Islamabad: Pakistan has a rich and fascinating history that goes back almost 5,000 years around the time when the first pyramids were being built in Egypt but the heritage remains little known, partly discovered and less celebrated.
The country is now realising the social, cultural and economic potential of its long-forgotten heritage sites. Pakistani archaeologists are reviving efforts to excavate the historic sites, discover the treasure trove of ancient cultures and unearth the stories of the past and unravel the mysteries of the lost civilisations.
“Pakistan is blessed with rich cultural heritage and is known as the cradle of civilisation. The whole country from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) to Punjab to Sindh and Balochistan is full of archaeological treasures which remain hidden and undiscovered. Only about five per cent of the sites in KP province have been scientifically explored,” Dr Abdul Samad, KP director for archaeology and museums, told Gulf News.
He says the young archaeologists “take pride in protecting and preserving Pakistan’s multicultural heritage and hope they would do a lot better with funds and support from the government to “present the country’s glorious past to the world” and restore its identity as a multicultural society.
Recent discoveries in KP province
Last week, KP’s archaeology department unearthed remarkable artefacts during excavations in Ghazi village in Haripur district. A palm-sized Buddha head, a sculpture and an ancient wall were discovered which are nearly 1,700 years old, according to the initial survey but the age and history of the site will be determined after scientific studies. “This discovery shows that heritage sites are scattered all over the region,” Dr Samad said.
In December 2021, the department conducted an archaeological survey for the first time in Mohmand district where pre-historic caves, rock carvings, Buddhist and Hindu Shahi archaeological sites were discovered. Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is home to around 2,000 heritage sites in addition to 30,000 relics of the Gandhara civilisation.
Peshawar Museum has one of the world’s biggest collections of Buddhist artefacts. The provincial government is working to protect ancient Buddhist sites and develop infrastructure and facilities to attract foreign tourists. Pakistan’s Buddhist sites attract thousands of tourists from China, Japan, South Korea and Thailand every year.
Raising public awareness about cultural heritage
The KP department also recovered a 2000-year-old statue of Buddha from the possession of a local man in Haripur. Though historical buildings and objects are protected under the KP antiquities act 2016, experts are calling for public awareness to safeguard the region’s rich heritage and put an end to smuggling with strong liaison with local police and administration. “These are not ruins. These are treasures which must be protected and cherished by the people as well as the government,” Dr Samad implored.
Pakistan – the cradle of civilisation
The pre-Islamic ancient Pakistan was home to centuries-old civilizations like Mehrgarh (7000 to 2500 BC), Indus Valley (2500 and 1500 BC) and the Gandhara (550 BC to 1021 AD), making it a revered destination for followers of Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism.
The country, however, lost many of the precious artefacts due to antiquities smuggling and also the government’s negligence. However, the current government is focusing efforts to preserve and promote heritage sites. The opening of the Kartarpur corridor is one such example of conserving and opening heritage sites for religious tourism. Thousands of Sikh tourists from all over the world have visited the sacred site in Pakistan since 2019.
Pakistan’s heritage wonders
The ancient cultures and people who once lived in what is now Pakistan:
Mehrgarh — one of the world’s oldest civilisations
Lost in the rugged terrain of Balochistan is Mehrgarh — one of the oldest civilisations and village sites in South Asia with early evidence of farming, herding, metallurgy and the earliest evidence of dentistry. It is believed to be older than the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations, according to Baloch historian Mohammad Marri.
The site, first unearthed in 1974 by French archaeologists, was once home to a developed civilisation that existed there until around 8,000 years ago, experts say. The site of Mehrgarh, located in the north-western part of Kachi-Bolan region, is spread over 300 hectares with traces of a continuous occupation between 7000 to 2600 BC.
Rahman Dheri — earliest planned urban city
Archaeologists believe that Rahman Dheri in Dera Ismail Khan in Gomal Valley is one of the earliest planned urban sites in the region. Pakistan’s leading archaeologist Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani helped unearth the site in 1971.
He wrote that “The excavation of this site will open up new clues to the understanding of the mature Harappan culture.” Later, Professor Farzand Ali Durrani of the University of Peshawar excavated it during 1976-1982 and later in 1991. The pre-Harappan archaeological site dates back to 4000 BC. The site was located on the major trade routes linking South Asia with Central Asia.
Mohenjo Daro — world’s first planned city
During 2500 BC, when the Egyptians were building pyramids, the residents of the Indus civilisation flourished in urban houses made of mud bricks. The Indus civilization is known as “the first planned city in the world” built with baked bricks, fascinating architecture, elaborate drainage systems that hinted that its residents were skilled urban planners.
Mohenjo Daro had an estimated population of around 40,000. Anthropologists believe that Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were two great cities of the Indus Valley Civilization (also known as the Harappan civilisation) and one of the finest examples of thriving trade and agriculture-based economy. Indus Valley is one of the world’s ancient civilisations alongside Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. Deciphering Indus Script ould offer unique insight into the civilisation.
Gandhara Civilisation — the cradle of Buddhist civilisation
Another old civilization that flourished in Pakistan is Gandhara which was spread over a vast region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Punjab. The Gandhara kingdom thrived in what is now northwestern Pakistan in around 1000 BC and lasted for over 1000 years.
One of the most prominent sites of this era is Taxila known as the ancient seat of learning. Taxila, which connected China to the West, flourished culturally and economically. Another historic site is the Buddhist monastic complex of Takht-i-Bahi (Throne of Origins), founded in the early 1st century.
The ruins comprise a main stupa court, a group of three stupas, meditation cells, a conference hall, covered stepped passageways among other buildings. Listed as a world heritage site, it is one of the most well-structured and well-preserved Buddhist monasteries in Pakistan’s Gandhara region which continues to attract historians and tourists.
In December 2021, Pakistan’s oldest Buddhist temple dating back to 300 BC was found in the Bazira area of Swat by Italian experts who termed it an important discovery that proves a new architectural shape of Buddhist structure in Gandhara. In 2017, KP witnessed its most remarkable discovery of a 1,700-year-old and 14-metre-high Buddha statue from the third century, making it the world’s oldest ‘sleeping Buddha’ statue, predating such statutes in the region.