran from Delhi to Kabul. When the Mughals regained the city, they turned it into a city of art by replicating the gardens in the same fashion as those in Persia.

Eventually the instability created by the waning power of the Mughals meant that new powers would vie for control of this important city. This manifested itself in the rivalry between the Afghan and Sikh Empires; Peshawar had been the winter capital of the Afghans and most of the city’s population were Pashtuns (the ethnicity of the Afghan royal family) but it was taken by Ranjit Singh’s Sikh forces in 1818. The Sikh chapter of Peshawar’s history is considered to be a dark one (thanks in no small part to Paolo Avitable***) as the city’s bazaars, mosques and gardens were damaged and the city declined completely. However it wasn’t long before the Sikh empire itself was involved in a war with the British East India company and Peshawar came under the rule of British India Raj in 1849.

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Bala Hissar Fort built by Timur Shah Durrani.

The year 1893 was perhaps the last change in the history of Peshawar before it officially became part of Pakistan in 1947. Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of British-India and the Amir of Afghanistan Abdur Rahman Khan came to an agreement in what was to become known as the Durand Line dividing the boundaries of Afghanistan and Peshawar which still exists today.


Musings

The case of Peshawar is important in shedding light on the legacy of European colonialism in the Islamic world. The Durand Line in 1893 split the Pashtuns, who make up the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, in half as a means to secure British India’s frontier. When British India ceased to exist, Afghanistan voiced its irredentist claim for Peshawar and the surrounding areas on the basis of its shared cultural, ethnic and historical experience but their aspirations have repeatedly been denied. This has been a massive bone of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This goes to show that countries in the Muslim world still have to face the consequences of actions carried out by its former colonisers.


*Generals of Alexander who fought over his empire after his death

**Mound-like structure that holds Buddhist relics

*** Italian administrator appointed by the Sikhs to rule Peshawar


This article was contributed by Sehar Mufti.

Follow her on Instagram: @seharmufti

Battle of Talas

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Pivotal or Overblown?

Some battles are seen as landmark moments; their result could be the catalyst for monumental change for centuries to come. The Battle of Talas in 751 is considered as one of those moments. Let’s explore why.

What happened?

In the years leading up to 751, both the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the Arab Umayyad Caliphate had both been expanding aggressively into Central Asia – rendering a collision inevitable. The region had already featured prominently in Islamic history because the Abbasid Revolution in the late 740’s, which replaced the Umayyads with the Abbasids, was centred around the province of Khorasan (modern-day western Afghanistan, north-eastern Iran and Uzbekistan). Other than serving the goals of an expansionist religious or political creed, Central Asia was super important because it was a nexus point for the lucrative Silk Road.

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The furthest extent of the Tang Dynasty.

The spark for the Abbasid-Tang conflict was provided by the local city-states. In 750, the King of Fergana had a border dispute with the ruler of neighbouring Chach. Fergana asked the Chinese for help, which was duly obliged by General Kao of the Chinese western army. Chach’s ruler was beheaded but his son escaped and sought refuge with the famous Abbasid General Abu Muslim Khorasani, who was keen on curbing Chinese influence in the region.

The Arab forces were joined by the Uighurs and the Tibetan Empire (which was a major regional power at the time).  The two sides met at Talas, in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. After five days of intense fighting, the Battle’s result was determined by the Karluks’ (Turkic nomadic tribe) defection from the Chinese to the Arab side, which consequently led to the destruction of the Chinese forces.

Aftermath

The reality of Talas’ consequences has been mixed with mythology in the popular imagination. For instance, it is claimed that the Muslim victory caused the Chinese to abandon Central Asia. This is simply not true. Even though the result of Talas was decisive and caused much damage to the Chinese army, only a few years after, in 755, the Tang dynasty recruited a large army to contest the influence of the Abbasids in the region. The plan was cut short by the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), when the seditious Chinese General An Lushan declared himself Emperor of a new dynasty and marched on the imperial Chinese capital. In the ensuing conflict the An Lushan Rebellion was eventually put down but the imperial authority of the Tang would never properly recover, so much so that they no longer had the privilege of casting their sights on expansion but rather focus their efforts on the heartland of their realm. This is how the the Chinese came to lose what they called the ‘Western Regions’ (Central Asia).

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The Abbasid Caliphate (light green) at its height.

But Talas’ place in history is assured by the fact that it may have been impetus for bringing paper-making technology to the Middle East and on to Europe. Supposedly (there is historical debate on this) Chinese prisoners captured at the Battle of Talas shared their knowledge with their captors – the Chinese had been using paper for centuries whilst the rest of civilisation slacked behind with more primitive methods such as clay, papyrus and parchment. This theory is aided by the fact that there is documented evidence of these expert individuals, such as Tou Houan. In addition, paper manufacturing can be observed in the Middle East for the first time by the end of the eighth century, which resulted in the proliferation of texts produced in centres of learning such as Baghdad.

Conclusion

It seems that the Battle of Talas’ reputation as spelling the end of Chinese influence in the area was, at best, circumstantial due to the occurrence of the An Lushan Rebellion which happened only a few years later and was the real reason. Whilst Talas’ geopolitical ramifications may have been blown out of proportion, its significance in transmitting paper-making technology definitely warrants consideration as being a truly significant event in history.