Peshawar's Heritage Endured War, Empires, Developers And Mobs

Peshawar's Heritage Endured War, Empires, Developers And Mobs
Peshawar is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Pakistan. Once known as the city of flowers for its beautiful gardens, Peshawar still retains a certain charm. As you walk through the old city of Peshawar you will notice that the old city is giving up the old for the new. This is done through wilful destruction of the fine historic houses replete with wooden window shutters and overarching wood windows in favour of modern brick construction introduced during the British period. This, however, does not amount to progress, since the old buildings were cool in summer and warm in winter. The same cannot be said for the new buildings that take their place. The old buildings were designed with double basements which were used in the summer by families to stay cool.

A Peshawar Haveli situated in a small street behind the Sethi Haveli

Earlier this year, one such building was destroyed by its Sikh purchaser, revealing the double storey basement underneath. The same fate that has befallen many of the historic Peshawar Havelis which have been ruthlessly expunged from the face of the city in favour of their uglier modern counterpart. What, you may say, is the harm in this? The same destruction, after all, has happened in Lahore and in his acclaimed work on Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk describes the savage burnings by their owners of the traditional wooden Ottoman mansions named Yalis in Istanbul, to be replaced by less glamourous, more profitable but incredibly forgettable ugly oblong apartment blocks.

The harm done to our urban cultural heritage is great indeed. We lose not only splendid world-class heritage but buildings that have stood the test of time and were designed by their planners as being earthquake proof. Destruction of historic homes should come with consequences alas we do not have a rules-based order in Pakistan. One can only fear for the remaining beauties that stand tall and proud amongst the ugly modern brick and concrete that has sprouted like weeds to become neighbours to fine nineteenth century havelis. The loss of such buildings will impact upon local tourist revenue.
Facing Queen Victora and Prince Albert are a range of Sikh Ranjit Singh-era warlords. What is missing from this cultural hotchpotch is any local Pakhtun heroes

Peshawar Museum: Queen Victoria is in the first floor arch on the right and Albert on the left. The wide main open hall floor was used as the ballroom where the British held balls

In Peshawar Cantonment, you see some survivors from the British period, such as the dwelling at 43 The Mall Lahore, consisting of a low-rise single storey whitewashed bungalow in a two-kanal-or-so historic garden. In the communal attacks at Peshawar during 1947, the Sikh military officers residing at 43 The Mall generously contributed to the celebrations of the advent of Pakistani independence by being slaughtered in their bungalow. The bungalow sits white, old and pretty in its grounds, not divulging any secrets of past bloody deeds. The neighbouring corner property at 42 The Mall, once owned by the famous Peshawar born British photographer R B Holmes, now consists of six modern houses, replacing the Holmes property. To those such as Holmes who brought fame to Peshawar, there is no mark to show they ever resided on the Mall Road. A plaque to identify where historic residents lived could be a useful starting point to promote heritage. Holmes certainly deserves such a small contribution to acknowledge his residence in the city given his charming photographic endeavours on behalf of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Peshawar Services Club on the Mall Road, bustling with security at its entrance, encompasses some more buildings from the well-preserved British-era club and library.

The Peshawar Museum, originally founded as Victoria Memorial Hall where the British had a ballroom, is replete with black and grey Gandhara buddhas on the ground floor. Queen Victoria looks down upon you, through an open arch, to the upper right, situated on the first floor level of the Museum, and she is visible as soon as you enter the main hall of the Museum. It is as though you have entered the audience chamber, the Diwan-i-Am of an Empress, looking down on you from high above. Beside her in another adjacent open arch, to the left, peering down upon proceedings, is her German consort, Albert. The pale faces of Victoria and Albert above the black buddhas make for opposites sharing a cultural space. It is a shame that the Museum does not decolonise its artefacts and put Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the rubbish dump of history. It would be difficult to find any other country in the world which places the portraits of their colonialist oppressors in such an esteemed eye-catching position.

Facing Queen Victora and Prince Albert are a range of Sikh Ranjit Singh-era warlords. What is missing from this cultural hotchpotch is any local Pakhtun heroes. Previously the Museum had a portrait of Ajab Khan Afridi, but perhaps Queen Victoria or imperialism’s underling Roos Keppel – whose bust sits on the first floor of the Museum – has exiled Afridi’s painting to some forbidden pastures. Whilst decolonising portraits and statues is all the rage amongst Western institutions, mental colonialism lives on at the Peshawar Museum. Some of the black buddhas were missing their noses, and indeed I thought the presence of Queen Vic, as Victoria is known in England, really did ‘cut off our nose’ by dishonouring us. I could, therefore, sympathise with the nose-less black buddhas who could not need to smell the stink of imperialism.

A vantage point to view Peshawar from is the Bala Hissar, Peshawar’s fort: from here you can look over the city from the high battlements to peer on into the distance towards the Khyber and the Tartarra mountain range of the Mohmand people. The old fort visited and described by Mountstuart Elphinstone, the East India Company ambassador to Peshawar in 1809, was a work of beauty, and here is what Elphinstone had to say of the views from the fort, as detailed in his manuscript held at the British Library:

“The delightful view from the hall where we were received immediately below was an extensive garden full of cypresses and other trees beyond which was a plain of the richest verdure there and there were pieces of water and some shining streams the plain was bounding (sic) by hills some dark and others covered with snow.”

Elphinstone goes on to offer a partial tantalising description of a fine mosque in the Bala Hissar:

“There is a handsome brick mosque built by Mohaubet Khan and another at the pool of the Balla Hissar. They have both low minarets.”

This jewel of a building in the heart of Peshawar was sacked and destroyed by the unruly Sikh warlord Hari Singh in 1823. Singh later rebuilt a fort on the same site, but the present fort is largely a British construction. Today it is home to the Frontier Corps. A splendid museum in the fort houses a range of historic weaponry, uniforms, artwork and photos of the region. The Fort also contains prints of the Saddozai Durrani rulers of Peshawar, including Ahmed Shah Abdali and Timur Shah. The latter is something the Peshawar Museum would do well to also display.
The clash of modernity with history continues to take a toll on the heritage of Peshawar. As the fires of change continue to burst forth, another cultural heritage institution fell prey to the mob. Radio Pakistan’s fine mock British-era Gothic-Mughal style building

The fort, which used to be open before the Covid epidemic on Sundays to the public, is now only accessible with special permission. Book-lovers need not worry about coming to the fort, since the gift shop stocks not even one book about the heritage of the city. “Sorry, sir!” apologised the salesman, “The books are kept by another official in the fort, who gives them as gifts.” In November 2022, when I first tried to visit the fort and was turned away, alongside me pleading for entry was an elderly man from Rawalpindi. He stood looking longingly at the entrance to the fort and exclaimed that he had come to the fort six times from Rawalpindi, only to be turned away by the sentries at the fort entrance. As I was departing, he implored me that I write about this sorry state of affairs. This year, I finally gained entry to the fort thanks to the selfless efforts of my dear friend Dr Ali Jan, a passionate Peshawar civic cultural activist.

London Book Co. bites the dust, symbolising the end of book-selling on Arbab Road

In the 1990s, I used to stay in Greens Hotel when visiting Peshawar. Today Greens has reopened under new management. Outside Greens in the 1990s there were a row of Afghan handicraft, antique and carpet shops – on both sides of the Hotel. On one occasion, I came across a militaria dealer, who had a small display cabinet on the kerb besides a rickety spiral wooden staircase from which some of the steps were missing. The dealer had a full white long beard and a face of a vintage that suggested he was nearing 60. I was invited up the rickety spiral staircase to a small first floor room filled with all sorts of Soviet military equipment, what looked like large green square chemical cannisters with Cyrillic writing, Soviet metal helmets, and intriguing chemical masks with attached tubes. I asked the seller whether he had any identity cards of deceased Soviet Soldiers. ”Those are hard to get hold of now,” said the Pashtun elder, “they used to be plentiful. Come back in a few days and I will have one inshallah.” Upon returning to the man some days later, a folding card with Cyrillic writing containing the photo of a young soldier was offered to me. I looked avariciously at this card and laughingly enquired, “Is he dead?” “Yes” remarked the elder “F--- his mother’s c­--, he is dead!” Some Western tourists would buy these identity cards as macabre souvenirs of the conflict. My preference was to buy war carpets replete with tanks and helicopters.

The lovely Afghan shops no longer surround Greens, which after 2001 slowly decreased and then disappeared. Indeed, one of the dealers had a brother in London seeking asylum and intended to join his sibling in England. Today the Afghan dealers that remain trading at Peshawar can be found near the Gold Market in the Shinwari Bazaar in Peshawar’s old city.

I recently met a Pakistani man who said his great grandfather had fled Tajikistan for Peshawar. This particular Tajik refugee of yesteryear was probably one of the many refugees who escaped the Soviets during the 1920s to Peshawar. In an Afghan carpet shop close to Greens some 25 years ago, I had met a man seated upon a red Afghan carpet with crossed legs and his high cheek bones and narrow eyes, which made me guess that he was a Hazara. The man remarked sadly, glancing up at me whilst making direct eye contact, “You think I look like a Hazara. I am a Turcoman, my family have become refugees twice in one century, first fleeing from the Soviets from Central Asia to Afghanistan and then fleeing Afghanistan for Peshawar.”

Two brothers near Chowk Yadgar, Peshawar, operating the shop set up by their Afghan Muhajir grandfather

Peshawar is and will always be a Silk Road city, with diverse traders meeting, selling, settling and contributing to the human mosaic that makes up this city. My own ancestor fled Peshawar in 1809 with Shah Shuja Ul Mulk Durrani to Lahore, thereafter escaping from Sikh custody under Ranjit Singh to settle in British-occupied Ludhiana. In 1947 my father fled Sikhs and Hindus who were thirsty for his blood and journeyed to Lahore from Ludhiana protected by men of the Frontier Force Rifles. In Ludhiana, the Sikh and Hindu death squads ethnically cleansed the 70% Muslim-majority city dwellers from their Lodhi-dynasty-founded city. So, like the Turcoman, my own family too had become refugees more than twice during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Not far from Greens Hotel was the historic Dean’s Hotel. Deans built in 1913 with an expansive garden in excess of seven acres. It was a place of greenery sadly much amiss in the city nowadays. The guest rooms at Deans were individual detached single storey rooms situated within the gardens and allowed for greater privacy then the type of standard hotel with rooms next to each other. I visited Deans in the 1990s but the main single storey building to the hotel had its doors firmly closed. A gardener suddenly appeared wearing a blue beret with a red square and remarked rather gloomily, “The hotel is closed, sir.” That did not stop the gardener to continue to water the beautiful flowers which flourished in a range of colours beside the lush green lawn.

My more recent visit to Deans in May 2023 was to the nondescript shopping plaza that has taken its place. A plaza that could have been built anywhere and which cannot replace the atmospheric single storey colonial-era hotel that has been extinguished. Winston Churchill and Kipling stayed at Deans, along with many a journalist who used Deans to cover the Afghan-Soviet War. Culinary enthusiasts need not worry, since Deans never served food that any sensible palate would crave. Even locals who had the misfortune to eat there would not escape without a stomach bug.

In the Gor Khattri caravanserai had once stood a beautiful Jamia Mosque built by Princess Jahan Ara Begum, daughter of Shah Jehan. In May 1834, Ranjit Singh took Peshawar and Sultan Mahomed Khan, Peshawar’s Barakzai ruler fled to Kabul. A new era of oppression was ushered in for the people of Peshawar where the Mahabat Khan Mosque, the city’s principal mosque, was despoiled and its minarets were used as gallows. The Jamia Friday Mosque, built by Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahan Ara Begum was destroyed during this period by Italian Governor Avitabile, making room for a temple at the fortified Mughal Caravanserai of Gor Khutree. You may wonder as to why this destruction of grand Mughal Islamic architecture was occurring. It was simple, according to Thomas Vigne a British traveller who passed through Peshawar during this period, the "mosque has been pulled down, because it was a bone of contention between the subjugated Mussulmans and their haughty oppressors."

Mughal tiles stripped off the walls from the Ali Mardan Khan villa. The bulk of the removed tiles are missing

One Mughal monument which had a narrow escape from destruction in our own times is the Ali Mardan Khan garden pavilion. Ali Mardan Khan was a Kurdish governor of the region who had defected from the Safavids to the Mughals and was responsible for significant engineering works such as the Ali Mardan Khan bazaar in Kabul, which was the largest roofed bazaar in all of Central Asia, until the British blew it up in 1842. The Ali Mardan Khan pavilion today stands with its brickwork fully exposed, having been stripped off its priceless Mughal tiles by the Army’s Engineering Department in 2015. The building was slated for destruction by the army in favour of developing an accommodation block for troops. However, the Archaeology Department was the knight in shining armour that put a stop to this act of cultural vandalism and took over this key piece of urban heritage. Some of the Mughal tiles that had been unceremoniously stripped from the Ali Mardan Khan pavilion are now on display within the villa building. Mountstuart Elphinstone recollection of where he finally parted company from Shuja is vague, he believes it may well have been in this very garden in 1809.

Sardar Mohammed Ayub Khan's grave

Near the Wazir Bagh is the Durrani graveyard, and here lies a Pashtun national hero. Sardar Mohammed Ayub defeated the British army in open battle on the plains of Maiwand in 1880 during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The Afghan artillery outgunned the British. Afghan tribal and military forces outflanked the invaders and then cut off their rear line of water supply. One British officer was captured by a Pakhtun woman who struck him over the head with her water pitcher when he demanded water from her. Malalai of Maiwand, whose fiancée was killed in battle, rose to the challenge and using her veil as a flag led the Afghan assault on the British forces that made a stand to cover the retreat of their colleagues to Kandahar city. Today Mohammed Ayub lies at Peshawar where some shaitan stole the marble plinth over the top part of his grave.

Beside the Durrani graveyard is a historic 17th-century mosque built of small Waziri bricks. Yhe frontage of the historic mosque has been defaced by the addition of a modern marble built front extension added to the face of the old mosque.

17th-century mosque near Durrani graveyard, with modern unsympathetic extension to front

Besides Chowk Yadgar, the rickshaw wallahs park their vehicles and the unseemly smell of urine hangs heavy in the air. Political demonstrations by PTI took place here in May, with crowds addressed from under the dome of the platform of the Chowk Yadgar. Their red and green flags fluttered as loudspeakers blared political slogans and camera crew vans hogged the space beside Chowk Yadgar.

Nearby are the kulla sellers and sellers of woollen male chadors, which are versatile and can function as woollen blankets for sleeping. I bought a lovely khaki coloured woollen blanket from two Afghan brothers from Nangrahar, who were born in Peshawar, whose grandfather had made Hijrat to Pakistan in the 1980s during the Soviet invasion. They were the third generation of their family in Pakistan, but the Government still did not give them Pakistani citizenship in violation of the Pakistani nationality laws. I asked them, “Do you prefer Jalalabad or Peshawar?” “Both are nice but we prefer Peshawar,” said the older brother, “because we have grown up here, have friends here and a support network. Also there are more facilities in Peshawar than in Jalalabad.“

Akbar Shinwari, founder of Kitab Kor (Book House) in Peshawar

On the Arbab Road in Saddar was where many of the bookshops were once situated. Saeed Book Bank deserted Peshawar for the richer pastures of Islamabad. Rather perversely, the owners hung a message to the residents of Peshawar in their final days of bookselling at Peshawar, proclaiming rather vainly that inhabitants who do not support literacy do not deserve booksellers. Emjay Books ended with the departure of the owner to the frigid climes of Canada and London Book Company can be found with its metal shutters permanently down, but the shop front still bears the logo of a once historic book shop which is now but a name.

The people of Peshawar support good bookshops. The historic University Book Agency in Khyber Bazaar continues to sell an interesting array of literature on diverse themes including history, culture and Islam. On the University Road in Yasin Plaza about an 8-minute walk past the Tekhal Bala BRT stop is the Kitab Kor, or ‘Book House’ seller operated by an enterprising young Shinwari, Akbar Shinwari. He sells Pashto and English literature, including a most excellent lesser known work in English entitled Afghanistan in the Age of Empires, covering the fall of Peshawar to the Sikhs. Shinwaris are skilled traders – a Pakhtun friend joked that when the Hindu sees the Shinwari, the Hindu gets worried because the Shinwari can outsell the Hindu.

PTI rally at Chowk Yadgar

The clash of modernity with history continues to take a toll on the heritage of Peshawar. As the fires of change continue to burst forth, another cultural heritage institution fell prey to the mob. Radio Pakistan’s fine mock British-era Gothic-Mughal style building with two minarets on each corner, went up in flames as an angry mob protested against the arrest of their leader Imran Khan. Clearly destroying a building which broadcast Urdu and Pashto music and culture to the people is just not cricket. Artists of bygone years have no doubt had their work lost as a result of charlatans engaged in destruction. One of my Afghan Ghilzai friends told me that in the 1950s and 60s, Radio Pakistan broadcast more Pashto programmes than the Persianate station at Kabul did. For this reason, my friend’s father tuned into the broadcasts from Peshawar.

The writer is the author of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires