A Port in the Desert

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A Port in the Desert

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For many decades the archaeological site of Banbhore in Thatta District, 37 miles north of Karachi had been the subject of neglect. The already excavated portions of the site, believed to be either Sassi’s Banbhore or the Arab city of Debal, were crumbling and in disrepair. Many portions were difficult to access, the ramparts, houses, towers of the city that dates to first century looked like they had been condemned to destruction.

Luckily there has been a reversal. In recent months, over two hundred million rupees have been pledged by the Board of Tourism to clean up and revamp the ancient archaeological site. The promised revamp is supposed to be completed in June 2019 and if it proceeds as promised, it will (perhaps for the first time) that this treasure will become easily accessible to the general public.  Beyond the obvious impetus of promoting tourism, the revamping of Bambhore is important for historical reasons. Like most post-colonial countries, Pakistan’s relationship with history has been fraught, not least because colonial endeavors rely on revisionist history to subjugate populations. Recovering history, in this case, history that exists in archaeological form is crucial to decolonizing the hearts and minds of people who have not had access to their own story.

Recent archaeological digs in Banbhore are providing new information that make the storied past of the site much clearer. Archaeologists say that the original city dates from Scytho-Parthian era with some artifacts dating back to the first century.  In one newspaper report published in Dawn last week, an Italian archaeologist confirmed that the city that emerged in later centuries, is definitely Debal, the Arab port established after Mohammad Bin Qasim defeated the local Raja Dahir in a famous battle. The city was both advanced and cosmopolitan, there were shops and homes, cisterns for water, textile manufacturing and export. The artifacts that have been recovered point to a place where many languages were spoken many sorts of people crossed paths and most importantly was connected to the wider world. The symmetry and construction, for instance, of the large pots that can be seen in the museum on the site reveals skills and experience with materials that is not seen in other manufactured objects in other parts of the world from the same time period.

One hopes that once the revamped Bambhore site is inaugurated in June 2019, some effort will be made to include the history of the city and actual visits to the site in the school curriculum of Sindh Province. In doing so, the future generation, unlike those who went to school in the past, will have real and actual places and artifacts with which to understand their own history.

Rafia Zakaria

Then there is the romantic history of the place. It is widely held that the port that is Debul was also the place where Sassui, of the long revered Sassui-Pannu epic lived. The story, which has been immortalized by Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in his famous Shah Jo Risalo, gives the area an association with the long Sufi and mystic traditions that are such an integral part of Sindhi culture.  In the words that Bhithai gives Sassui, she says “When I came outside Bhambore and cried out, if my cries would have been heard by my beloved, he would have not left me.”

The first colonial archaeologists that came to Bambhore did not think much of it. The first, Henry Cousens, who arrived in 1929, when the place was just called “Sassui Jo Takro” said that the place was just a sandy hillock with nothing much else. The towers, buildings, temples and other areas that have now been excavated were invisible. Even now, it takes some imagination to remind oneself that this was not only a thriving city but also a port. Researchers have estimated that the port that is now more than 35 kilometers from the open sea was only 20 kilometers from the open sea. This made it a maritime city whose economy depended very crucially on fishing, shipping and other similar endeavors.

As someone who was born and raised in Sindh province, I was delighted to hear that some investment will finally be made in this historical site. Karachi, a city that grew primarily after Partition and the influx of refugees, does not have many ancient historical sites. While the excavation at Banbhore has existed for decades, it has not been in a condition that would attract city dwellers. Because of this, Karachiites have remained imprisoned in a weird ahistorical mindset that is unable to imagine the land where they now live beyond the very recent past. While the conquest made by Mohammad Bin Qasim is well known, the details of the city that was the port then has largely been a mystery to the dwellers of the port that exists today.

One hopes that once the revamped Bambhore site is inaugurated in June 2019, some effort will be made to include the history of the city and actual visits to the site in the school curriculum of Sindh Province. In doing so, the future generation, unlike those who went to school in the past, will have real and actual places and artifacts with which to understand their own history. Taking children to a place that is desert now, but was a sea port before is to invite them into an act of imagination

Recovering Bambhore is a crucial step in recovering Pakistani history from colonial constraints and permit present and future generations on a scale far larger and grander than simply two or three hundreds years before now. Imagining the lives of these people of the past, who made things, sold them in markets, took ships and boats into the ocean, built one of the first mosques in the region, creates a historical landscape of the mind that is not dominated by stories of oppression and manipulation. In this sense, the past as it exists at Bambhore, is an invaluable gift to the present and most importantly to the future.  What appears now as some buildings and excavations of a port in the desert is in reality, a gem and a treasure that must be valued by all Pakistanis.     

– Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She writes regularly for The GuardianBoston ReviewThe New RepublicThe New York Times Book Review, and many other publications. Twitter: @rafiazakaria

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