The first ever archeological survey since the British colonial era in the Khyber Agency was conducted jointly by the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Archaeological Department and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) administration.
KP Archaeology and Museums Director Dr. Abdul Samad announced that these authorities have unearthed some 110 archeological sites in Khyber Agency’s subdivision Jamrud. Three of them are 30,000 years old, Samad claimed.
Mullah Fazlullah aka ‘Radio Mullah’ termed the securing of archaeological sites as ‘idol worship’
The historical Khyber Pass has remained a gateway for the trade between Central and South Asia for millennia now. “This was an easy, cheap and peaceful route for Central Asian kingdoms and Europe to interact with South Asia,” stated Hidayat Khan, who has been writing about archaeological sites, culture and antiquities from northwestern Pakistan for several years now.
Hidayat reminds us that this part of the world witnessed thousands of years of ups and downs and as a vital node on the Silk Route, was equally used for business and warfare. Such a pattern may have existed since time immemorial until 1893, when this bordering area was taken by over by colonialist authorities from Afghanistan.
Antiquities in the region came under attack after the Khyber Agency became a launching pad used by ‘mujahideen’ and the ideological precursors of the Taliban in the war against the USSR. The world’s two largest standing Buddhas – one of them 165 feet high – were blown up by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
For hardliners, an archaeological site is sin. The Bamyan Buddhas were blown up using dynamite and tank-fire by the then ruling Mullah Omar’s ‘holy warriors’ although world leaders appealed to protect Buddhas – all in vain. In Pakistan’s Swat region, the Taliban ruined the face of the world largest carved Buddha in Jehanabad. Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah aka ‘Radio Mullah’ termed the securing of archaeological sites as ‘idol worship’.
Ever the optimist, Dr. Samad says that he hopes recent discoveries as well as general development in the area would usher in a new era of tourism and prosperity in this militancy-hit area, the Khyber Agency.
“Political Agent Khalid Mahmood approached us after his first visit to the tribal region when he took charge of his office and sought our technical assistance in discovering archaeological sites,” Dr. Abdul Samad tells me. The political agent said they began their work from the Jamrud subdivision and would extend the archaeological surveys to the adjoining Landi Kotal and Bara subdivisions and later to the remote and mountainous Tirah valley.
“This is just the beginning as we discovered these sites without any excavation. Right here, there could be prehistoric sites and even major settlements if an organised excavation was undertaken in FATA,” the political agent speculates. He said that besides these sites, there are 34 historic railway tunnels from the (relatively) recent era of British colonialism in the Khyber Agency and each tunnel was contracted out to local elders for protection.
Dr. Samad reveals that the historical sites of the area included ancient structures, rock art (particularly rock paintings), tunnels and bridges, including eight from the ancient, Buddhist period. He further added that the current excavations took a mere month and a half. He tells me that they didn’t use any machinery during their work. “Out of these 110 sites, three were 30,000 years old, and generally the range of sites includes the Buddhist-, Muslim- and British-dominated periods,” he added.
Hidayat Khan talked about the protection and preservation of the sites. He indicated that since the KP Antiquities Act 2016 is not extended to FATA, the political administration lacks both the technical expertise and the capacity to preserve such sites. He believes, therefore, that the local administration must adopt the Italian Mission Swat paradigm – that of involving the locals.
Hidayat Khan tells me: “In Swat, the mission has involved the local population in excavation and preservation procedures, although they are not qualified archaeologists. And now, they are the real custodians of the sites!”
Dr. Rafiullah Khan teaches at the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilisations, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad. He noted in his research paper: “Community archaeology and cultural resource management are relatively recent developments in the field of archaeology. However, both are result-oriented in many ways. As community archaeology gives partial control of archaeological resources to local communities it creates a sense of belonging and ownership and, in turn, public awareness about its utility in communal life”. He adds that the Involvement of the community in the field has several complementary dimensions: it offers economic opportunities to the local people on the one hand and enhances archaeologists’ knowledge about the area and its antiquities on the other.
According to Dr. Samad, there are some 6,000 archeological sites in KP and the number is doubled after the new discoveries in the Khyber Agency
Historically, the Khyber Agency remained part of ancient Buddhist Gandhara civilisation, which flourished in areas that today fall in Pakistan and Afghanistan from the mid-first millennium BCE to the beginning of the second millennium CE. Khalid Mehmood emphasises that the documentation of such sites is a major success for the political administration; as such steps were never taken in the past.
Based on historical documents, we can see that the first archaeological intervention in FATA, that of the colonial British administration, began modern archaeological research in South Asia in the early 19th century. This, of course, included the then North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). During that time, they tried hard to conduct archaeological surveys in the Khyber Agency but due to the local security situation of the British Empire, they could not succeed in their work. According to Dr. Samad, there are some 6,000 archeological sites in KP and the number is doubled after the new discoveries in the Khyber Agency alone.
Mr. Khan further pointed out that KP is far behind the Punjab and Sindh governments in legislation vis-à-vis cultural heritage. Even the protected sites of KP are severely threatened and a large number of these have already been either encroached upon or completely destroyed. At present some sites only exist on paper; several important sites like Muhammad Nari and Ghaz Dherai in Charsadda no longer exist. They have been replaced by modern villages. A sound legal framework is needed in this context, especially in the wake of the devolution of archaeology from being a federal-level subject.
Dr. Luca Olivieri, head of the Italian archaeological mission in Swat opines that during the late phases of the Pleistocene (or more precisely, in the Upper Paleolithic) era, the climatic and morphological conditions were highly favourable to human settlements in the plain and in this context, climate conditions along the piedmont of the Karakorum and Himalayas are extremely important. For example, we know from several excavated sites in KP, that human groups were present here at least in the Upper Paleolithic times. Paleolithic tools were found also in lower Swat and Kashmir; in a period when glaciers would have prevented humans from living or moving around above 3,000 feet (two Paleolithic tools from the Kandak valley are on display in the Swat Museum).
Dr Luca states, “Yes, FATA’s archaeological heritage should be extremely rich. And illegal excavators are apparently aware of that. In fact, I think that most of the finds that are every year illegally excavated in KP, ending up in the international antiquities markets, come actually from the FATA.”
He further adds:
“Therefore, in the future, FATA should be properly explored and sites extensively excavated. FATA should have organised museums and permanent KP Archaeology offices. Excavated sites should be kept open to the public (and to school trips) and local communities should be involved in their custody, as was done in Swat. I don’t know any particular area that would deserve be explored first. Bajaur (already explored in the past by Dr. Ashraf Khan and Dr. Lutf-ur-Rehman) was certainly a pivotal area in ancient times. The agencies immediately to the west of Peshawar can be approached more easily, at least in terms of logistics. But one should not forget the frontier regions of Bannu and Kohat either.”