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Humshehri: Thinking Pakistan's History

Thinking Pakistan's History

Peshawar History

Amongst the oldest living cities of the subcontinent, Peshawar has served as the gateway to the subcontinent, allowing for a wide range of people to inhabit it over the years.


Peshawar History 1
Khyber Pass
(James Mollison)

Peshawar is the provincial capital and largest city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). It lies on the western banks of the Bara River and is situated barely 15 km from the east end of Khyber Pass. Administratively, Peshawar city is located in Peshawar District. In 1998 Peshawar’s population was 982,816. As of 2013 it is estimated that its population crossed 2.5 million. Military operations, natural disasters, and militancy in neighboring areas have all contributed to the surge in population.

Early history

Peshawar, meaning the city on the frontier, is amongst the oldest living cities of the Indian subcontinent. Its original name and origins are shrouded in mystery and are a great source of debate for scholars. In ancient times, Peshawar Valley and its surrounding areas were known as Gandhara. During the 6th century BC Gandhara became a province of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. In fact, excavations in the Gor Khatri area of Peshawar city confirm this. For this very reason it is believed that the Persians were the first inhabitants of the city, and that Peshawar was first known as Parashapur, meaning the city of Persians.

When the army of Alexander the Great entered through the Khyber Pass in 327 BC, Peshawar Valley was under the authority of various local rulers; some surrendered and some fought until they were defeated. After the death of Alexander, the Greek Seleucids, indigenous Mauryans, Indo-Greeks, Indo-Sakas, and the Parthians all conquered this valley and Peshawar city along with it.

The Kushans

In 64 AD the Kushans, a tribe from Central Asia, took Gandhara from the Parthians. It was during their rule that Peshawar became a flourishing city with a large population. By year 100 AD, Peshawar was the 7th most populated city of the ancient world!

According to legend, the first Kushan king Kujula Kadphises came to Peshawar to obtain a Buddhist relic: Buddha’s alms-bowl. After capturing the city he ordered the bowl to be placed on top an elephant so it could be carried away, but the elephant fell to the ground and could not move. After another unsuccessful attempt, Kujula realized that the time had not come for the bowl to be removed and he ordered a stupa (shrine) to be built on top of the bowl and a monastery alongside it. This was the first of many Buddhist monuments constructed in Peshawar. In fact the Kushans built so many Buddhist monuments in and around this city, that Peshawar became a famous place of pilgrimage. Many historians claim that the Kushans, and not the early Persians, founded Peshawar.

Peshawar History 2
Coin of Kanishka
(Wikimedia Commons)

Peshawar owes much of its fame and repute to Kanishka, the third Kushan king (128-151 AD) who made Peshawar his capital. Kanishka was a great champion of Buddhism and during his reign constructed numerous Buddhist monuments and stupas all over his empire. Kanishka himself built a magnificent stupa in Peshawar that once stood 620 feet high and was decorated with precious ‘substances’. Now it is nothing more than a mound, known as Shahji-ki-Dheri, having been destroyed several times by fire and lightening.

The later Kushans (or Lesser Kushans) ruled under the suzerainty of Sassanids of Persia who had conquered the area in 240 AD. The oldest recorded reference to Peshawar was found on a rock inscription that was discovered in Ara, near Attock and is dated to the time of the lesser Kushans. It is written in the Kharoshthi script and details the building of a well by a noble of Poshapura during the reign of Kanishka III (ruled c. 268 AD). Poshapura, meaning the city of flowers, is referring to Peshawar city.

Huns and Turk Shahi

In the mid 5th century, the Huns from Central Asia invaded Gandhara. They were fire-worshipers and they slaughtered the Buddhist population of Gandhara and destroyed Buddhist monuments. To combat the Huns, the Sassanids formed an alliance with the Turks and in 558 AD they broke Hun power in Gandhara, which again passed into the hands of the Sassanids. After the downfall of the Sassanids by the Arabs, Gandhara was ruled by a dynasty referred to as the Turk Shahi. The Turk Shahis ruled Gandhara for almost 200 years from Kabul.

Accounts of Chinese pilgrims

Much of our knowledge regarding Peshawar during that time is taken from the writings of three Chinese pilgrims: Fa Hsien (visited c. 400 AD), Sung-Yun (518 AD), and Hiuen Tsang (630 AD). Their records provide information on the political and social changes that occurred in the Peshawar Valley over a course of several hundred years and also help to identify lost Buddhist monuments of the Pakistan area.

Fa Hsien greatly admired Kanishka’s stupa and his description sparked the fashion for pagodas in the Far East. Sung-Yun arrived during the time of the Huns. According to him, the Hun king, Mihirakul, worshiped demons and discouraged the local populace from reading the sacred books of Buddhism. In spite of Mihirakul’s opposition, the common folk still respected the laws of Buddha.

Hiuen Tsang visited after Hun power had broken and a number of local rulers had established their own kingdoms. Peshawar was ruled by the king of Kapisa (an ancient city near Kabul). Surrounding villages and towns were deserted, majority of the people had left Buddhism and Hindu temples were flourishing. According to him, Kanishka’s famous stupa had burned to ground. In addition Peshawar was referred to as Purushapura, meaning the city of man.

Hindu and Muslim rule

The Hindu Shahi rulers overthrew the Turki Shahi around 843 AD and took control of Peshawar Valley. Instead of Peshawar they chose to make Hund, a city on the banks of the Indus River, their capital. Later in 1001 Mahmud of Ghazni defeated Jayapala, the Hindu Shahi king of Gandhara. In 1971, when the foundations were being dug up for the construction of the Hotel Intercontinental in Peshawar, many elephant and human skeletons were discovered at the site. This may have been the place where Mahmud of Ghazni defeated Jayapala!

Muhammad of Ghaur (1175) and the Mughals (16th century) conquered Peshawar while on their way to invading India. Babar, the Mughal conqueror, writes in his memoirs that after he had taken Peshawar, he hunted rhinoceros in the thick jungle nearby. Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, gave Peshawar its current name due to its proximity to the Khyber Pass. Under Mughal rule, gardens were laid out and trees were planted in Peshawar turning it once again into a city of flowers.

Peshawar History 3
Peshawar, at the other end of the Khyber Pass
(W. Carpenter)

Sikh and British rule

As Mughal authority deteriorated in the 18th century, Peshawar passed into the hands of Nadir Shah of Iran and later to the Afghan Durranis. The Sikhs, under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, captured it in 1818 and built the old city wall around Peshawar. The original city wall was made of mud and had sixteen gates. It is said that during the Sikh occupation of Peshawar, the then governor of Peshawar, Avitabile, used to throw prisoners from the top of the minarets of Masjid Mahabbat Khan.

The British finally annexed Peshawar in 1849. Under their rule, the city wall was reinforced with bricks and Peshawar was made a part of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). In 1947 NWFP became a part of Pakistan.

Find out more

Books & Articles

Cunningham, Alexander. “Parashawara or Peshawar.” The Ancient Geography of India. London: Trubner& Co, 1871. 78-81.Archive.

Dani, Ahmad Hasan. Peshawar: Historic City of the Frontier. Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2002

Plumpkin, Emma Watts. “Peshawar, Gor Khuttree.” Current World Archaeology 19 (2006). World Archaeology.

“Peshawar—One of the Oldest Living Cities on Earth.” Web log post. PakPakistan. 30 June 2012.