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
This article was contributed by Sehar Mufti.
Follow her on Instagram: @seharmufti