North-West Frontier Province

The Khyber Pass Balahisar Fort Glacier in Naran

About Peshwar

Pakistan's northern and western borders with China and Afghanistan are marked out by rugged hills and mountains ranging in height from 2,000 feet (609 meters) in the south-west to over 28,000 feet (8,535 meters) in the far north. The gateways through this otherwise unbroken barrier are occasional natural passes. By far the best-known of these is the Khyber Pass, which is 56 kilometers long, 40 kilometers being in Pakistan and the remainder in Afghanistan. From the Khyber border post at Torkham, where an old sign warns hitch-hikers that under no circumstances should they spend the night in the open in the Pass, it is a 55 kilometer journey to the city of Peshawar. Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, is 227 kilometers away, Lahore 497 kilometers, and the port of Karachi 1,782 kilometers.

Since ancient times the Khyber has formed a vital route for overland trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a point of entry to the subcontinent for invading armies. Its military importance is easily explained. It is wide enough to allow troops and cavalry to march through it in disciplined ranks and its highest point, Landi Kotal, is only 3,500 feet (1067 meters) above sea-level. Beyond the Pass, beckoning enticingly to the greedy and the bold, lies the lush Vale of Peshawar at the head of the rich and fertile Indus Valley.

In the fourth century BC, when Alexander the Great of Macedon invaded the Punjab, one of his divisions came through the Khyber. In the tenth century AD Sabuktigin, who founded the Ghaznivid dynasty, and his more famous son Mahmud, brought their armies through the Pass on their way to the conquest of much of Pakistan and northern India. There is evidence that Genghis Khan and Timurlane made use of the Pass in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Babur, the first of the Mughals, also took this route on his march down into the subcontinent from Afghanistan in 1525. Rather more than 200 years later the Turk Nadir Shah came the same way during the sunset of Mughal rule.

What may at first be surprising is that more of the subcontinent's invaders did not use the Khyber Pass and that those who used it once rarely did so again. The explanation, however, is to be found in the warlike nature of the Afridi tribesmen who have lived in the Pass for rnillennia and have often made war or extracted tolls from those who have tried to use it as a thoroughfare. The Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote in the fifth century BC, knew them as the Aparutai and commented on their bravery. Many others since then have noted their readiness to fight. Sir Robert Warburton, a British army-officer who spent several years with the garrisons in the Khyber in the late nineteenth century, had this to say of them: 'The Afridi lad from his earliest childhood is taught by the circumstances of his existence and life to distrust all mankind, and very often his near relations, heirs to his small plot of land by right of inheritance, are his deadliest enemies."

The British left behind a number of mementos of their long stay in the Khyber. The road itself is the most enduring, while the weathered and faded insignia and crests of famous regiments carved into the glowering slate walls of the Pass are the most evocative. There is a railway too, dating back to the mid1920s. The sight of the steam train which, once a week on Fridays, runs up from Peshawar to Landi Kotal, reinforces the sense that one has of the Khyber Pass being outside the normal processes of time. The train has an engine at either end-both were made in England in I931. Clouds of steam belch forth as it chugs up and down the gradients of the Pass and in and out of the tunnels. As it pulls into the shelter of the massive red-brick walls of Shagai Fort, built in the center of the Khyber at around the same time as the railway, a passenger could be forgiven for thinking that the price of his ticket had taken him not on a journey from place to place but on a journey back into another era.

A stiff climb above Shagai stands an empty picket-fort that commands a sniper's-eye view. The wind blows through its rifle slits and machine-gun turrets and whips under the sill of its heavily- armored iron door, sadly recalling battles of long ago and the lonely soldiers far from home who fought them.

The British first arrived on the frontier in I849, but did not get any real control of the Passes until the Second Afghan War, which was fought between 1878 and 1880. T