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.
Last Updated: 2 Jul. 2014
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.
Peshawar city is located in Peshawar Valley. The valley is bounded by hills and mountains on three sides but opens up to the Indus River in the east. Peshawar Valley is connected to Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass.
Peshawar, meaning the city on the frontier, is amongst the oldest living cities of the Indian subcontinent. Its original name and origins 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 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.
After a long succession of invaders and rulers, in 64 AD the Kushans, a tribe from Central Asia, conquered Gandhara. 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! The Kushans made Peshawar their capital. Over the years they built so many Buddhist monuments in and around this city that Peshawar became a famous place of pilgrimage. In fact, many historians claim that the Kushans, and not the early Persians, founded Peshawar.
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 built a magnificent stupa (shrine) 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 oldest recorded reference to Peshawar was found in an inscription on a rock that was discovered in Ara, near Attock. The inscription is written in the Kharosthi script and dates back to the time of the later Kushans. It details the building of a well by a noble of Poshapura; Poshapura, meaning the city of flowers, is in fact referring to Peshawar city.
By the 5th century, the Huns from Central Asia invaded Gandhara and slaughtered its Buddhist population and destroyed numerous monasteries and stupas. Much later, in the 16th century, Babar, the Mughal conqueror, seized Peshawar and then 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 turning it once again into a city of flowers.
After the Mughal authority deteriorated, the Sikhs, under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, captured it in 1818. They built the old city wall around Peshawar with sixteen gates. The British finally annexed Peshawar in 1849. Under their rule, Peshawar was made a part of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). In 1947 NWFP became a part of Pakistan.
Gor Khatri is a locality in the middle of Peshawar city. It has been identified with the original monastery and stupa built by the first Kushan king, Kujala Kadphises, to contain Buddha’s alms-bowl. In the 16th century it became a Hindu temple. Hindu jogies and Buddhist monks would come to this temple to have their hair shaved off before they were initiated into their order. In his memoirs, Babar mentions finding a large quantity of hair in this temple. During the time of Emperor Shah Jahan, his daughter, Jahan Ara Begum, converted the temple into an inn for travellers. A masjid and a hammam (bathing area) were also built. Gor Khatri thus came to be known as Jahanabad. During the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the site was converted into the headquarters and residence for the governor. The masjid was destroyed and a temple was built in its place. Recent excavations at this site have unearthed artifacts dating back to the 6th century.
During the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan, a Mughal Governor of Peshawar by the name of Zamana Beg, better known as Mahabbat Khan, built this masjid. It closely resembles the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore. It has three main entrances that lead into a courtyard. The courtyard has a water tank situated in the middle and a line of small room on three sides of it. A large prayer hall occupies the fourth side and has two large minarets on either side of it. The prayer hall is painted with flower motifs and geometrical patterns in a variety of color. 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.
Dani, Ahmad Hasan. Peshawar: Historic City of the Frontier. Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2002.