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.

Sethi House Complex
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.

Islamia College Peshawar
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

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal 1
Copyright Omar Rais. All rights reserved.

The Taj Mahal is considered to be amongst the most beautiful and impressive works of architecture in history. This Wonder of the World attracts almost 8 million visitors annually; part of its allure comes from the story that a heartbroken Emperor built the Taj Mahal for his dead wife as a token of his grief. Yet it is important to remember that its construction served to highlight the triumph of its patrons, the Mughals – a tremendously wealthy Persian-ised Turkic Dynasty that ruled over much of the Indian Subcontinent and Afghanistan from the 16th to the 18th century.

Biography

At the peak of its imperial glory, the Mughals were ruled by Shah Jahan (1628-1658) who had a wife, Mumtaz Mahal, he was devoted to – so much so that he decided to build this incredible edifice in her memory when she died giving birth. Under the instruction of Ustad Ahmad Lahori more than 20,000 workers from across India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and even Europe were employed to construct the Taj Mahal between 1632 and 1654. This included masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans. Don’t forget about the 1,000 elephants used to carry materials!

Taj Mahal 2
Copyright Omar Rais. All rights reserved.

The mausoleum itself, dedicated to the deceased Mumtaz Mahal, was completed by 1639 but it would require more than an extra decade to finish the buildings next to it and the decoration work. The complex sits on a 315 ft square marble platform and has four minarets which are around 140 ft tall. The mastery of the architects and craftsmen is demonstrated by the usage of proportions. For instance, the four surrounding minarets appear upright from afar but actually lean outward: as well as being a cool trick of the eye, this ensures that the minarets would crumble away from the main tomb in case of an earthquake (a real architectural concern in this period). Also, from the main gate of the Taj Mahal the monument appears close and large but the closer you get, the smaller it becomes! The Taj Mahal’s bag of tricks doesn’t end there – like a chameleon, it can change its colours. Well, the hue of the colour at least. Thanks largely to the sun, the Taj Mahal can appear gray and pink during sunrise, white at noon, orange-bronze when the sun sets and at night it seem blue.

The gardens – which are often intended to be an earthly representation of paradise in Islamic architecture – are actually rooted in the British style due to the intervention of the British Indian Government under Lord Curzon (1899-1905), who is also largely responsible for renovating and maintaining the Taj Mahal after decades of neglect. This neglect included the looting of its semi-precious stones by British soldiers in the aftermath of 1857 Indian Mutiny.

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Sarcophagus of Mumtaz Mahal. Copyright Omar Rais. All rights reserved.

There are a lot of popular myths associated with the construction of the Taj Mahal. One of which relates that Shah Jahan wanted the mausoleum to be a unique masterpiece. In order to guarantee this, he supposedly cut off the hands and gouged the eyes of the artisans and craftsmen involved in its construction so that another like it would not be built. Even though it makes for a cool story, there is no evidence to suggest this happened. On the contrary, historians have found that Shah Jahan was more ruthless than romantic. Although the Taj Mahal has been considered a symbol of love and devotion, it is undoubtedly also a symbol of absolute power. The extravagant attempt to build something perfect – architecturally speaking in its symmetry – can be regarded a source of propaganda, fit for a man who named himself Shah Jahan, “King of the World”. 

Taj Mahal 3
Copyright Omar Rais. All rights reserved.

Musings

The famous poet Rabindranath Tagore called the Taj Mahal “a tear suspended on the cheek of time”. But was this tear worth the staggering $800 million in today’s valuation that it cost to build it? As a fan of architecture I can’t help but appreciate the symmetrical beauty of this timeless monument. But if I put myself in the shoes of a Mughal subject in the 17th century, I can’t help but feel anger at a leader who would dedicate so much of the nations resources for his own grief (or vanity). Too often this has become a model of behavior for leaders in the Islamic world, we only tend to notice it in times of want and need.


 

All these great photos have been contributed by Omar Rais – check him out on:

Instagram @omarkrais