Paddy Docherty is an old-fashioned adventurer, more at ease wearing the traditional shalwar kameez and distinctive Afghan headgear than a pin-striped suit. Having gained a boxing Blue at Oxford, he has been variously a chef, internet entrepreneur, shipbroker and banker. Now, turning his attention to the history of one of the world’s strategic fault-lines, he has produced a slim but stirring volume packed with 2,500 years of treachery and bloodshed.
The Khyber Pass is a mere 30-mile narrow stretch of road, fringed by mountains and exceedingly narrow in places, now part of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. It links this country with Afghanistan and such is its enduring reputation for kidnap and murder that the author himself made sure to travel between Peshawar and Kabul only in daylight and with a bodyguard and driver. He readily accepted this because in this harsh region “life is hard and people must treat others with some suspicion in order to survive”.
What makes those who travel along it vulnerable is the ease of ambush, the lack of escape routes and the hilltop forts from where Pathan tribesmen can pick off the unwary traveller with impunity. These Pathans were renowned for their ferocity; in 1892 Kipling had written in “The Young British Soldier”: “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains…” and the author describes a Victorian massacre in which a corpse was found with the “genitals… hacked from his body and stuffed into his mouth in the Afghan custom”. These tribesmen have succeeded many generations of armies and invaders, beginning with Cyrus the Great, who died in 529 BC. The Scythians rode with saddle cloths made from the flayed skin of their captured foes while Alexander the Great forced his enormous army through the narrow passage to do battle with Porus, the Indian king, in 326 BC.
Docherty makes it clear that the Pass was also the essential means of the transmission of culture, whereby India gave Iran her music, mathematics, romantic literature and ivory carving and Iran gave India expertise in administration and architecture. It was the route whereby Buddhism was exported from India and, centuries later, Islam entered it. Yet for all the merchandise of civilisation that slowly travelled by pack animals through this unforgiving terrain, the author’s pulse is quickened more by the tribal dynasties that rose, clashed and fell along the route, such as the White Huns of the 5th century AD, with their ritual facial scars and deliberately elongated skulls, or the Mongolian hordes of Genghis Khan in the late 12th century. Tamerlane, who inspired the Tudor poet Christopher Marlowe, crossed the Pass in order to wreak havoc in Persia and Mesopotamia; he conquered Baghdad in 1401 and built pyramids with 90,000 severed heads.
The last quarter of the book is the probably the most interesting for it concerns the British Raj, an enduringly fascinating period for those who love Kipling or the novels of Paul Scott. Docherty includes a photo of a cluster of memorial stones inside the Khyber Pass, which commemorate the British and Pakistani regiments that have served there. He also provides an outline of the history of the Honourable East India Company, a “most curious entity”; by 1800 it was “a trading corporation, driven by profit, that had become the ruler of India”. After the Indian Mutiny the government in London “decided to end the curious circumstance of a company of merchants ruling an empire, and India became a crown possession.”
Before this, in 1841 the 27th British Native Infantry had escorted 600 women from a prince’s harem along the Pass from Peshawar to Kabul – a more peaceable caravan than that which followed it in 1842 when, in the retreat from Kabul, 16,000 soldiers and their families (who had joined them to break the tedium of their long garrison duties) perished in the Afghan winter or at the hands of local warlords.
After Partition in 1947, the Pass became the territory of Pakistan. Today, reflecting its violent history, it is the background of the war on terror in the area. The author observes that in an age of flight, it has lost its strategic importance; in a recent campaign the US airlifted an entire army into Afghanistan. Yet, given the part the Pass has played in both the cross-fertilisation and the conflicts of past civilisations, it will always retain its aura of melancholy natural grandeur. I write these words with some embarrassment: in my youth I spent several weeks travelling overland to India from the UK; as we sweltered in the heat and our battered old bus trundled along this dramatic route, every inch of which cried out with the ghosts of history, I thought only of two things: a cold drink and a hot bath.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.