Multan has seen more than 4,000 years of civilisation, and it shows everywhere.

It is a strange world you step into when you arrive at the small but clean airport in Multan. When the plane begins its descent into the city you glide over mango trees — neat rows, well tended farms — and the ochre earth peeps through at well-punctuated intervals.

If you visit the city in winter the cold is stifling and if you are brave enough to visit the city in the summer the white heat can be excruciating. That is one of the four things that the city of Multan is famous for, as an ancient Persian traveller wrote in a verse that has been crystallised to symbolise the city for all time: "In four things does Multan abound, dust, beggars, heat and burial grounds."

How true those words still ring! There are burial grounds literally everywhere in the city — the huge green fields my mother remembers and the graveyards have all vanished to be replaced by houses. When I first heard about it, I shuddered. But I suppose it is just a matter of fact in a city so old that it is sometimes difficult to reach underneath the dust and imagine its beginnings.

Most buildings are constructed with small red bricks covered in a thick blanket of ochre dust. The heat is particularly searing and the summers are unbelievably hot, but there is no doubt the very best mangoes are found in Multan. The heat ripens the flesh of the mangoes and sweetens it to an almost caramel-like taste.

Oldest cities

Multan has witnessed more than 4,000 years of civilisation and is considered one of the oldest living cities in South Asia. The original city was built within an almost impregnable fortress that has 13 gates. The fortress was finally destroyed during the British Raj. Remains of some of the gates can still be viewed. To get to these gates requires journeying into the heart of this ancient city — very narrow alleyways, cobbled streets, doorways that open into tall and dark fragments of houses. It can be a nightmare for someone who is claustrophobic. There are no street names and the path twists and turns. This really is the old Multan.

To most people, Multan is little more than an unattractive dust-filled small town — a dwarf when viewed alongside the flashy, modern cities of Lahore and Karachi. To the discerning traveller it is much more. I cannot put my finger on the reasons that draw me to it, but drawn I undoubtedly am to this city.

Perhaps it is the memories of fun summers spent with my cousins and grandparents or maybe it is the sense of history that pervades the very air. Perhaps it is the long history of spirituality that pulses in the heart of Multan. I remember visiting a little mountain village (Bursa) overlooking the Bosphorous in Istanbul. At the entrance of the village there was a board and on it were the names of 'sister' cities. Multan was named there — the mayors of both cities had exchanged keys.

I tried to understand the connection for years and all I could fathom was that Bursa also is known for housing a large number of tombs of accomplished spiritual teachers.

Innumerable tombs

Multan's ancient skyline is dominated by the grand domes of innumerable tombs — spiritual teachers of all shades of Islam. The remnants of one of the first mosques in the Indian subcontinent disappeared only in 1957.

There are also a number of Hindu temples. Multan was the centre of pilgrimage some centuries ago when it contained the Sun Mandir which housed 6,000 pilgrims and there were two annual fairs which brought together people from surrounding regions. There are also remnants of the British Raj in the form of churches and cathedrals that look like they have been transplanted here from the green plains of Cambridgeshire. Then there are some Gurdwaras as well — remnants of Sikh rule over the city long ago.

There is a story about a spiritual teacher who wanted to reside in Multan but was sent a glass full to the brim with milk by the king signifying that the 'City of Saints' had no place for any more spiritual teachers. He replied by placing a rose petal in the glass meaning that he would make a place for himself just as the rose petal had made its place in the glass of milk.

Among the multitude of mausoleums that dot Multan's landscape, the following are of note:

The tomb of Hazrat Bahauddin Zakria (1182-1266), a spiritual teacher who had travelled through a number of regions and had learnt the faith of unity. His tomb was constructed of terracotta bricks and the blue glazed tiles that are one of the city's famous identifying crafts.

The tomb of Shams-ud-Din Sabzwari, often confused with Shah Shams Tabrez who passed away in AD 1276.

There are many many more such tombs and oases of quiet in the city but the one that towers above all the others and that has come to symbolise this ancient city better than any other is the final resting place of Shaikh Rukn-ud-Din, a spiritual man who won the hearts of the people. He was most inspired by the teachings of his grandfather Bahauddin Zakaria. He was one of the most accomplished men of his age and was known for the discourses he held with people on metaphysics.

The emperor of the region Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughlug had originally built the tomb for himself, but his son being a devotee of the Shaikh preferred that his teacher be buried in the magnificent building.

The tomb is an octagonal structure constructed of terracotta bricks and decorated with glazed azure and turquoise tiles. The bricks are bounded by beams of Shisham wood that have turned black over the centuries.

Ancient crafts

Like the city itself the history of Multani arts and crafts goes back to ancient times. Kashi work — the glazing and hand painting of ceramic products — is an art that is now globally identified with Multan. It is a highly specialised art whose secrets of colour composition are zealously guarded by artisans and their families. The process has undergone changes due to modernisation but much of the motif work remains close to the original and the blue colour that is used remains a distinctive feature.

Immortal works

Some artisans have created such beautiful work that it has become immortal. This surely is the case as far as the tile in the tomb is concerned. History records that during a limited excavation on Qillah Kohna Qasim Bagh, Alexander Cunningham unearthed glazed tiles made in Multan in approximately AD 900. These tiles had been part of one of the first mosques built in the subcontinent by the Arab commander Mohammad Bin Qasim when he arrived in Multan. Remnants of this mosque could be seen until about 1957.

Thankfully the government realised the unique qualities of the tomb of Shah Rukhn-e-Alam and began a six-year restoration in 1977. The tomb was built on elevated ground and thus can be seen from miles around when approaching Multan. The total height of the building from ground level is 150 feet. The construction of the complex which has surrounding battlements is quite interesting — it has actually been built more as a military fort than a mausoleum.

When I last visited this city I took the direct flight from Dubai. The focal point of my journey was the tomb. Due to its height it has an air of isolated aloofness. The road that leads to the gate is steep and lined with shops that sell rose and jasmine garlands, green shawls, prayer beads, rose water. When you enter the bricked and turreted entrance the bright light is dimmed and your eyes take a few seconds to adjust. The air is filled with the beautiful sounds of devotional music, verses that turn your heart towards God. The last time I visited, there were twins who were singing. I wished I could stand and listen longer. I was able to only stand and wonder for a few seconds at the beauty of the building as it stood in sunlight framed by the doorway.

A single tree gives the only shade in this place. Underneath it sat a young man in spotless white clothes wearing a prayer cap, motionless with his hands folded and eyes closed. I envied him having access to this part of history — I suppose having grown up in the relatively newbie Dubai I appreciated that still air of ancient silence more — an air you can see when deep in the desert perhaps. Having offered our respects to the resident of the tomb we left.

Picnic spot

A garden has been constructed outside the gates and is used by families for an outing. Across the road is the domed tomb of Shah Rukhn-e-Alam's grandfather — a plain building. Beyond that is an ancient Sikh Gurdwara and a Hindu temple.

I do not know much about the life or teachings of the man buried in this mausoleum but the very beauty of it and the fact that it has survived for centuries somehow transports me to a place of tranquil contemplation. Perhaps one's mortality is brought into stark reality — maybe this makes the usual events of life fade for a while.