Gor Khuttree -- marking 2000 years of history
Originally published by THE NEWS on Sunday January 2007
By Dr Ali Jan
Gor Khuttree literally means the 'Warriors Grave', although there are no traces of any grave here. It is perhaps the oldest citadel in the ancient city of Peshawar. A recent UNESCO sponsored archaeological excavation at the site has established the city's historic profile which dates back to pre-Christian period of more than two millennia making Peshawar one of the world's oldest living cities.
It remained an important place for travellers for thousands of years. Buddha's alms or begging bowl was displayed here at one time. After the decline of Buddhism in the region following the invasion by Huns and Sassanians, it became a bastion for Hindu worship. Mughal Emperor Babar in the beginning of his memoir, Babarnama, recorded: "On Friday, the 1st Sefer in the year 932, when the sun was in Sagitarius (1525 AD, November 17th), I set out on my march to invade Hindustan." On reaching Peshawar, Babar with his usual curiosity visited Gor Khuttree and wrote, "There are nowhere in the whole world such narrow and dark hermit's cells as at this place. After entering the doorway and descending one or two stairs, you must lie down, and proceed crawling along, stretched at full length. You cannot enter without a light. The quantities of hair (cut off by pilgrims as offerings), both of head and beard, that are lying scattered about, and in the vicinity of the place are immense."
The present buildings built at the site mostly date back to Mughal, Sikh and the British period. Lying at the crossroads of the old trade-route, Gor Khuttree became a major caravanserai in Mughal times and mainly served as a stopping place for travellers coming from other parts of the world. It was converted into a fortified compound and two grand entrances were built on its eastern and western ends. The gates were kept locked at night to provide safety and shelter to the camel caravans laden with merchandise. A mosque was also built here by Jahan Ara Begum, daughter of Emperor Shahjahan.
During the early Sikh rule, around 1823, the mosque was destroyed and replaced by a temple to Gorakhnath in the south of the courtyard. Later Gor Khuttree became the residence of their Italian mercenary general, Paolo de Avitabile who also built a pavilion over its western gate. A rare pen and ink sketch of him dated February 1844 (originally done by 'C.G' in Calcutta) has recently been discovered in the dusty store-godown of Peshawar museum.
Avitabile was from Agerola, on the famous Salentine peninsula between Naples and Amalfi in Italy. The town square of San Lazzaro in Naples is named after him. He was a mercenary in the true sense who had also served in Napoleon's army. He ruled Peshawar from 1838-1842 with an iron hand. The local inhabitants of Peshawar used to call him 'Abu Tabilah'. When the 31st (Huntingdonshire) Regiment passed through Peshawar on August 21, 1842 they were hosted by him. The service digest of the British regiment records: "The officers were entertained hospitably by the governor of the city, the Italian General Avitabile who had been recruited by Ranjit Singh to train his army and had stayed on to serve his son. They were impressed by the evidence of his methods of maintaining law and order. At each corner of the city there was a large gallows on which malefactors were hanging." (Service Record, the 31st Regt, 1842)
In 1842 Avitabile returned home to Italy laden with wealth and honours, and proceeded to procure for himself a large castle-like mansion, a magnificent funeral chapel in the local cathedral. People also credit him with having created a new breed of cattle by importing some Jersey cows from Britain, on his way home from Peshawar in 1842, and crossing them with the local variety; the result is supposed to produce a fine local cheese. He soon came to occupy the same funeral chapel that he had bought when he married his 12-year-old Italian niece who it is said poisoned him to death in 1850.
Yet long after his departure from Peshawar and this life some of his past subjects from this region were still searching for him. Sir Richard Francis Burton, the legendary explorer, linguist and translator of Arabian Nights etc (who also became the first Englishman to perform the ritual of Haj in the guise of a Pathan in 1853) records meeting a group of plain folks from the Punjab Frontier in Arabia "...who had walked from Meccah to Cairo in search of 'Abu Tabilah,' (Avitabile), whom report had led to the banks of the Nile." Burton noted: "Some were young, others had white beards -- all were weary and wayworn; but the saddest sight was an old woman, so decrepit that she could scarcely walk. The poor fellows were travelling on foot, carrying their wallets, with a few pence in their pockets, utterly ignorant of route and road, and actually determined in this plight to make Lahore by Baghdad, Bushir, and Karachi. Such -- so incredible -- is Indian improvidence!" (Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah -- 1855)
During the Anglo-Sikh wars (1849) George Lawrence, the British representative and his family took refuge here for sometime. In the following years its eastern end became the City Mission House. The Illustrated London News (ILN) in an 1860 issue printed an image entitled 'Illumination And Fireworks At Peshawar' depicting a grand Viceregal procession of elephants passing through the old city towards the western (tahsil) gate of Gor Khuttree. The illustration was done on the occasion of the grand durbar of February 29 1860 when the Governor General and Viceroy of India held a reception of the principal chiefs of the various Pathan hill tribes who had assembled to pay homage to the representative of Queen Victoria. According to the ILN: "...the occasion was celebrated by illuminations and a display of fireworks of both of which natives are exceedingly fond; and they produce the finest fireworks by the simplest means. A little earthen dish, like a flat cup, is used, filled with oil, and with a piece of cotton-wick is put in it. These lamps are provided in great numbers, and are placed in rows along the tops of houses, and upon the cornices of the shops, over and under windows, around arches, and, in fact, wherever one of these tiny lamps can be placed. The effect is picturesque in the extreme. Everywhere the natives are sitting, perfectly still and quiet, in long rows, behind the lights, waiting silently to see the Lord Sahib pass by." (Illustrated London News, 1860)
In March 1869 Amir Shere Ali, the King of Afghanistan resided in the house which stood on the south-eastern corner of Gor Khuttree at the invitation of the missionary clergy. In the latter half of the nineteenth century it became the residence of the lady missionaries connected with the Church of England Zenana (female) Missionary Society.
Dr. Arthur Lankester opened the medical mission work in Peshawar at this site. It began on January 12, 1898, when a man from Ghazni in Afghanistan, some two hundred miles beyond the frontier, walked into the courtyard and asked for treatment. The hospital carried on until 1904 when it was shifted to much larger premises outside the walled city at the Mission Hospital, Dabgari Gardens.
An English archaeologist Gertrude Bell, mostly renowned for her findings in Iraq, visited Gor Khuttree in 1903 and wrote in her diary: "22 Jan -- We went to the Tahsil where there is a suite of empty rooms where the Amir's envoys are lodged, with a zenana for their women. The Tahsildar is an agreeable Persian speaking man. From the roof we had a wonderful view over the rabbit warren of mud coloured Peshawar and away across a plain set with trees to the hills of the Forbidden Land." (Diary of Gertrude Bell, 1903)
In 1912 a Fire Brigade Station was built on the premises. Two red antique fire engines are parked under the former municipal shed at Gor Khuttree. They are well-preserved and the name of the Merry Weather London Company that manufactured them in the early 1900s is still visible. During the British-era, Gor Khuttree also functioned as a Tahsil or District Police Superintendent's headquarter.
Recently an archaeological museum has been built on the south-eastern side where the original grand residence known as 'Serai-du-dar' ('The Jun of the Two Gates') had perhaps once stood. Objects recovered from excavations at Gor Khuttree are displayed here. It has an interesting ethnological gallery upstairs as well. The curator, Ihsanullah Khan, is a knowledgeable young man who gave me a splendid guided tour of the place.
Peshawar has a rich history which is gradually disappearing brick by brick. In the north of the compound is an appalling new construction -- a 'Marriage Hall' -- built in 1980s despite much public opposition, which is unfortunately a big blot on the otherwise charming ancient heritage site of Gor Khuttree.