The Forgotten Ancient Metropolis of Peshawar

Muhammad Huzaifa on the rise and fall of the 7th most populous city of the ancient world

The Forgotten Ancient Metropolis of Peshawar
When mentions of ancient cities, cultural capitals and hubs of economic trade are made, one’s mind drifts somewhat automatically to the coast of southern Europe; the Pantheon of Athens or the Colosseum of Rome. If not, it drifts towards the palaces of Constantinople, the ports of Alexandria or the structures of Persepolis. However, one such ancient metropolis that flourished in the early centuries of the advent of Christianity was not nestled in the European south or perched on the North African coast, rather it was shining in the shadows of the mountains of Khyber. Peshawar, the 7th most populous city of the ancient world, home to the tallest structure of the ancient world, the epicenter of Mahayana Buddhism and melting pot of cultures, was the brightest gem in the crown of the Kushans. Let us recall the frontier city, when it enjoyed a place amongst the most advanced cities of the ancient world.

Birth of the City

As proven by archaeological evidence, Peshawar’s existence stretches back to more than 500 BC. This makes it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. However, Peshawar did not start as a city. According to multiple historians, Peshawar first started as a village or a cluster of villages and remained so for almost 500 years, in the shadows of Pushkalavati on the outskirts of modern day Charsadda. It was the capital of Gandhara and enjoyed such a title due to its position on the Kabul river through which it was connected to Kapisa (Kabul).

Peshawar’s importance was first highlighted in the early years of the Kushan rule. Several factors proved fortuitous enough for Peshawar to be declared the very capital of the empire. For one, a heightened political and commercial connection between Greater Gandhara and Bactria as well as other central Asian regions had been molded by the Kushans. Peshawar, which was located closer to the Khyber pass than Charsadda, occupied an excellent position for a new trade route passing through the Khyber pass towards modern day Jalalabad. Secondly, the Kushans noted that this new city could be easily irrigated by the Bara River which could be used for commercial, agriculture and domestic purposes. This river was the lifeline of Peshawar for the next 2,000 years when in 1860 the British shut it off due to continuous flooding which harmed public property. Thirdly, Peshawar was located on the ancient Mauryan road which extended all the way from Pataliputra (Patna) in the heart of the Ganges plain to Kabul, thus being strongly connected to both east and west. Keeping all this in regard the Kushans decided to make this small city known in the ancient times as either Purushpura (City of men) or Poshapura (City of Flowers), the very capital of their vast empire.

The Kanishka Casket, discovered in modern times

Transition into a Metropolis

The promotion of Peshawar’s status as the capital of one of the largest empires that the region has ever known was marked by the advent of the famous king Kanishka. In the truest sense, it was Kanishka himself who developed Peshawar and brought the city to its zenith. As one of the most devout Buddhists in history, his capital, too, was naturally tilted towards Buddhism and that is the reason that the development of Peshawar into an ancient metropolis ran parallel to its development into one of the most revered citys of the Buddhist world.

The start of the transition was marked by the expansion of the city. The city’s boundaries expanded greatly and extended to almost 10 kilometers from what is now the eastern parts of old Peshawar city, specifically the Ganj gate.

Due to Peshawar’s location at the most vital crossroads in the world, it was always prone to invasions and thus fortification was a vital necessity. What is interesting about Peshawar’s fortification by Kanishka was that this task was carried out completely on the layout of Central Asian cities rather than the native ones of the Indus basin. The city was fortified rectangularly with 4 gates, one on each side. This was the very basis of the future fortifications of the city: even the Mughal addition of 16 more gates was to this ancient layout. This irregular layout of the city with 16 gates survived all till the rapid expansion of Peshawar nearing the end of the British colonial period, when the city became too big to be constricted within the old walls.

But it wasn’t merely the size of the city that marked its grandeur, rather it was what the city now held within. Kanishka allowed for the creation of multiple edifices, public buildings and above all Buddhist structures and monasteries. One of the most important remnants of its splendour was the Buddhist complex on twin mounds excavated in by the outskirts of Peshawar by archaeologists in 1906. The archaeological site had been given the name “Shahji ki Deri” (King’s Mound) by the locals. It was here on and around this site that there existed some of the most cherished possessions of Ancient Peshawar.

The first was the ever glorious Kanishka Stupa; the tallest structure of the ancient world. A stupa by rule is a Buddhist religious structure that houses important articles and objects of religion. However, what distinguished the Kanishka Stupa from others was its majesty. The height of the stupa according to Chinese traveller Xuanzang was 700 feet while according to Faxian it was 560 feet in height. It had been destroyed and rebuilt some three times when Xuanzang visited it and he noted that the Stupa had been topped by an iron spire in a way that it shone under the rays of the sun so radiantly that it could be seen from large distances. Its overall structure consisted of a basement of 5 stages with a wooden superstructure of 13 stories, crowned by an iron spire consisting of 13 to 25 gilt copper umbrellas. The other reason for its importance was that its existence had apparently prophesied centuries earlier by Buddha himself. It was the center of a large number of Buddhist traditions and prophecies – but that is a topic for another time.

The structure was laid to waste by multiple invaders but the induration of the stupa as the ultimate symbol of Peshawar can be made by the fact that almost a millennium after its creation and centuries after its destruction, the Arab historian Al Biruni noted it as a very vivid memory for the people of Peshawar.

The other object of extreme importance excavated in “Shahji ki Deri” was the famous Kanishka Casket. The large casket decorated by multiple inscriptions and structures held within it 2 of the most revered objects of the Buddhist world; Buddha’s bowl and, apparently, Buddha’s bones. In fact, the casket was said to contain 3 bones, all of which belonged to Buddha himself. The Patra, the alms bowl of the Buddha, was about 5 mm in thickness. This bowl according to ancient historian Xuanzang was part of a ceremony done every midday when it used to be brought out by monks before their midday meal.

Of the other jewels in the crown of Peshawar was located the Kanishka Vihara or the Great Monastery of Peshawar which also served as a giant colony for monks and scholars. It housed the great library of Peshawar that contained one of the biggest collections of Buddhist texts on philosophy, religion and other such disciplines and was a site well known amongst many Buddhists of the world. Indeed many people came to visit and spend time in the Vihara so as to take advantage to the large deposits of texts that it housed. In a mundane way, one could even claim for it to be the first university of Peshawar! It was from here that the two half-brothers Vasubandha and Asanga brought forth their own school of thought and ingrained themselves in the memory of the Buddhism of the far east in such a way that their statues are still found everywhere from Tibet to Japan.

Peshawar at this point had flourished to the biggest city of Gandhara. It was now the hub of all cultural exchange as well as the commercial heart of the region. It attracted people from all neighbouring regions for trade as well as scholars for the rich knowledge that it offered. Apart from serving as the epicenter of Mahayana Buddhism, it was also serving as the capital of the vast Kushan empire of central Asia. Naturally, its population too started to grow and grew at such a rate that the city at its zenith housed approximately 120,000 people, making it the 7th most populous city of the ancient world. The sheer magnitude of this number can be made by the fact that in 1891, almost 2,000 years later, Peshawar’s population was a mere 63,079 people. It took it another seven decades to surpass the old mark when in 1961 the population was somewhere near 166,000. It was in this era that the famous art and sculpting techniques of Gandhara were made. A perfect blend of both native Indus and Greek styles, the artforms still remain scattered all over what now forms Ancient Gandhara.

Peshawar in the Gandharan age was the sun in the summer solstice: giant and everbright. However, like all splendorous suns, it too had to set. The setting of the Gandharan sun is a tale of remorse.

Modern depiction of a Kushan cavalryman

What is interesting about Peshawar’s fortification by Kanishka was that this task was carried out completely on the layout of Central Asian cities rather than the native ones of the Indus basin

Decline and Death of the Ancient City

The final fall of the great Gandharan civilization was fated to be at the hands of the Ghaznavids. However this process was started centuries earlier and was almost completed by the invasions of the Sassanians and the White Huns. The Ghaznavids only gave the last blow.

The Sassanians considered themselves as rightful successors of the Achaemenid Empire and thus had claims on every region that the Achaemenids had once controlled. The founder of the Empire Ardashir I, assumed the title of Emperor of ArIran and AnIran, meaning to claim both the lands inside of Persia and outside of it. He however, never completed this task. This feat was done by his successor Shapur I.

Shapur’s invasions of the sister regions of Bactria and Gandhara took place in 240 CE after their wars with the Romans. After subduing Bactria, the armies of Shapur conducted their first expedition against Gandhara, to bring this rich region under Sassanian sway. In establishing their might over the Kushans, they had to lead a gruesome attack on the first region just under the famous Khyber pass – and this region was the Peshawar Basin. The Sassanians launched a ferocious attack on Peshawar which was the capital of the Kushans. The invading armies greatly damaged the relic tower and harmed the Buddhist complex on the outskirts of Peshawar. There was also a lot of plundering done in Peshawar as well as other cities of Gandhara, all of which was taken back to the capital of the Sassanians. They tried to consolidate power in Gandhara however, the direct rule of Shapur through his son Hormozd I was shortlived: the King Kanishka II was able to reclaim his territory shortly afterwards and restart his dynasty’s rule by initiating a new set of rulers known as the Minor Kushans.

The conversion of the brigand Angulimala to the way of the Buddha – found at Shah ji ki Deri, Walled City of Peshawar

The final fall of the great Gandharan civilization was fated to be at the hands of the Ghaznavids. However this process was started centuries earlier and was almost completed by the invasions of the Sassanians and the White Huns

It was under the Minor Kushan kings that the decline of Gandhara started to appear more visibly. The Sassanian invasion had been nothing but destructive to Gandhara and Peshawar, its crown jewel, suffered the most. The Minor Kushans were an almost destitute set of rulers for multiple reasons. For one, the invasion of the Sassanians had ended the trade that Gandhara enjoyed with the entities through which ran the famous Silk Road. This was a gigantic blow to the economy of Gandhara. For another, The Minor Kushan kings had to pay tribute to the Sassanian Emperor which greatly dwindled the state treasury. These reasons coupled with the fact that the Minor Kushan kings could not lead any plundering expeditions in the light of the regional situation of that era. Gandhara became a feeble region and the direct effect of this was represented on the Buddhist grandeur of its cities. Not only were they unable to create any more monasteries, temples or stupas, they did not even possess enough funds to maintain the ones made by their ancestors.

This rule, too, was not meant to last long. In 350 CE, the Sassanian Emperor Shapur II conquered Gandhara. This era, surprisingly, did not witness any more deterioration of the Buddhist splendour of Gandhara. More than 200 coins have been found in Gandhara which are physical proof of the 30-year-long direct rule of the Sassanians in Gandhara.

The same Sassanians were once again deposed by another set of kings known as the Kidara Kushans in 380 CE. The era of the Kidara Kushans witnessed a daring upheaval of Buddhism once again in the region. The initial parts of their rule did witness much improvement in the status of Gandhara. However by the time their 80-year-long rule was coming to an end, Gandhara was heading towards a steady decline. This decline turned to death with the arrival of chaotic invasion of the White Huns.

Gold coin of Kanishka I bearing the inscription 'Shaonanoshao Kanishki Koshano' (King of Kings, Kanishka the Kushan)­

The White Huns invaded Gandhara and much of the land of what is today Pakistan in 480 CE and lead one of the most blistering attacks Peshawar and Gandhara as a whole ever witnessed. The cities were looted. Thousands of people were slaughtered. Structures were destroyed. Libraries were made to collapse. Centres of learning were disassembled. Entire cities were put to torch. Chaos became a universal fact for the lives of the Gandharans. This was the final blow that Gandhara received that perpetually took away its status as one of the richest regions of the world in all senses: historically, religiously and culturally.

Centuries later the Chinese monk and traveler Xuanzang visited Peshawar during his journey into South Asia. He noted the conditions of the city. He wrote that the royal families were extinct. The region was ruled by the deputies of Kapisa (Kabul). He also noted with much sorrow how the towns of the Peshawar basin had been deserted. Its villages were emptied. The once splendorous life of Gandhara was inevitably abandoned judging by his texts. He also wrote that there were 1,000 Buddhist sites – all of which had been abandoned. The monasteries were in ruins and overrun with weeds which filled his own heart with grief. The stupas were decaying. The temples were occupied by ‘heretics’. All in all, there lived 100 families in the entire city which looked after the ruins. Buddhist monks often in their journeys stopped at the ruins of Peshawar to pay respect to the former capital and revered city of their faith before moving along with their journeys.

And this was all that was left of the once ever glorious Purushpura or Peshawar.