Victoria Hall Of Peshawar: A Museum For A Crossroads
“A shock of unruly hair, curls tumbling down his neck. Heavy lips with a suggestive cast under a straight, immodest nose running directly into a prominent brow, his head set in its characteristic leftward tilt.” This is how historian Paddy Docherty describes the stone bust of Alexander the Great in the British Museum, in his book The Khyber Pass: A History of Empire and Invasion— a work that looks at Peshawar, valley of my childhood, as a momentous crossroads between the East and the West.
The relic in Docherty’s description is originally from Alexandria, Egypt. Among the dozen or so “Alexandrias” – cities that Alexander founded in the lands he conquered—several exist in the farthest reaches of his empire in the East, in what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan.
One of these cities, Alexandria Bucephalous, on river Jehlum, in Punjab, east of the Indus, is named after Alexander’s lifelong companion, his beloved horse Bucephalous. Though Alexander defeated his Indian adversary Porus, this attack was to be the final of his long series of military offensives across the world; the Macedonian prince, famed victor, died soon after his return to Babylon, some say from poisoning, others, from the gradual weakening effects of the wounds he suffered in the battle of Hydaspes (Jehlum) in present-day Pakistan.
The story of Alexander and Bucephalous as I know it, doesn’t end with the historic burial of the beloved horse and the master’s grief and subsequent death; it continues from the moment both Alexander and Bucephalous are struck in battle. They pass on to a purgatory of sorts, searching for the healing water, the “aab e hayat” or “fountain of life” to recover from the mortal wounds. The desperate search leads Alexander to engage with Khizer, the immortal saint and sage, the only one to have drunk from the miraculous fountain. The journey turns into a spiritual quest—Khizer teaches “Zulqarnain,” as Alexander is known in legends of the Muslim world— to shatter the illusion of worldly power through introspection, and imbibe the true purpose of life rather than to insist on the thirst for immortality.
At the MET Museum in New York, I linger by the Persian art depicting Alexander in illuminated manuscripts of the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings. Theorized by many commentators to be the prophet Dhul Qarnain (Zulqarnain) the “two-horned one,” mentioned in the Qura’an as well as in earlier Abrahamic texts, recognized as Alexander the Great or Iskandar e Azam, in pre-Islamic Persian, Iskander al Akbar in Arabic, Sikander in the vernacular, he is a figure embedded in legends that intersect and thread through traditions as diverse and intertwined as the peoples he conquered— from Gibralter to the Punjab—covering Asia Minor, the Levant, Syria, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Media, Parthia, Scythia, Bactria and parts of the subcontinent.
Of Persian visage and dress in some versions, his portrayals in the East assume a more and more complex language as the influence of Chinese and Western aesthetics are added to the mix during the later Ilkhanid (or Muslim Mongol) period. Alexander appears in other sections of the museum mostly in Greek garb, war-ready.
The chapter that marks the beginning of the end of Alexander’s life, his last conquest, takes place very close to Peshawar, the Khyber Pass. Docherty describes the entry of Alexander’s army in these words: “At the narrow confine by Ali Masjid, where the Khyber closes to just feet in width, the army would have squeezed through, two or three abreast, looking up warily at the steep heights immediately above them; unknown creatures might inhabit these mountains, for assuredly, India was full of wonders.” Millennia later, another force from Europe, the British, will enter with the same awe of India, though by a different route, and relying more on economic and political strategy than military— meeting their most challenging adversary in precisely these parts, the Westernmost outpost of their empire in the subcontinent.
Alexander’s fondness, as emperor, for donning the Persian dress, will find an echo in Britain’s romance with the culture of the subcontinent. In White Mughals, William Dalrymple describes a painting with the following caption: “At a Lucknow dinner party c.1820. The gentleman at the head of the table smokes his hookah and wears a Lucknavi jama over his British military uniform.” The adoption of oriental ways proved to be a dalliance for the British in the long run, whereas Alexander, at the height of his power, married a princess of Persian blood, choosing her over a potential bride of Macedonian or Greek nobility. Quintus Citrius Rufus, a Roman historian drawing from Greek accounts of the time, mentions in his work The History of Alexander, that Alexander spoke of uniting Europe and Asia into one kingdom, and that he sought “to erase all distinction between conquered and conqueror.”
Was he earnest in his intentions? Was the bloodbath forgiven by so many of his former enemies on the grounds that he really was fighting oppression and was successful in establishing a just reign, opposing even his mentor, the great Aristotle, who, for all his fabled wisdom, reinforced the prevalent belief that the Greeks were superior to non-Greeks— that the “Barbarians” deserved less? How could one so young win a series of expeditions in the world’s most powerful territories in such a short time, planting the roots of Hellenism and making a lasting impact by linking disparate civilizations from the East to the West— most importantly, how could a colonizer become mythologized by subjugated cultures as a sage, a warrior of superhuman qualities, a philosopher, a deity, an ideal ruler, regarded as a saint or prophet?
When I see Alexander’s statue for the first time, I am around seven or eight and have read a Ladybird Series book about him. His story presents him as an enigma, even at my age, but the assortment of artifacts from distinct civilizations coming together in Peshawar’s museum is a bigger enigma; the collection reflects a history that would take many lifetimes to comprehend and piece together as the story of a single place.
I find that the man whose likenesses, in the Greek style, dominate this museum is not Alexander, but another prince, who, like Alexander, left home and changed the world. Preceding Alexander likely by some two hundred years, his name is Siddhartha Gautama, known commonly as the Buddha, and said to have come, not with armed men or a royal entourage, but alone— an ascetic with a begging bowl— followed, not by another wave of generals and rulers hundreds of years later from the West, but by pilgrims from the East.
This very land, the ancient Peshawar basin, with Indus to the east, Sulayman mountains to the west, the confluence of rivers Kabul and Swat at its center, was the home of the Gandhara civilization, which coalesced, among others, the two very different worlds that Alexander and Buddha represent. So many epochs have entwined themselves with this place, I wonder at the allure of this air, my ordinary breath; I wonder what magnets of earthly or spiritual energy have pulled such varied populations to this soil.
Within the radius of a few miles, one encounters the signs of the city’s Hindu, Buddhist, Persian, Greek, Muslim and British past. Mentioned in the ancient text Rigveda (c.1500-c.1200), and later, the Avesta, Gandahara, was a land that was said to be the sixth most beautiful place created by the deity Ahura Mazda of the early Zoroastrian tradition. The Persian Achaemenid empire took Gandhara in the sixth century BC— the period when Buddha is said to have lived. It is ironic that both Buddha and Alexander would not only have Peshawar in common but also the Persians, whose influence over India never ceased. Docehrty writes: “Iran gave India many political and administrative ideas, a corpus of important literature, expertise in metalwork and architecture, along with techniques of building in stone. In later years, stimuli from the sophisticated urban culture of Iran—more cosmopolitan than its Hindu neighbor—were essential fillips to Indian development; the Khyber Pass was the essential means of transmission. That the exchange was freely welcomed by both sides is undoubted: Persian was to become the language of government and the elite under the Muslim rulers of India from 1000 A.D, who quite naturally embraced whatever came from Iran. It is a compelling thought that the body of literature written in India in the Persian language during the medieval and early modern period vastly outweighs that composed in Iran itself.”
Buddha is conjectured to have visited Peshawar and meditated under a peepal tree that became a sacred site for pilgrims through the centuries. According to Dr. Amjad Hussain, who has done extensive work on Peshawar’s archeological and cultural history: “A relic casket in gilt bronze was recovered containing Buddha’s bone fragments and ashes” in excavations carried out in 1911. The casket is found in the writings of antiquity, mentioned by Chinese pilgrims who visited Gandhara. It is curious that the followers of one who surrendered the riches he was born into, seeking the purpose of life through asceticism, would preserve his remains in a gilded casket. Alexander, in contrast, is said to have instructed his men before his death, to open his fists, palms facing up, for all at the funeral to see that the world’s greatest conqueror was leaving it empty-handed.
Alexander claimed Gandhara in 327 BC and departed. The subsequent rule of the Maurian empire established Gandhara as the center of Buddhism, to be cultivated by the later Kushan empire of Bactria, and under the Hellenistic rule of the Indo-Greek kingdom that followed, further nurturing the tradition of Gandharan Buddhism, which was passed on especially through the art of sculpture, a quintessential Greco-Roman art that traveled East and West and left a lasting impression. In the post-Kushan period, according to Dr. Amjad Hussain, in his book The Frontier Town of Peshawar: A Brief History: “for a thousand years thereafter, a string of invaders came to the Peshawar Valley. The Huns (455-550 AD) were followed by the Sassanians, Saffavids, Ghaznavids, Ghorids and Seljuk Turks from Ghazni. In 1220 AD, the Mongol king Genghis Khan, looted the valley and later his descendants, the Timurids (notable among them Tamarlane), ruled the region including Punjab and Delhi.” Following this conquest, Peshawar would fall under Mughal, Sikh and British rule, before becoming part of Pakistan in 1947. It was in the time of British India, in 1893, that the demarcation of Afghanistan’s border took place— “until then, the kings of Kabul considered the territory west of the Indus as their domain and the people were called Pakhtuns or Afghans. After the boundary demarcation, the people east of the border in present day Pakistan were called Pakhtuns, whereas their western cousins in Afghanistan were called Afghans”— explains Dr. Amjad Hussain.
At the Peshawar museum, I see an astonishing array of Gandharan art; I’m particularly taken by the friezes that tell a story, such as the scene of Buddha’s birth or death. The visual art of religious biography is an unfamiliar concept for me, but I am enthralled by the elaborate devotional expressions of different traditions, converging and diverging. The architecture of the Peshawar Museum itself reflects Peshawar Valley’s mixed heritage. Built in 1907 by the British in the subcontinental syncretic style, fusing the British Raj sensibility with the Mughal Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu style, and named “Victoria Hall” after the sovereign of the time, Queen Victoria, it is a ruddy building, the pinkish tones of which, in my memory, are set off by deep green cypresses, palm trees and maybe rosebushes. The Peshawar museum has changed over the years, since I frequented it. It is now said to house 14,000 artifacts of Gandhara, the largest collection in the world. Besides the Greco-Bactrian, it houses Persian, Mughal, Kailash, tribal Pukhtun, and British items.
As a child, I find this dimly lit, often cold and quiet place true to its name—“ajaaib ghar” or museum. The etymology of the phrase, “house of wonders,” in Urdu’s hybrid vocabulary evokes the sense of disparate strands coming together – “ajaib” plural of “ajeeb” or “a marvel” or “strange” in Arabic and “ghar” (ger) meaning “house” in Mongol.
It is a marvel indeed that Alexander, the ultimate signifier of Western civilization is glorified in the artistic and literary traditions of the East, and Buddha, very much a symbol of the East, is celebrated most famously in the Western-influenced art of Gandhara. Images of heroes and gods inevitably mirror the makers; the Indian Buddha wears a loincloth, has a large forehead, a distinctive brow-bone, flared nostrils, large eyes, curly hair— the Greek Buddha has features that are recognizable as classic Greek features—he’s relatively slender, muscled, sometimes with almost athletic proportions, a regal bone structure. Perhaps, like Alexander, the Buddha appears to have an “immodest nose” and like Alexander, he is depicted in a toga, a prince with no crown, but unlike Alexander, there are no unruly curls or battle helmet— Buddha wears his hair gathered neatly at the top.
The writer is a Pakistani-American poet and essayist, is the winner of the San Diego Book Award and the Nazim Hikmet Prize and has been nominated for the Pushcart multiple times. Her books include Kohl and Chalk, Baker of Tarifa and Ghazal Cosmopolitan.