With Peshawar in the news so much lately for everything from being the front lines in the struggle with militant Islam to suicide bombings to Blackwater operatives allegedly working out of the Pearl Continental for the Frontier Corps and for JSOC, I realized it was time to run a post on my experiences there.
Peshawar has a real “Wild West” feel and it really is a frontier city where you can do or buy anything and see all manner of people. Perhaps that’s why it is one of my favorite cities…
And in case you forget even for a minute inside your hotel that you’re in an exciting place, you’ll be reminded as soon as you step outside by your friendly, but professional, AK-47-toting guard(s) protecting the hotel:
While in Peshawar, one of the first places we headed to was the Qasim Ali Khan Mosque. Known for fire and brimstone sermons and rhetoric, anti-British riots have spun out across the city on more than one occasion after inspirational speeches from this mosque. So, our guide/fixer was shocked when we were greeted with friendly, open arms and invited inside to look around:
Following our visit to the Qasim Ali Khan Mosque, we broke up and wandered about the city. The site pictured below is Mohallah Sethian – a wealthy merchant’s house. You’ll notice the bridge connecting the two buildings. Well, one side housed the offices and residential quarters of the merchant and the other side (the right) contained his personal harem. Clever, huh?
This is the entrance to the offices/residential section:
I snapped this picture of these girls outside Mohallah Sethian. After showing them the picture, they delightedly followed us for blocks begging me to take more pictures of them (which I indulged them with) before they were driven off with sticks by some old men in an alleyway:
One area we stumbled across that surprised me was the Cathedral Church of St John. Now, I’ve never been entirely clear on the difference between a church and a cathedral. However, I guess these guys weren’t either and decided to cover all of their bases by naming it both. Either way, it is a Christian religious institution and school right in the heart of Peshawar. I’m not religious, but it was interesting to look around.
And, of course, it was protected by the ubiquitous gun-toting guards. This one is utilizing a 12 gauge, pump action, pistol grip shotgun:
The complex is surrounded by a high wall and so it is sort of like an oasis of tranquility inside because the city noises are more or less blocked out and greenery is everywhere:
The below is not your image of Pakistan, is it? I found it interesting to go inside and read some of the memorial plaques to various British officers that had been killed in this area when the British still ran things here. I recall there were a lot of murders of British officers via throat-slitting at night, frequently described using the words “dastardly” and “cowardly.”
The entrance to the school on the site:
Across the street is a large cemetery. This is the caretaker of the cemetery:
And this bed on the path leading into the heart of the cemetery is where he lives and, therefore, sleeps at night:
One of the graves in the cemetery… Not just Christians are buried here – it just so happens that this photograph was taken in the Christian section:
Grave diggers hard at work to make room for fresh arrivals:
And here as well:
Pictures of random street scenes taken as I continued my wanderings across Peshawar:
This carpet provides a fine map of Afghanistan:
Pretty much says it all… Pakistanis take decorating their vehicles very seriously:
These were some kind of exotic birds for sale… Probably endangered and illegal to sell:
One of many, many informal money changers one can find across the region:
As I would find across Pakistan and Afghanistan, the kids will always love you if you take their picture:
This is the entrance to one of the souks where many fine antiques can be purchased. Someone with a knowledge of such things could do quite well here. You see, dealers of antiques in the West are too afraid to come here, even though many items on sale in these Peshawar markets could be sold for orders of magnitude more in the West:
Some of the wares on display:
This was one of the most pathetic scenes I have ever observed. This woman was begging outside the souk and had just collapsed into the muddy street. She was sobbing for some money, some food, some pity – anything – as the rain beat down on her and a sea of people walked past her, completely ignoring her:
This landmark is near the downtown section of the old city. Admire it. It was subsequently heavily damaged, if not destroyed in a suicide bomb attack:
This is a building of the Pakistani central bank in Peshawar. It too was subsequently damaged in a bomb attack:
This section is around one of the many gates to the old city, reflecting some of the British and Indian influences on Peshawar:
The grand gate:
“New” Peshawar encircles “old” Peshawar like a filthy cloak on a beautiful woman, but it is where the majority of the population of the city of Peshawar is found. Below are some pictures of “new Peshawar”:
You’d think I would automatically endorse any place featuring a goat market, but these goats are headed for the butcher’s block and not to a life of pampered luxury in Oregon House:
Below is a picture of the headquarters of the Frontier Corps in Peshawar, also known as the Balahisar which is placed on the highest ground in the city. I apologize for the poor quality, but the taking of this picture was very forbidden and so I had to move swiftly.
The fort is reflective of the chaotic history of Peshawar. The name Balahisar is of Persian origin and was most likely given by the Afghan ruler, Taimur Shah Durrani (1773 – 1793). The origin of the fort is not clear, but it is as old as the city itself (2000 to 2500 years old). The main entrance faces the old route to India. A Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang, visited Peshawar in 630 AD, and he described it as a royal residence of the city. And, supposedly, a channel of the old Bara River surrounded it at one time.
Historically Peshawar has always been a city of strategic importance, frequently mentioned as the seat of Ghandhara civilization. Subuktagin captured Peshawar in 988 AD, Mahmud of Ghazni in 1001 AD, Ghori in 1179 AD, and then came Babar in the 15th century who established the Mughal empire. Afghan King Sher Shah Suri destroyed the fort after the overthrow of Babar’s son Humayun. However, upon his return, Humayun rebuilt the fort.
Ahmed Shah Durrani of Afghanistan finally took it from the Mughals and made it a residential palace. His son Taimur made Peshawar his winter capital. After his death in 1793, Shah Zaman lost it to the Sikhs in 1834, who destroyed it. Then Sher Singh on orders from his father, Ranjeet Singh, rebuilt the fort. An inscription from the Sikh period still survives on a gate.
The British annexed Punjab in 1849 after defeating Ranjeet Singh’s son, and extended their rule to Peshawar. At the time Balahisar was a mud fort, the British reinforced it with bricks and gave it the present day look. Until 1947, the fort also housed the treasury.
On 14 August 1947, the Pakistani flag was hoisted over Balahisar, and the following year it became the Headquarters of the Frontier Corps (FC). Good luck getting inside to take a look around…
No matter where you go in Peshawar, new or old, you will encounter warm Pakistani hospitality – such as that which we encountered in the “Old City” below…
We were invited in for tea (or “chai” as they call it) by this group:
…and serenaded by this old boy with Pakistani songs…
…before they pulled out the hashish and the hash pipe to pass around. Recreational drugs are surprisingly common in this Muslim country.
Below, one of the old men is rolling hashish up in cigarette paper…
…and having a go before passing it around:
Here our guide and fixer, Prince, is demonstrating how to use the old-fashioned hash pipe on the scene:
This is one of Prince’s homes he took us to:
Prince inside the home… Prince really is a prince which is why everyone, understandably, calls him “Prince”.
While we were at Prince’s, this student from a nearby madrassa came by seeking donations… I gave him the equivalent of a dollar and got a photograph out of it. Not normally the type of cause I support, but whatever it takes to improve American/Pakistani relations, right?
I don’t casually throw out “favorite city” designations. So, for me to proclaim Peshawar as one of my favorite cities really means something. However, I can think of few cities that are full of such energy and life, leaving one in a permanent state of sensory overload (in a good way). Hopefully, the pictures above did something to convey that wonderful feeling.