Khyber Pass echoes stories of valour, deceit

Omar Mukhar Khan

ISLAMABAD (Dawn/ANN) – Known as a traditional gateway for invaders, Khyber Pass is a ‘sword that cut through the mountains’.

As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recently made their way to Pakistan following in the footsteps of Princess Diana, they were not only following the same path treaded by England’s royalty – including Queen Elizabeth – but also by thousands of British civil servants and soldiers who fought for the Crown, countless miles away from their homeland in the mountains of Chitral, Waziristan and the Khyber Pass at the height of the 19th Century ‘Great Game’ between England and Russia.

This time around, while the royals were able to visit Chitral and the mythical Kalash valley, their plans to visit the historic Khyber Pass that connects Afghanistan to the sub-continent were scuttled due to inclement weather. Disappointing as it may seem, they now have a reason to return to Pakistan because no visit to the country is complete without paying homage to the legendary Khyber Pass.

Khyber Pass was the route used by many invaders to conquer India, starting from Alexander the Great to the Mughals and the Afghans. Whereas the conquests in reverse, primarily by Ranjit Singh or the British, were almost always a failure.

Last winter, I was in Peshawar with my family to explore the city, where we ended up staying at the Peshawar Services Club built in the colonial era; founded in 1863 to be precise. Our trip was aimed at exploring the city, understand its history and check out some of the top spots that define Peshawar, with the historic Khyber Pass topping the list. So on one kind, sunny morning, we set out for Torkham and in 30 minutes, crossed the iconic Khyber Pass gate into Jamrud- the gateway to the erstwhile Khyber Agency, now Khyber District.

The iconic Khyber Pass. PHOTO: DAWN/ANN

The road was excellent from Jamrud onward and as we entered the Khyber gorge, we were stopped at a Khyber Rifles checkpost for identification. This is also the point where the historic Khyber Railways track starts running almost parallel to the road.

Soon we crossed the 1927 Shagai Fort, which is situated right next to the road. This fort is currently with the Khyber Rifles detachment, painting a very different picture from what was the case a few years ago. During the days of the Taleban insurgency in 2007-2009, the area between Shagai Fort and LandiKotal had become a no-go zone, but owing to the government’s measures to counter these forces, things appear to have returned to normalcy.

As we drove forward, the gorge became narrower, and all along the route, the Khyber Railways track snaked along, passing through tunnels and bridges.

The Khyber Railways was originally planned by the British in the late 19th Century as a strategic project to counter suspected Russian invasion of the sub-continent via Afghanistan in the era of ‘The Great Game’ with Russia and Queen Victoria’s government trying to fight it out in the barren lands of Afghanistan. However, sanity prevailed and in 1907, both sides signed an agreement to stick to their domains. Still, the Khyber Railways was commissioned as an efficient way of moving troops at short notice. The 52 kilometres railway track traverses the whole way from Peshawar to LandiKhana at Torkham, way beyond LandiKotal, the main frontier town. The track was completed around 1925 with some 34 tunnels and 92 bridges and the broad-gauge railways ran for almost 80 years carrying passengers and goods via the historic pass.

There used to be a Khyber steam safari with steam engines pulling and pushing the rolling stock, with engines at both ends but the last train chugged in 2006 before the track was destroyed at places by torrential rains and floods, and wasn’t repaired again. The expansive 1925 LandiKotal railway station with its water tanks, ticket-house and waiting rooms, still remind us of the glory of a bygone era.

Back to Khyber Pass, soon we reached the area where there is the Ali Masjid area. This is the narrowest part of the Khyber gorge and at one point in history, only one camel laden with trading goods could pass the gorge one at a time. But more so, this was also the most strategic point for tribal Afridis and Shinwaris who would control the surrounding mountaintops and practise their shooting on archaic ‘Gazails’ in invading armies – be it the Sikhs or the British.

Whoever controlled the heights in the Ali Masjid area, would have the strategic benefit; the British understood this well and always tried to capture the Ali Masjid Fort, located beside Ali Masjid, though they were not always successful. The fort was first constructed in 1837 by Afghan ruler Dost Muhammad Khan but was later burnt, reconstructed, captured and recaptured in battles by opposing British, Afghan or tribal forces. Ali Masjid has witnessed intense battles between the British and tribals both in the first Afghan war in 1842 and the second Afghan war in 1879.