Arrested Trees, Stupas and Tamerlane's Prison

Arrested Trees, Stupas and Tamerlane's Prison


Durriyah Balkhi Asghar CPA, Class of '91, is a Tax and Financial Consultant. She began her career with PriceWaterhouse, New York and is currently on a sabbatical.

Shameelah Balkhi (her sister) has an MS in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology from Yale University and is currently a homemaker.

Arrested Trees, Stupas and Tamerlane's Prison

Barren, greyish-brown and dusty all around. As we travelled through the Safed Koh (Spin Ghar) mountains of the Hindukush Range there was not a speck of green anywhere in sight. In fact, not a speck of any color at all. The deep blue sky was in sharp contrast. We had come to see the famous Khyber Pass and our destination was Fort Michni.

A few kilometers past the smugglers' bazar of Karkhano is the famous Baab-e-Khyber monument arching over the road leading to the border with Afghanistan. The Baab-e-Khyber monument, built in the 60's, is unremarkable. What had we come to see in this God-forsaken place? Decades later I still wondered why the Baab-e-Khyber had been chosen to adorn the RS10 note when there are so many grander structures in Pakistan. But our faithful cousin had all the answers and our guided tour through this 53 km long stretch, known famously as the Khyber Pass, was a rich experience.

Just a few kilometers from Peshawar, next to the Baab-e-Khyber at the mouth of the Khyber Pass, we first passed the Jamrud Fort. It was rebuilt by the Sikhs in 1823 on the site of an earlier fort. Then came the Shagai Fort and then the Ali Masjid Fort. Here is a shrine dedicated to the fourth Caliph of Islam, whom it is believed came here, prayed here and left the impression of his hand on a boulder that was thrown at him. Apparently even the name of the pass "Khyber" is the same as the Khyber of Arabia where he distinguished himself.

The most charming sight along our route was of railway tunnels; quaint, brick-faced, black holes disappearing into hills. The British had to construct 43 of them to get trains from Peshawar to Landi Kotal in the 1920s. During the three Afghan Wars fought by the British in the 19th and early 20th centuries they paid dearly to keep their supply route through the Khyber Pass open.

Arriving at Fort Michni or Michni Picquet was exciting. It was like stepping into a castle from medieval times that was still required in the modern world. At 3600 feet above sea level it offered a great view all around. Snow-capped mountain tops of the Hindukush, deep inside Afghanistan, were also visible from here. The Michni Check post is the last point tourists-with-permits can go to.

As we looked down trucks wound their way along the serpentine road to the Torkham border crossing 4km away. After the journalist Yvonne Ridley had illegally snuck into Afghanistan and was detained by the Taliban for 11 days, it was at Torkham that she was handed over to Pakistani officials in 2001.

The Huns had built a series of hill forts all over this region for defense. These were pointed out to us and we were also briefed that the sloping tunnel on the hilltop slightly to the left, was the killing cell of Taimur Lang's prison, that chopped and minced people up inside. No appetite for that! After our tour of Fort Michni we retraced our steps to the Khyber Rifles Officers' Mess in Landi Kotal. Its expansive lawns had a perfectly functioning sundial from 1923. The Mess also has a Diana Room where Lady Diana spent a few hours, as well as the sofa set Quaid-e-Azam and Fatima Jinnah sat on when they visited in 1948. John and Jacqueline Kennedy are other notables who have signed the Visitors Books on display here. But what we were most amused to see was the arrested tree.

A big, old Banyan tree in Landi Kotal has been under arrest for over 118 years! Thick chains hold it to the ground so it doesn't run away. A plaque next to it describes the circumstances of its arrest. British officers of the Khyber Rifles were having their drinks on the lawn when one of them felt that the tree was moving. He ordered it to stop, and when it didn't, he gave orders for its arrest. The tree has been in chains ever since!

The Aryans in 1500 BC, the Persians of the Achaemenian Empire in the 6th century BC, the armies of Alexander the Great in 326 BC, the Huns 5-8 CE, Changez Khan and the Mongol hordes 13-14 CE, then the Mughal and Afghan armies in the following centuries, all came into the subcontinent using the Khyber Pass. The Khyber Pass is also the route through which Ahmad Shah Abdali came, on Shah Waliullah's request, to stem the tide of the Marhatha slaughter. After defeating the Marhatha and reinstating the Muslim government he returned to Afghanistan.

A push in the reverse direction had been in the time of the Mauriya Empire 322-185 BC when Buddhism flourished, especially under Ashoka, and was taken as far as Balkh and Bukhara. Buddhism was the dominant religion of this region by the 1st century BC and we passed several stupas on our way. The Kushan Dynasty was also Buddhist and the conspicuous Sphola Stupa (Khyber Topee) and the stupa near Ali Masjid Fort are probably of this era, 1-3 CE, or later.

A pass is like a bridge that allows people to cross into an area that is otherwise inaccessible. The Khyber Pass is the most northerly mountain pass connecting Central Asia with the Indian subcontinent. A part of the ancient Silk Route, it is 1 km at its widest and 16m at its narrowest. Is the route still important? 80% of the supplies to NATO forces since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 go through the Khyber Pass and the diplomatic crisis of 2010 resulted from the sealing of this route after three Pakistani soldiers were killed by NATO bombing.

Each village in this sparsely populated stretch is constructed like a fort and every hilltop houses a picquet manned by the Frontier Force. The Khyber Pass is not the place for a pretty holiday but where else will you see a tree under arrest, roughly 15 centuries-old stupas and the artery supplying the world's biggest war?