Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

‘Oh, Samarkand!’

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It is a narrow, winding black ribbon that connects Kallar Kahar and Chinji. Some 18 kilometres west of the former, lies the small village of Maira Emma, that first received notice almost a hundred and fifty years ago when a British surveyor was shown the square mouthed well in the fields south of its jumble of houses. Among the limestone blocks that lined this well there were, on three sides, some with barely legible Kharoshti inscriptions. These inscribed blocks were removed to Lahore Museum for preservation.
According to the first decipherment made in the 1850s, the inscription appeared to give out the names of the builders of the well together with the year ‘Sam [Samvat] 58’. The inscription thus coincides with the first year of the Christian era. But in the absence of any proper investigation it was impossible to know whether these inscribed stones were prepared especially for this well in an age when Buddhism was the predominant religion in this country, from the time of the great Buddhist king Asoka to the beginning of the 6th century AD. If so, the well would have been built in the beginning of the Christian era; however, if these inscribed stones were cannibalised from an earlier building, it would be impossible to give the well a definite date. That is all that was ever to be known of these inscribed blocks, for today they cannot be traced in Lahore Museum. For all intent and purpose they have either been lost or pilfered. The ancient well at Maira, however, even today continues to serve up good, clean water. Past this well and the fields of Maira lies a series of folded, red tinged ridges beyond which looms a higher wall of rock that encloses the valley known as Samarkand.

An hour’s walk out of Maira one stands at the pool fed by a small waterfall at the foot of the hill of Samarkand. A short climb through rank grass and the ubiquitous bhekar (Adhatoda vasica) bushes, and the first signs of the ancient construction become evident: a small portion of rampart, barely 60 cm high and half as much in width, made of rough cut blocks of limestone. The blocks, dark with dead lichenous growth, are cemented together with a thin layer of clayey mortar. There are no denticulations in the wall, no slits for bowmen to shoot through - just a low bulwark. As one climbs higher up the slope, several sections of the rampart are passed in a similar state of decay. The four bulky circular turrets that survive to this day overlook the gentler slope on the north side.

From the vantage of the crest the layout of the fort can be seen: an irregular oblong fortification, about six hundred metres long from the east to the west and half as wide, that took advantage of the natural defenses of the craggy hill. To the south, where the slope falls almost vertically into the eroded valley of Samarkand, there is no fortification. But on the gently rising slope of the north, the remains of the wall, interspersed with bulky circular towers, runs from one end of the hill to the other. Clearly this was never the fortress to be taken by storm or escalade, Samarkand would have submitted only after a siege.

Just below the highest point of the hill, in a relatively flat area, is a large depression choked with a clump of acacia and wild olive trees. This is the water tank that stored run-off from the surrounding slopes. Once it had masonry walls of which barely a sign now remains. Over the centuries soil washed off the slopes to accumulate in this depression and now lends fertility to the spot where trees grow lush and tall. Nearby are the remnants of two or three rooms. As his army would have prepared to defend the fort of Samarkand, whichever chieftain held it, repaired to this part of the citadel to direct operations. And that is all it was ever meant to be: the last retreat, never a residential fort. From this vantage point, the view to the north and the west, whence most threats came in those uncertain times, is unhindered: ridge follows red tinged ridge to melt into the amorphous haze on the horizon.

Around the water tank and the ruined rooms there are signs of recent vandalism, the work of treasure hunters as well as nearby villagers looking for building material. Locals are known to have carried off dressed blocks from this ancient site to build houses in Maira Emma. And ancient the fort surely is. The first ever archeological team to visit Samarkand in the beginning of 1994 estimated it to have been built in the 13th century AD. Below the fort, in the valley to the south, the team found evidence of a settlement from the early Muslim period. Among other finds of pottery shards and beads, they were given a copper coin by a resident of Maira who claimed to have found it near the pond at the foot of the hill. Its worn inscription is frustratingly limited to ‘Shah (illegible) Sultan’, and the declaration that it was minted at ‘Dar ul Mulk Delhi’.

Since the fort lies considerably to the south of the main axis through the Salt Range, it was missed by Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. And apparently it was missed by others as well, both before and after him. Samarkand escaped the full glare of history simply because it lay by a minor route through the dry scrubland of the Salt Range. If ever in the course of centuries there was a struggle for the possession of this little known fort, it surely must have been amongst the many minor chieftains who held sway in these eroded hills. The name of Samarkand, the same as that of the ancient and celebrated Central Asian city, therefore seems rather baffling. But there is one instance in history where a Central Asiatic king could possibly have been here.

The beginning of the 13th century saw Mongol hordes break out like a storm from the bleak grassland of the Mongolian Steppes. Under the charismatic leadership of Timujin, better known as Chengez Khan, these barbarous, uncultured nomads were to become masters of one of the most extensive empires the world was ever to know. Having subdued and united the myriad free ranging Mongol tribes, Chengez Khan and his hordes turned their attention to the fabulously wealthy cities of Central Asia. There was the country of the powerful and self assured Sultan Mohammed of Khwarazm. To him the Mongol leader sent an embassy together with a party of traders comprising of over four hundred Muslims with merchandise of great value. The message to the Sultan was that this overture was to be taken as an invitation to friendliness, that ‘intercourse and confidence might arise between them; that merchants and traders might be free to go and come; that their subjects and dominions might be secure and open to each others people; and that they might aid and assist each other under any circumstances that might arise.’

In the border town of Otrar on the Syr Darya (River Jaxartes), greed got the better of the governor Anial-Juk alias Ghair Khan, a kinsman of Sultan Mohammed, when he learned of the value of the goods the traders were bearing. He sent a deceitful message to the Sultan about the arrival of Mongol spies in his territory and sought permission to confiscate their properties and to put them to death. Disturbed by the Mongols’ unbroken string of victories and bereft of reason, the Sultan foolishly succumbed to the inducement and authorised the treachery. Four hundred and fifty merchants, most of them Muslims, were thus ruthlessly massacred and their merchandise taken over. That, the Khwarazmians believed, would be the end of those upstart savages. What Sultan Mohammed Khwarazm had not realised was that he was facing Jahan Kusha - ‘World Conqueror’, as Ata Malik Juvaini calls Chengez Khan in his History of the World Conqueror (written c 1255).

The Khan promptly sent out another embassy to seek redress for this outrage. But the pompous Sultan Mohammed who likened himself to Alexander the Great, having lost sight of reality, abandoned every norm of civil behaviour and insulted the diplomatic status of the three men. One was beheaded while the other two were unceremoniously turned out of Otrar, their heads and beards forcibly shaven off in the ultimate oriental gesture of humiliation. This was too great an affront for Chengez Khan. Shortly afterwards, as the Mongols stood outside the walls of the city, a delegation came out to sue for peaceful capitulation. Lining them up and executing every single one of them, the Mongols settled down to a siege that was to last five dreadful months. The town finally fell, but the citadel with the remnants of the garrison held out for another month. When it eventually did capitulate, the soldiery was completely annihilated and the felonious governor was made to suffer an agonising death as they poured molten silver into his eyes and ears.

Samarkand and Bokhara fell in quick succession and the hapless Sultan Mohammed, oscillating from uncertainty to uncertainty, fled across the country like a hunted beast, undecided yet where to seek asylum. Wherever he went, thence the Mongol juggernaut pursued him, until he retreated to an island in the Caspian. The Mongols did not relent and while the Sultan was able to get away with his life yet again, his entire family was taken captive. Unable to bear the thought of the dishonour that was now surely the lot of the women of his household, Sultan Mohammed Khwarazm whose coins called him Sikander (Alexander), died a poor, homeless man’s death. Even his burial did not become a king, for his son Jalal ud Din was hard put to procure a shroud for the dead man, and the Sultan of Khwarazm was interred in the clothes he wore.

The banner was taken up by Jalal ud Din who withdrew to the country of the Afghans in the south, in order to rally for the next round. A force led by an adopted son and general of Chengez Khan clashed with the Muslim army in Parwan northwest of Kabul. The Muslims came out victorious, giving the Mongols their only taste of defeat in the entire campaign. This event occurred sometime in January 1221. Soon afterwards Chengez Khan himself came for the Sultan and routed him after a brief action. Jalal ud Din fled southeast across the Suleman Mountains. Chengez Khan, possessed only with the thought of total destruction of the Khwarazmians, came in pursuit.

Not very far west of modern Attock in a wide bend where the Sindhu, having zigzagged first south and then west, turns due south once again, the Muslim army drew up its lines as Chengez Khan led the Mongols into battle. In every likelihood, Jalal ud Din was heading for the ferry of Nilab, barely 10 km upstream; but nothing was going right for him. Even before he could cross to safety, the Mongols were upon him forcing him to confront them. Tension rode high in the Muslim camp as two of the king’s leading generals, Amin Malik and Saif ud Din Ighrak, squabbled over the issue of riding a favourite Arab horse. Accounts differ, but one or both of them deserted together with their contingents, greatly reducing the king’s ranks. While Ighrak fled to the Kurram river valley, the Malik lost his life trying to break through the Mongol gauntlet on his way to Peshawar. If anything, this setback should have caused Sultan Jalal ud Din to sue for peace. But that was not to be.

As the armies came face to face Jalal ud Din advanced on foot at the head of his force: it was not to be said that the Sultan did not make a stand that was as bold as it was desperate. But by afternoon of that long ago February day when innumerable Khwarazmians had given up their ghosts in combat, he knew the field was as good as lost. Breaking away from the battle Jalal ud Din made his way to his camp to bid a tearful farewell to his family. Calling for his favourite charger, he then drove into the Mongol wing in one last mad show of defiance. It was a desperate attempt that made but a small dent in their line. Then, turning rein, he galloped for the river bank; and, on the gallop having discarded his cuirass, forced his horse to leap into the blue waters of the Sindhu some five or six metres below. Many of his army followed suit.

Chengez Khan, deeply impressed by this show of reckless courage, restrained his archers from shooting down Jalal ud Din as he guided his horse across the eddies. But his followers were not to be so fortunate, for the histories record the reddening of the Sindhu ‘as far as the Mongols’ arrows could reach’. As the Mongols watched, the vanquished Sultan gained the left bank at a natural stony ramp that juts into the river and is to this day commemorated as Ghora Trup (The Horse’s Leap). Chengez Khan, Juvaini’s History tells us, called up his sons and addressing them, proclaimed that a successor as courageous as the defeated king was what a father should wish for. This rare show of the ability to admire a vanquished foe was perhaps a measure of the greatest Mongol ever to have lived.

Jalal ud Din rode upstream to the point directly opposite his camp and as he waited for his accouterments to dry, he watched, in impotent rage, the plunder and humiliation of his family and dependents. Not wishing for the Mongols to discover his movements, the Sultan waited under a makeshift shelter for nightfall before entering the wasteland that was thereafter to be known as Chul e Jalali. By and by he was joined by survivors from the carnage across the river. Shortly afterwards, intelligence arrived that ‘a band of Indian scoundrels’ comprising of cavalry and foot soldiers was engaged in a revel at a distance of two parsangs (about 9 km). Falling upon them in the dark of the night, the ragged Khwarazmian army was able to collect a fair amount of booty that the Sultan spent on re-equipping his companions.

Within days the number of his host had risen to about five hundred (some sources say five thousand), increased by stragglers from the battle field. A succession of depredatory raids on surrounding settlements brought arms, equipment, horses and cattle; and gradually the band acquired the semblance of an army. Upon hearing of the increase in his strength, Chengez Khan dispatched another force to put an end to the Khwarazmian. As the Mongols crossed the Sindhu, Jalal ud Din fled to Delhi with utmost speed in the hope of gaining asylum with Sultan Shams ud Din Iyultimish. But still three days from the capital, news reached the Sultan that the king of India had no room for him. In disappointment he turned once again to Koh e Jud, (Mountains of Jud), as the Salt Range was known to Muslim geographers.

This country, the domain of the warlike Khokhars, he would have earlier passed through on his way from the rout on the Sindhu, but the histories do not tell of his first encounter with this Rajput tribe. On returning disappointed from the east, Jalal ud Din raided the Khokhars’ unnamed stronghold, where considerable plunder came into his hands. Being aware, however, that this was not his time to make new enemies, Jalal ud Din forged a peace by marrying the daughter of Rai Sangin, the chief of the Khokhars. The Khokhar ratified this alliance by sending his son together with a sizable number of his tribe to serve in the Muslim army. Of course he had his own interest to serve, for the Salt Range Rajputs had an old score to settle with Nasir ud Din Qabacha, the governor of far away Uch south of Multan. Thus, reinforced by them and under their instigation Sultan Jalal ud Din made a successful attack on Uch, the second capital of Sindh.

Qabacha was routed, and the Sultan, having extracted a large sum of money from the treasury of Uch, returned to summer in the Salt Range. Though neither Juvaini’s History nor Minhaj Siraj’s Tabakat e Nasiri, both contemporary works, say how long the Sultan remained here, but in view of his later timetable of death and destruction in Sindh, it is likely that he spent the remainder of the year 1221 in the Salt Range.

This was a time spent in constant dread of yet another Mongol raid. Therefore, in order to secure his brief stay in the hills, surely Jalal ud Din would have considered building a safe haven. Samarkand, removed from the main route through the range by a series of difficult ridges, was an ideal place. Its natural defenses, bolstered by fortifications, would certainly defy those hardy Mongol troopers. And so with wealth garnered from his many raids and on the advice of his new father-in-law and ally who knew the country well, Jalal ud Din would have ordered, if not the building, at least the revamping and enlargement of a smaller already existing fortification. Surely, then it was not called Samarkand.

With the coming of the monsoon the land would have broken into a profusion of rare and short-lived verdure, as indeed it does today. To a man pining for the orchards and farmlands of Khwarazm, the valley to the south of the fort would have been a poignant reminder of home. Surely in that long ago moment of nostalgia, Sultan Jalal ud Din would have requested Rai Khokhar Sangin to name the fort, and the valley below it, after the wonderful city of Samarkand. Alternately, the name may have simply ensued from the knowledge that the builder of the fort was a fugitive from Samarkand. For common folk it would have been the ‘Samarkandi’s fort’ or simply Samarkand.

Within the year, the persistent Chengez Khan had sent yet another expedition against Jalal ud Din. Unable to stand up to the superior arms of the Mongols, the Khwarazmian fled to Sindh, and eventually to Iraq, leaving in his wake a dreadful legacy of carnage and devastation. There, far away from home, without family and loved ones, he was eventually murdered by a Kurd, perhaps on the behest of his own brother, whom he had hoped to replace in a minor chieftainship. Time obliterated the memory of Sultan Jalal ud Din Khwarazm, only the name of his safe haven and of the spot where he crossed the Sindhu remains.

With the building or enlargement of the fort of Samarkand, it was only natural for a dependent settlement to grow around it. And so in the narrow valley of the Kand stream to the south of the fort, on an elongated high ground are the remains of just such a settlement. Watered by the tiny spring at the head of the valley and with no arable land in the immediate vicinity, this settlement would have been dependent on neighbouring villages for its sustenance. It is very likely, therefore, that it was just a small township of soldiers’ families, artisans and military craftsmen.

At the time of this writing, only a cursory examination has been made by the Department of Archeology. From the surface collection of pottery shards this site can be dated to the 13th century AD - the same period as that of Sultan Jalal ud Din Khwarazm. When the site was finally abandoned, is difficult to say in the absence of a detailed study. What seems certain, however, is that this settlement was occupied for a very short time in history.

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At 17 July 2013 at 09:08, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a fascinating read and deserves a wider audience. Why have you stopped writing for the tribune?

At 17 July 2013 at 19:29, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pakistan has such a rich history that shaped today's world, OK most of it. But what we study in school?

At 17 July 2013 at 21:42, Anonymous Haroon said...

Damn!! Why the wouldn't someone make a movie about this? Or better yet a 'Game of Thrones' style TV series. Someone please pitch this to HBO.

At 18 July 2013 at 08:06, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Let me go public on this question, Anonymous: the Tribune dropped me unceremoniously, without so much as a 'Thank you it was nice having you with us.'

At 18 July 2013 at 16:28, Anonymous Archad Awan said...

I keep coming back to read what you write about Salt Range and Potohar Plateau. I agree that you know the area more than anyone else. Will you say the whole of it has been relegated to the category of 'backward areas' of Pakistan where people don't have much holdings nor jobs. How can this rich history pay up?

At 19 July 2013 at 16:21, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Archad Awan, I have no clue how an area's rich history can pay back except in as pride among the natives.

At 23 November 2014 at 21:41, Blogger Bakhtiar Ali said...

Have you visited "Tullaja" ruins in Soon Sakesar Valley, which is near to 'Dada Golra' shrine. These are very rich in preservation but poor in their exact history. Will you solved the mystery ?

At 27 November 2014 at 14:25, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Bakhtiar Ali, I have not seen Tulaja. this visit is on the cards with some friends. It will happen soon. Let's see if we can solve the mystery.

At 13 December 2017 at 11:47, Blogger the ethical man said...

it's amazing how Pakistani historians always find Buddhism before Islamic destruction but can never find Hindusim before Buddhism. BTW even King Ashok was a Hindu king.


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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

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