Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Khyber: Pass of the Pathans

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Cutting across the Suleman hills to connect the fertile Peshawar valley with the Afghan highlands, the Khyber Pass is arguably one mountain conduit in Pakistan to have seen the most protracted unfolding of human history. From the dawn of time to the modern age, it has formed a major entry point from the Afghan highlands into the vast and fertile Indo-Gangetic plains. On the one hand, it reverberated again and again to the tramp of booted feet, clink of armoury and the whinnying of war horses. On the other, its walls have absorbed the sound of softly murmured prayer of the pilgrim and the trader on a long and lonely journey in search of nirvana whether spiritual or temporal.
Though it was not the only entry point to the subcontinent – there being no fewer than half a dozen other conduits within eighty kilometres along the border on either side of it – the Khyber was the easiest route because it could take wheeled traffic. It is as though nature had purposefully cleaved a clear trough through the range to afford trouble-free passage.

Three millenniums before the Aryan singers of the Vedic hymns came this way, the aboriginal inhabitants of the great cities of the Indus Valley were going to and fro trading with their counterparts in the Afghan uplands. About the year 1800 BCE, the Aryans arrived to become the ancestors of much of the modern population of the subcontinent. They also became the first people to record their passage from the cheerless Central Asiatic steppes of mid-summer snowfalls into the fertile Indus Valley.

In January 326 BCE, Alexander the Macedonian led his armies into what is now Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. Though he himself came across a pass to the northeast, two of his ablest generals brought their divisions through the Khyber. The tribes of the pass were well used to the passage of armies since the influence of the Achaemenian kings began in the middle years of the 6th century BCE. This time, however, they stood back to watch the Greeks with awe for never before had such a vast army flowed through the Khyber.

Following Alexander’s death in 322, the hundred year-long Mauryan rule brought relative peace to the Khyber. Between 205 and 110 BCE, two different branches of Greek adventurers vied for power in Balkh (Afghanistan) and Taxila. During that time, the Khyber echoed, at least once, with Greek battle cries as the two groups clashed to determine their right to rule.

The parade that the Khyber Pass had been witness to for centuries continued, however. For the next nearly two thousand years all comers passed through unimpeded. The Scythians, Parthians, Kushans, Sassanids, Arabs, Turks and the Mongols – first under Chengez Khan followed by Tamerlane and Babur – all came this way as the Khyber tribes stood back watching their progress into the plains.

Today the Khyber presents a very militaristic aspect. From the skyline, squat brick and steel fortifications look down upon villages dominated by high-walled mud and brick forts that generations of blood feuds necessitate. Nearby, the homes of ordinary folks huddle close together for security. The European style barbicans and embrasures of the hilltop pickets recall the century and a half of British struggles to master the Khyber. Closer to the road, one notices pillboxes that blend with with the grey and brown rocks.

By the time the British arrived on the scene to play their opening gambit of the Great Game with Russia over Central Asia, the Khyber tribes had had enough. From the peaceful lot that, for two thousand years, had stood aside to watch the progress of history through their pass, they turned into a belligerent lot. Much British blood was lost in the bid to bridle the tribes, forcing the Raj to maintain a strong military presence in the pass. In the end it all came to naught and the British left abandoning their fortifications. These, together with the regimental crests adorning a hillside, are their only lasting mementos.

How to get there: Sitting at the foot of the Khyber Pass, Peshawar is connected with every major city by air and surface. A hired car can zoom one from the heart of the city to the top of the pass at Landi Kotal in less than two hours. Owing to the uncertain situation in 2010, it is advisable to seek advice from the District Coordination Officer (DCO). A levies or FC guard may be necessary.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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