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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“The crossroads of the world. Many generations of men have ruled this city, but they have never subdued her. She always bounces back.” Yusuf Tazim, Assassin’s Creed.
Origin & Name
About as iconic as a city could wish to be, this city has had its name changed three times by three different civilisations. Its story started out as Byzantium, a Greek colony in 657 BC – named after the mythological figure of King Byzas. Eventually it became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and was renamed Constantinople in honour of its patron Emperor Constantine in 330 AD. The Ottomans did not officially change its name but over time its Muslims citizens referred to it by another name – which came about as a development from the Greek phrase ‘es tein polin’ (‘in the city’). In fact, it was only officially renamed Istanbul in 1930.
Istanbul has had two significant chapters in its history; respectively serving as the capital of the Eastern Roman (later known as Byzantine) Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
Byzantine Empire (395-1453)
Since Antiquity, the city has benefited from its strategic location straddling Asia and Europe but did not really achieve any real kind of splendor until the Roman Emperor Constantine made it his capital in 330 AD. After the final partition of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, the Eastern Roman Empire which became known as the Byzantine Empire developed a distinctly Greek identity as opposed to its Roman roots.
A significant event in this period was Emperor Justinian’s rule (527-565 AD). During his reign, the Nika Riot occurred (532 AD) and tore the city up – after which Justinian was able to rebuild the city with many splendid monuments such as the Hagia Sophia.
Constantinople remained a key cosmopolitan city until the Medieval period but was handicapped by warfare and conflict, much of it coming from Islamic powers. Some conflicts came in the shape of sieges (e.g. 674 AD; 860 AD) which had to be fended off. These were defended due to Constantinople’s impressive fortifications as well as technological developments such as “Greek Fire”.
The city was eventually conquered by an unlikely source: members of the Fourth Crusade from Europe. It was a short-lived foray, 1204-1261, but it did retard the progress of the city as loot was rampant. When the Byzantines recaptured it in 1261, they found a city which had gone financially bankrupt with a decreasing population. One of its most visible monuments today, the Galata Tower, was built in 1348 by the Genoese contingent in the city.
Ottoman Empire (1453-1922)
The Byzantines would hold on to the city for almost 200 more years before the surging Ottomans, who had throughout this time been taking over territory on both the Asian and European side of Constantinople, conquered the city in 1453. Mehmet I succeeded where others had failed by dragging his ships inland across the Golden Horn*. He allowed his troops three days of looting, after which he spent the remainder of his reign (1451-1481) rebuilding the lost grandeur of the new Ottoman capital. Sultan Mehmet commissioned the construction of the Grand Bazaar (one of the largest markets in the world), Topkapi Palace and the Fatih mosque.
In 1509 a catastrophe known as the “Lesser Judgement Day” devastated the city – an earthquake followed by a tsunami killed 10,000 people and destroyed more than 1000 houses. But to highlight the peaks and valleys of this city’s history, this dark day was followed by generations of Ottoman Sultans who contributed to Constantinople’s glory by building magnificent mosque’s and monuments. These are scattered throughout the city but are most conspicuous in the Fateh District. The architect Mimar Sinan (1489-1588) was responsible for many of these sites.
Constantinople continued to be a major world city even as the Ottoman Empire’s power began dwindling from the 18th century onward. It eventually became romanticised in the ‘Orientalist‘* imagination of many Western Europeans.
Republic of Turkey (1923 – Present)
Istanbul was briefly occupied by the Allies after World War One when the Ottoman Empire emerged on the losing side. In the aftermath of the Nationalist victory during the Turkish War of Independence, Mustafa ‘Ataturk’ Kemal moved the capital of the new-born state to Ankara and thus the newly-named Istanbul suffered. But from the 1940’s onward, Istanbul reclaimed some of its former glory when it gained incentive from immigration and increased commercial activity. Some of this would be at the expense of certain historical sites which were sacrificed as the price for propelling the city’s economic growth.
The city is a product of all the glorious cultures and civilisations that have come in contact with each, whether through trade, conflict or dialogue. This is most evident in its architecture; the Hagia Sophia was a church which was transformed into a mosque. The fact that almost every layer of its history has been allowed to flourish; pagan, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, speaks volume of Istanbul’s confidence as a city to feel pride in every aspects of its heritage. This is refreshing to see in a region of the world which is so rich in history but is struggling to come to terms with it.
* Golden Horn – The channel of water separating Istanbul.
* Orientalist – The European tendency to view Islamic cultures as exotic and uncivilised during the 19th and 20th century.
Did you know?
The old city stands on a peninsula, meaning it is surrounded by water! It has seven hills – the majority of the historical landmarks are situated within this small area.
A massive thank you to everyone who sent us photographs of Istanbul! An even bigger thank you to the generosity and skill of the photographers featured in this article: