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Discoveries of Empire

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In July 1798, the minarets and domes of Cairo emerged shimmering in the heat before the eyes of Napoleon’s troops as they marched south along the Nile River. Some ways away, amid the rock-strewn desert, stood the pyramids. The West was already acquainted with these strange ghosts of the desert that were ancient even when Herodotus wrote his nine-volume Histories in the middle of the 5th century BCE. But little was known about them beyond the fact that they were royal burial sites.


Now, for the first time, these peculiar apparitions became the subject of scientific inquiry, thanks to the 175 ‘learned civilians’ that were part of Napoleon’s train. They came with scientific equipment and a veritable library containing every book, ancient and contemporary, then available in France on the Nile valley.


Just 30 years earlier, German mathematician and cartographer Karsten Niebuhr had already given the West its first relatively well-informed description of the Nile civilization in his book Arabian Journey. Napoleon wished to cap that knowledge.

The ‘learned civilians’ collected a huge cache of artefacts and quickly set about making replicas. Just as well: within three years, in 1801, British forces defeated and expelled Napoleon from Egypt. The artefacts fell into British hands while the French kept the copies. France may have been trounced on the battlefield but knowledge was the winner as the artefacts and replicas triggered off a great intellectual foment simultaneously in both countries, unravelling the grandeur of the Nile civilization.

As Egypt divulged more and more of her ancient secrets, first to the bespectacled intellectual in dank, dimly-lit museum basements in Europe and then to the field archaeologists’ spade, the West began to believe the pyramids and affiliated art forms were the highest limits of ancient human achievement. Why, this civilization even stretched far back into the inchoate, unknown dimness of the 4th millennium BCE. And that was as ancient as human endeavour could ever be. Or so it was thought.

Meanwhile, Britain was on its way to imperial glory with the Indian subcontinent soon to become a ‘Jewel in the Crown’. Across the face of this great, wonderful land was a built heritage to enthral the aesthetic sense of the men who came to mind the business of East India Company and, later, the Raj. From the 9th-century Jain and Hindu temples of Gujarat and Kashmir to the glorious edifices of the Sultanate Period followed by those left behind by the Mughals, the subcontinent teemed with examples of exquisite artistry and craftsmanship that captured the imagination of architect and artist alike. But in the excitement and awe of recent discoveries in Egypt and Mesopotamia, these experts dismissed the possibility of the existence of an older, greater civilization.

About the middle of the 19th century, archaeologists well-read in classical literature and history began fossicking about the subcontinent for cities mentioned by Herodotus and the historians of Alexander of Macedonia. For these early British investigators, the cultural history of the subcontinent went only as far as the 6th century BCE, when Buddha began preaching and winning converts to his creed. One after the other, the cities of Peukelaotis (Charsadda), Ora (Udegram), Taxila, Sangala and Patala (Hyderabad) were identified.

For the archaeologist and historian working across the dusty, often sun-scorched plains of Sindh, Punjab and what is now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the chronology was simple enough: civilized life appeared around the same time as the advent of Buddhism. All archaeological remains, whether they were merely identified or investigated in detail, went only as far as that. Here were rock carvings dating from the reign of the great Mauryan ruler Asoka in the early 3rd century BCE, laying down his injunctions on leading the good and just life. Here were Buddhist stupas and monasteries from the centuries following Asoka’s rule, flowing like a stream into the treasures of the Middle Ages.

But even for the greatest investigative minds of the Raj, nothing existed in this culturally fertile land beyond the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. This certitude was so pervasive that when railway contractors came upon the vast hoard of buried kiln-fired bricks a couple of kilometres west of the alignment of the new railway line in the vicinity of Harappa village, there was not so much as a stir of curiosity. The bricks were mindlessly dug up from the mounds and, together with millions of pottery shards, used as ballast for the railway track. The year was 1854.

A decade later, Alexander Cunningham, the man who may be termed the father of Indian archaeology, made some exploratory excavations at the mounds outside Harappa to identify the site as an ancient habitation. Searching for Buddhist remains, Cunningham was disappointed when none turned up. What he did find, though, were bits of ancient pottery, stone tools and a single engraved stone seal. The one-horned humpless bovine creature depicted feeding from a trough was peculiar, all right. But the hieroglyphic inscription above the animal was the real mind-boggler as it did not cohere with any known script from the ancient world.

Cunningham published his findings shortly after the fieldwork, exciting a good deal of interest, particularly with the image of the bull and accompanying inscription. Even so, as railway contractors moved on leaving considerable damage in their wake, locals were still plundering the mounds of Harappa to build their homes.

It took archaeologists another 60 years to eventually lug their spade and scalpel to this site. Work began on the Harappa mounds in 1920 under experts who could not imagine anything older than the Buddhist period. And so, the following year, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) sent another team to a high, wind-swept mound rising above the Indus floodplain not far from the village of Dokri in Larkana District. Once again, this team sought Buddhist remains, which they did find as the tall drum rising above the now uncovered ruins of Moen jo Daro was indeed a stupa.

But it did not take too long to discover the extensive ruins of a well-planned city that lay beneath. Also interred under layers of dust were seals and other artefacts similar to those found at Harappa. At the end of the first season of excavation, John Marshall of the ASI announced, rather tentatively, to the world that a new civilization older than any previously known in India had been discovered. He also suggested this civilization had survived for a few centuries before coming to an end about the time that the Mauryan dynasty rose to prominence toward the end the 4th century BCE. Even in the 1920s, Marshall could not marshal the courage to imagine anything more ancient in India.

The images of the seals appearing with Marshall’s report drew considerable attention from the archaeological community. Seals with similar script and animal images were found in the ancient cities of south-western Iran as well as Sumeria on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Already at a loss to put all this in perspective, archaeologists were further confounded by the rapid discovery of comparable material from the western shores of the Persian Gulf.

The question that now arose was: how old were the Indus Valley cities and were they linked to Mesopotamian and Gulf cities? The assiduous, untiring efforts of three generations of archaeologists answered these questions, helped no doubt by the discovery of Mehrgarh in Sibi District during the 1970s, which pushed back the limit of the Indus valley civilization to the 7th millennium BCE.

For its 2014 diary and calendar – the third in the ‘Empire’ series that kicked off in 2012 with Wheels of Empire, followed by Stones of Empire – we at Pakistan Petroleum Limited have chosen to narrate the story of the country’s earliest history through the prism of its once-thriving cities.

There are two points we hope to stress. First, despite the ruinous state of our archaeological sites, we clearly do not want this publication to serve as a requiem for what is already lost, bemoaning the short shrift given to culture mainly due to paucity of interest and funds. On the contrary, we seek your participation in celebrating the diverse and immensely rich cultural mosaic that is our shared heritage, garnering the positivity that has recently eluded not only the country but also its people.

Moreover, the reason behind the arguably unprecedented effort to commission and collectively compile first-hand information on Pakistan’s known and not-so-known archaeological sites is not to suggest ‘closure’ on scientific study and research. Far from it, we hope the pages that follow will tip the balance in favour of more questions than answers, underscoring the need for further inquiry, which must get on urgently.

If our publication can spur this spirit, it will have served its purpose well. We are, after all, heirs to a priceless cultural inheritance and must work to ensure its conservation so that future generations may experience the same swell of pride.

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posted by S A J Shirazi @ Thursday, January 02, 2014,

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