North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) seems a region named purely for the romance of travel. A quick look at the map tells you why, with the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan, the peaks of the Hindukush, the towns of Peshawar and Chitral all speaking of rugged mountains, proud tribesmen and Kipling-style adventure.
In the valleys of Peshawar and Swat, the ancient, influential region of Gandhara blossomed, its Buddhist art and doctrines spreading into Asia. It left behind a parade of archaeological sites, many yet to be fully explored by travellers. Later inhabitants left a less tangible but equally famous legacy. The Pashtun tribes gave bloody noses to some of history’s most famous conquerors, even earning themselves the respect of the British soldiers who they frequently fought to a standstill. The autonomous Tribal Areas were born of those conflicts, and their inhabitants hold the Pakistani government at arm’s length to this day.
More peaceful inhabitants are the Kalasha, pagans clinging onto their old rituals in isolated valleys near Chitral against the odds. The Kalasha region is one of the most stunning parts of the Hindukush range, but the whole of northern NWFP is ideal trekking country, from Chitral to the green slopes of the Swat Valley.
For all the tradition, NWFP remains closely tied to the present. Modern politics makes strong headlines, with the Tribal Areas and radical Islam regularly impacting on the national stage. While local insecurities tend to happen in areas away from travellers’ interests, visitors should be aware of underlying tensions, and take advice on the current situation before travelling.
The Peshawar plain – the broad Kabul River Valley from the Khyber Pass to the Indus – was called Gandhara by its early Hindu inhabitants. It was a far province of both the Persian Achaemenid empire and Alexander the Great’s dominion, but it was through Buddhism, however, that the region really flourished. Ashoka of the Mauryan empire opened Gandhara to Buddhism in the 3rd century BC, succeeded by the Kushans from Afghanistan in the 1st to 3rd centuries AD.
The Kushans bore traces of Alexander’s Hellenistic culture and produced the sublime Graeco-Buddhist art for which Gandhara is famous. It was from here that Buddhist thought evolved and spread deeper into Asia. When the Kushans eventually declined, so did Buddhism, although it clung on in parts of Swat until the 15th century.
Islam first appeared in the region in the 8th century, with Arab armies even clashing with the Chinese near Chitral. However, Islam didn’t get a firm foothold until the Afghans started empire-building again through Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century, and the Ghorid dynasty a century later. Not that there was long to enjoy the fruits of conquest – Genghis Khan stormed through Peshawar in 1221, with Tamerlane (Timur) repeating the same trick at the end of the 14th century.
The Mughals eventually brought stability, taking the Peshawar and Swat Valleys under their rule, with Peshawar a favourite retreat for Mughal rulers. But the Pashtuns were unruly subjects, and in 1680 the Pashtun warrior-poet Khushal Khan Khattak returned Peshawar to the Afghans.
Somewhat foolishly, the subsequent Afghan Durrani dynasty granted governorship of Lahore to the Sikh maharaja Ranjit Singh, who proceeded to expand his domain into a small empire. In 1818 the Sikhs occupied the Peshawar Valley and ransacked Peshawar.
The British picked up the pieces after the collapse of Sikh rule, and the Afghans never saw Peshawar again. British policy was all about subduing the tribes on their ‘northwest frontier’. They’d failed to bring the Afghans to heel in two disastrous wars (1838–42 and 1878–80), so in 1893 imposed a common border, the so-called Durand Line. In 1901 NWFP was made a separate province, and the Pashtuns bought off by granting them the autonomous Tribal Areas.
The province has remained key in Pakistan’s post-Independence politics. In the 1980s it swelled with almost four million refugees from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (it’s thought that around half that number still remain in Pakistan). Since 9/11, NWFP has been sucked back into regional events. As the Tribal Areas become increasingly radicalised by Islamist groups, the Pakistani military attempts to bring the region under governmental control.