History of Peshawar

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Peshawar City, Edwardes Gate, c. 1870

The history of Peshawar, a region of modern-day Pakistan, covers thousands of years. The region was dominated by various tribal groups of Indo-Iranian origin and a variety of other groups, possibly of Elamo-Dravidian origin, maybe prior to invasion of Aryan tribes and their settlement. The region had links to the Harappan civilization of the Indus river valley and to ancient Afghanistan (before it was called Afghanistan or even Aryana), especially the Kabul valley. The border known as the Durand Line was fixed by the British in 1893 and divided ethnic Pakhtun territories into two parts. As a result, many Pakhtuns have agitated for a re-unification of Afghanistan or Pakhtunistan. The resulting "Pakhtunistan" issue has often adversely impacted relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the issue has largely become dormant since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the arrival and settlement of nearly 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Ancient history[edit]

It has been argued that an ancient city named Pushkalwati, founded by Bharata's son Pushkal, from the Indian epic Ramayana, may have existed in this general area during early Indo-Iranian times before their invasion past the Indus into South Asia.[1] The city that would become Peshawar, called Purushapura, was actually founded by the Kushans, a Central Asian tribe of Tocharian origin, over 2,000 years ago. Prior to this period the region was affiliated with Gandhara and was annexed first by the Persian Achaemenid Empire and then the Hellenic empire of Alexander the Great. The city passed into the rule of Alexander's successor, Seleucus I Nicator who ceded it to Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya Empire. The inhabitants of Peshewar where mostly Hindu's, Buddhist, Parsi's and Jews before the arrival of Christ and Islam. Buddhism and Hinduism was introduced into the region at this time and that where the majority of Peshawar's inhabitants before the coming of Islam.

The area that Peshawar occupies was then seized by the Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides I (c. 170 - c. 159 BCE), and was controlled by a series of Greco-Bactrian kings. It was later held for some time by several Parthian kings, another group of Iranian invaders from Central Asia, the most famous of whom, Gondophares, was still ruling c. 46 CE, and was briefly followed by two or three of his descendants before they were displaced by the first of the "Great Kushans", Kujula Kadphises, around the middle of the 1st century.

Peshawar formed the eastern capital of the empire of Gandhara under the Kushan emperor Kanishka I who reigned from at least 127 CE and, perhaps, for a few years prior to this. Peshawar also became a great centre of Buddhist learning.

Kanishka built what was probably the tallest building in the world at the time, a giant stupa, to house the Buddha's relics, just outside the Ganj Gate of the old city of Peshawar.

Kanishka's stupa was said to be an imposing structure as one travelled down from the mountains of Afghanistan onto the Gandharan plains. The earliest account of the famous building is by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim monk, Faxian, who visited it in 400 and described it as being over 40 chang in height (probably about 120 m. or 394 ft.) and adorned "with all precious substances". "Of all the stûpas and temples seen by the travellers, none can compare with this for beauty of form and strength." It was destroyed by lightning and repaired several times. It was still in existence at the time of Xuanzang's visit in 634.

From the ruined base of this giant stupa there existed a jewelled casket containing relics of the Buddha, and an inscription identifying Kanishka as the donor, and was excavated from a chamber under the very centre of the stupa's base, by a team under Dr. D. B. Spooner in 1909. The stupa was roughly cruciform in shape with a diameter of 286 ft (87 m.) and heavily decorated around the sides with stucco scenes. The relics contained in the famous Kanishka casket, said to be those of the Buddha, were removed to Mandalay, Burma for safekeeping.

Sometime in the 1st millennium BCE (or perhaps much earlier), the group that now dominates Peshawar began to arrive from the Suleiman mountains to the south and southwest, the Pakhtuns. It is debatable as to whether or not the Pakhtuns existed in the region even earlier as evidence is difficult to attain. Some writers such as Sir Olaf Caroe write that a group that may have been the Pakhtuns existed in the area and were called the Paktye by Herodotus and the Greeks, which would place the Pakhtuns in the area of Peshawar much earlier along with other Indo-Iranian tribes.

Peshawar part of Greco-Bactrian Kingdom[edit]

The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom was – along with the Indo-Greek Kingdom – the easternmost part of the Hellenistic world, covering Bactria and Sogdiana in Central Asia from 250 to 125 BC. It was centered around the north of present-day Afghanistan and North Pakistan. The expansion of the Greco-Bactrians into northern India from 180 BC established the Indo-Greek Kingdom, which was to last until around AD 10. Peshewar used to be a Greco-Bactrian capital.

Peshewar was part of the Graeco-Indian Kingdom, it was a Hellenistic kingdom covering various parts of the northwest regions of the Indian subcontinent (modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Western India) during the last two centuries BC, and was ruled by more than 30 kings,[2] often in conflict with each other.

The kingdom was founded when the Graeco-Bactrian king Demetrius invaded the subcontinent early in the 2nd century BC. The Greeks in South Asia were eventually divided from the Graeco-Bactrians centered in Bactria (now the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan). But, the Greeks failed to establish a united rule in north-western India. The most famous Indo-Greek ruler was Menander (Milinda). He had his capital at Sakala in Punjab, modern Pakistan, and he successfully invaded the Ganges-Yamuna doab.

The expression "Indo-Greek Kingdom" loosely describes a number of various dynastic polities, traditionally associated with a number of regional capitals like Taxila,[3] (modern Punjab (Pakistan)), Pushkalavati and Sagala.[4] Other potential centers are only hinted at; for instance, Ptolemy's Geographia and the nomenclature of later kings suggest that a certain Theophila in the south of the Indo-Greek sphere of influence may also have been a satrapal or royal seat at one time.

During the two centuries of their rule, the Indo-Greek kings combined the Greek and Indian languages and symbols, as seen on their coins, and blended ancient Greek, Hindu and Buddhist religious practices, as seen in the archaeological remains of their cities and in the indications of their support of Buddhism, pointing to a rich fusion of Indian and Hellenistic influences.[5] The diffusion of Indo-Greek culture had consequences which are still felt today, particularly through the influence of Greco-Buddhist art.[6]

The Indo-Greeks ultimately disappeared at Peshawar as a political entity around 10 AD following the invasions of the Indo-Scythians, although pockets of Greek populations probably remained for several centuries longer under the subsequent rule of the Indo-Parthians and Kushans.[7]

Arrival of Islam[edit]

Regardless, over the centuries the Pakhtuns would come to dominate the region and Peshawar has emerged as an important center of Pakhtun culture along with Kandahar and Kabul as well as Quetta in more recent times. Muslim Arab and Turkic arrived and annexed the region before the beginning of the 2nd millennium. The Pakhtuns began to convert to Islam following early annexation by Arab empire from Khurasan (in what is today western Afghanistan and northeastern Iran). Peshawar د اسلام راتګ was taken by Turkic Muslims in 988 and was incorporated into the larger Pakhtun domains by the 16th century. The founder of the Mughul dynasty that would conquer South Asia, Babur who hailed from what is today Uzbekistan, came to Peshawar and found a city called Begram and rebuilt the fort there, in 1530. His grandson, Akbar, formally named the city Peshawar which means "The Place at the Frontier" in Persian and expanded the bazaars and fortifications. The Muslim technocrats, bureaucrats, soldiers, traders, scientists, architects, teachers, theologians and Sufis flocked from the rest of the Muslim world to Islamic Sultanate in South Asia and many settled in the Peshawar region. Earlier it had been known as the "City of Flowers" and the "City of Grain". In the days of the Kushan King it was called the "Lotus Land".

The Pakhtun conqueror Sher Shah Suri, turned Peshawar's renaissance into a boom when he ran his Delhi-to-Kabul Shahi Road, now called the Grand Trunk Road, through the Khyber Pass and Peshawar. Thus the Mughals turned Peshawar into a "City of Flowers" by planting trees and laying out gardens similar to those found to the west in Persia. The Mughals and Safavids of Iran would often contest the region as well. Khushal Khan Khattak, the Pakhtun/Afghan warrior poet, was born near Peshawar and his life was intimately tied to the city. He was also an implacable foe of the Mughal rulers, especially Aurangzeb. Khattak apparently was an early Pakhtun nationalist, who agitated for an independent Afghanistan including Peshawar. After the decline of the Mughal Empire, the city came under Persian control during the reign of Nadir Shah by the 18th century.

Peshawar would also join, (following a loya jirga) as a Pakhtun region, the Afghan/Pakhtun empire of Ahmad Shah Durrani by 1747. Pakhtuns from Peshawar took part in incursions of South Asia during the rule of Ahmad Shah Durrani and his successors.

Maratha era[edit]

Peshawar came under Maratha control after defeat of Afghan forces by Marathas on 8 May 1758 in the Battle of Peshawar. The city remained under Maratha control till year 1759 in which Abdali forces reconquered the fort.

Sikh era[edit]

The Sikhs invaded and conquered Peshawar back again in 1834 after the Mughal rule and Afghan rule. The city was under Sikh control following the death of Ranjit Singh, before which Hari Singh Nalwa completely controlled the area. The British influenced and then ultimately ruled the region from 1849 to 1947, when it became part of the new nation of Pakistan.

Being amongst the most ancient cities of the region between Central, South, and West Asia, Peshawar has for centuries been a centre of trade between Afghanistan, the South Asia, and Central Asia as well as the Middle East. Its famed markets such as the Qisa Khwani bazaar (market of story tellers) are emblematic of this mixture of cultures.

Peshawar would emerge as a centre of Pakhtun intellectuals and culture. Some Pakhtuns still adhere to Pakhtunistan movement that sought either to merge western Pakistan with Afghanistan or to form a greater Pakhtun state to be known as Pukhtoonkwa and this movement gained some support before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Nearly 2 million ethnic Afghan Pakhtuns refugees have permanently settled in Pakistan.

Post-independence history[edit]

After the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 Peshawar served as a political centre for anti-Soviet Mujahideen, and was surrounded by huge camps of Afghan refugees. Many of the refugees remained there through the civil war which broke out after the Soviets were defeated in 1989, the rule of the Taliban, and the invasion by allied forces in late 2001. Peshawar would replace Kabul and Qandahar as the centre of Pakhtun cultural development during this tumultuous period. Additionally, Peshawar managed to assimilate many of the Pakhtun Afghan refugees with relative ease, while many other Afghan refugees remained in camps awaiting a possible return to Afghanistan.

Peshawar continues to be a city that links Pakistan to Afghanistan and has emerged as an important regional city in Pakistan and remains a focal point for Pakhtun culture.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Overview of Peshawar History
  2. ^ Euthydemus I was, according to Polybius 11.34, a Magnesian Greek. His son, Demetrius I, founder of the Indo-Greek kingdom, was therefore of Greek ethnicity at least by his father. A marriage treaty was arranged for the same Demetrius with a daughter of the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III (who had some Persian descent). Polybius 11.34. The ethnicity of later Indo-Greek rulers is less clear ("Notes on Hellenism in Bactria and India". W. W. Tarn. Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 22 (1902), pp. 268–293). For example, Artemidoros (80 BC) may have been of Indo-Scythian ascendency. Some level of inter-marriage may also have occurred, as exemplified by Alexander III of Macedon (who married Roxana of Bactria) or Seleucus (who married Apama).
  3. ^ Mortimer Wheeler Flames over Persepolis (London, 1968). Pp. 112 ff. It is unclear whether the Hellenistic street plan found by Sir John Marshall's excavations dates from the Indo-Greeks or from the Kushans, who would have encountered it in Bactria; Tarn (1951, pp. 137, 179) ascribes the initial move of Taxila to the hill of Sirkap to Demetrius I, but sees this as "not a Greek city but an Indian one"; not a polis or with a Hippodamian plan.
  4. ^ "Menander had his capital in Sagala" Bopearachchi, "Monnaies", p.83. McEvilley supports Tarn on both points, citing Woodcock: "Menander was a Bactrian Greek king of the Euthydemid dynasty. His capital (was) at Sagala (Sialkot) in the Punjab, "in the country of the Yonakas (Greeks)"." McEvilley, p.377. However, "Even if Sagala proves to be Sialkot, it does not seem to be Menander's capital for the Milindapanha states that Menander came down to Sagala to meet Nagasena, just as the Ganges flows to the sea."
  5. ^ "A vast hoard of coins, with a mixture of Greek profiles and Indian symbols, along with interesting sculptures and some monumental remains from Taxila, Sirkap and Sirsukh, point to a rich fusion of Indian and Hellenistic influences", India, the Ancient Past, Burjor Avari, p.130
  6. ^ Ghose, Sanujit (2011). "Cultural links between India and the Greco-Roman world". Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  7. ^ "When the Greeks of Bactria and India lost their kingdom they were not all killed, nor did they return to Greece. They merged with the people of the area and worked for the new masters; contributing considerably to the culture and civilization in southern and central Asia." Narain, "The Indo-Greeks" 2003, p.278