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The Khyber Pass: A History of Empire and Invasion, by Paddy Docherty

review published on June 28, 2008. Reviewed by Simon Appleby

The Khyber PassMention of the Kyber Pass may, for many of us, evoke images of the hoary old film favourite Carry On Up the Khyber, but as Paddy Docherty expertly illustrates in The Khyber Pass, it has played a crucial role in the history of India and the many peoples, from the Greeks to the Persians, the Mongols to the Huns, who have traversed it in the course of migrations and invasions. In giving us the context to these events, Docherty provides compact histories of some famous, and some deeply obscure, empires.

As the only significant, viable route from what is now Afghanistan through to the Indian Subcontinent, the Khyber Pass has seen numerous significant passages; yet in places it narrows to only few meters across, putting the traveller at the mercy of the local tribesmen on the slopes above, and making them vulnerable to determined defenders. Perhaps the first significant invasion of India through the pass would have been the Persians; they were succeeded by the Greeks of Alexander the Great as they reached the Eastermost extent of their epic journey of conquest. As a result of these movements, Persian was the lingua franca of Northern India for hundreds of years, while Greek influence continued to be felt in the Punjab long after Alexander was a distant memory.

Religions have been significantly influenced by the Khyber passage as well as empires: Islam came through the Kyber Pass from the Middle East, and we are conscious of the influence of that religion on Indian history and the current political geography of the Subcontinent; in return, the nascent Buddhist religion probably found its way from India to China, Tibet and Mongolia through the Khyber.

The British in the 19th century attached great significance to Afghanisatan as a means of securing the Northern flank of their Indian possessions – as such, the Khyber was one of the wildest frontiers of the British Empire, and its walls are adorned with the commemorative plaques of the regiments who served there, men from the Scottish highlands fighting and dying in very different mountains to those of their homeland. Two British military expeditions were horribly mauled in the journey through the pass, and it assumed even greater significance as a result of The Great Game, the tussle between the growing Russian Empire and Britain.

The age of air power may have reduced the strategic significance of the Kyber Pass (which is now entirely in Pakistan), but Paddy Docherty makes a convincing case for its having been one of the most historically significant strategic land routes anywhere in the world, if not the most significant. I really enjoyed this book, and learned quite a bit about a diverse range of Central Asian and Indian empires along the way. Recommended.

 

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