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Humshehri: Thinking Pakistan's History

Thinking Pakistan's History


Urdu Version

Situated near the border with Afghanistan at high altitude, the city of Quetta is one of the few planned cities in Pakistan and today is home to a diverse community.

Last Updated: 26 Feb. 2015


Quetta is the largest city and provincial capital of Balochistan. Located near the Afghan border, its population in 2012 was calculated to be approximately 842,410. Not only is Quetta one of the few planned cities of Pakistan, it is also the only major city at high-altitude in Pakistan, situated at 1,680 meters above sea level.

Quetta location
(Google Maps)

The name of this city is derived from the Pushto word Kwatta, meaning fort. Quetta has also been referred to as Shal or Shalkot. A long time ago, the people of Quetta lived inside a fortress and although this fort still exists, Quetta city has expanded much beyond the walls of the fortress. In addition, four imposing hills (Chiltan, Takatu, Zarghoon, and Murdar) surround the city, thus giving a natural fort-like appearance to the city.

Quetta District is renowned for its diversity of wildlife and vegetation. Pistachio and Juniper trees are widely found. Fruits such as peaches, plums, apricots, pears and pomegranates are grown and transported across the country.

A diverse community of Balochis, Pathans, Hazaras, Brahvis, Punjabis and Afghans is found in Quetta. But continuous tensions between different ethnicities have forced people out of this once peaceful city.


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Two golden bulls from Quetta
(Fahim Siddiqi/ DAWN)

Quetta began as a small town inside the walls of a fortress, locally referred to as Miri, which can still be found in Quetta’s cantonment area. It is likely that even before the construction of this fort, people resided or passed through this area in prehistoric times. During the construction of Serena Hotel in Quetta, a pair of gold bulls was discovered that dated back to the Indus Valley Civilization. In fact, objects like beads, clay figurines, pottery and blades have been discovered in at least ten different areas all around Quetta. The oldest of these dates back to 3,200 BC when the Indus Valley Civilization was thriving. So even though people may not have lived in the exact same spot that Quetta is now, they lived in the surrounding areas thousands of years ago.

Much like the nearby town of Pishin, Quetta’s early history is nearly parallel to that of Kandahar, which is now a province of Afghanistan. In the 11th century, it was part of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The earliest written mention of Quetta was in the 13th century when Mahmud of Ghazni passed through this town on his way to India. After the Ghaznavids came the Ghorids as rulers of this region.

In the first half of the 15th century, the descendants of Taimur ruled this area. In the latter part of the 15th century, the ruler of Herat gave Quetta to Shah Beg Arghun. Shortly afterwards Babar drove him out of Balochistan and into Sindh where Shah Beg was able to establish his rule. From 1530 to 1545, Kandahar as well as Quetta were in the control of Mirza Kamran, Humayun’s brother. After his death they passed back into the hands of the Safavid rulers of Iran. In 1595, Quetta passed into the hands of Akbar. In his Ain-i-Akbari it is mentioned that both Quetta and Pishin supplied military service and revenue to him.

From 1662, Quetta was again in possession of the Safavid king of Iran. In the early 1700s the Brahuis rose to power in Kalat and fought for control of Pishin and Quetta area. Eventually Nadir Shah of Afghanistan handed over Quetta to the Brahuis in 1740 but his successors, the Durranis, continued to hold nearby Pishin until 1879 when it was handed over to the British.

The British occupied Quetta first in 1839 during the first Afghan War. But the Khan of Kalat reclaimed it from them just 3 years later. In 1883 the British, at a rent of 25,000 rupees per year, leased Quetta and its surrounding areas. Due to its location on the frontier, it was developed as an army town and became headquarters for the British Balochistan Agency. Its streets and buildings were systematically planned and built in the western style. Popular with wealthy British society Quetta was nicknamed Little London. In 1947, it became a part of West Pakistan before becoming the capital of Balochistan in 1970.

Earthquake of 1935

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Street in Quetta after earthquake
(Harcourt James Waller)

In the early morning of 31 May 1935, a strong earthquake shook Quetta for 30 seconds. Entire buildings fell to the ground, burying people alive underneath. So severe was the earthquake that the surrounding mountains showed cracks from the pressure they had felt. Entire villages were wiped out, while Quetta was reduced to rubble. Since the telegraph lines had also fallen, there was no way to quickly communicate with the outside world. Those who survived were moved to an open ground outside of the city while British soldiers searched for more survivors. The dead were quickly buried or burned. Approximately 30,000 people died in the earthquake, almost one third of Quetta’s entire population then.

Hanna Lake

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Hanna Lake
(Waqas Usman)

Hanna Lake is a man-made lake located 10 km east of Quetta city. Constructed by the British in 1894, it provided fresh drinking water for the city’s populace and was also used for agriculture cultivation. From 2000 – 2010, the lake had begun to dry up due to lack of rain. Migratory birds that used to go there have changed their direction and no longer fly over Hanna Lake and the land around the lake has dried up. Only in recent years has the lake started to fill up again.

Find out more

Books & Articles

Gunn, Angus M. “Quetta Earthquake (1935).” History and the Headlines.

“Quetta.” Government of Balochistan.

“Quetta.” Pakistan Paedia. 3 Feb. 2009.


Shah, Syed Ali. “Holding on to Hanna.” Dawn. 10 Nov. 2013.

“Earthquake in Balochistan (1935).” The Friday Times. 4 Oct. 2013.