Canberra, 14 September 2015

The English writer Rudyard Kipling’s 1890 poem The Ballad of the King’s Jest begins with this stanza:

When spring-time flushes the desert grass,

Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass.

Lean are the camels but fat the frails,

Light are the purses but heavy the bales,

As the snowbound trade of the North comes down

To the market-square of Peshawur town.


The Khyber Pass, one of the oldest known passes in the world, stretches 30 miles through the Spin Ghar ranges also called Sefid Koh, the ‘White Mountains’, from Afghanistan in the west to the plains of Peshawar in Pakistan in the east. The Spin Ghar ranges are part of the Hindu Kush mountain ranges. Hindustan is the historically traditional name for the Indian sub-continent, and Hindu the name given to followers of Hinduism, religious faith of the majority of the people there. The name Hindu Kush could be colloquially translated as ‘Hindu Killer’. This naming could be attributed to two factors: first, the mountains are highly elevated and the prevalent climate is extreme which prevent the development of transportation, making them extremely dangerous to traverse; and second, bedded in the ranges are the passes, especially the Khyber Pass, that have been the traditional gateway to India for the marauding raiders from the north and west, staring with the Persians and Alexander of Macedonia.

The Khyber Pass is part of the fabled North West Province of the British India, which is the North West Frontier Province of today’s Pakistan. This pass has been the legendary road to the rich and ‘valuable’ Indian sub-continent and was an integral part of the ancient Silk Route. The Khyber Pass was the essential route for the invading armies—Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Kushans, White Huns, Turks, Mongols, Mughals and Afghans—that passed through it on their way to invade India. For centuries it has divided and linked great empires and peoples, essentially becoming a watershed between Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent.

The Khyber Pass

Khyber Pass, Khyber also spelled Khaybar, or Khaibar, most northerly and important of the passes between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The pass connects Kābul with Peshāwar. The pass has historically been the gateway for invasions of the Indian subcontinent from the northwest. The name Khyber is also applied to the range of arid, broken hills through which the pass runs and which form the last spurs of the Spin Ghar (Safīd Kūh) Range. On either side of the connecting ridge are the sources of two small streams, the beds of which form the Khyber gorge. This narrow gorge forms the Khyber Pass; it winds between cliffs of shale and limestone, 600–1,000 feet (180–300 m) high, and enters the Khyber Hills from the Shadi Bagiār opening, a few miles beyond Jamrūd, Pak., and continues northwestward for about 33 miles (53 km). Just beyond the old Afghan fort of Haft Chāh, it opens onto the barren Lowyah Dakkah plain, which stretches to the Kābul River.

After a steep ascent at its southern entrance, the pass rises gradually to Fort Ali Masjid (3,174 feet), where the Khyber River (Khyber Khwār) leaves the pass to the south. For 5 miles from Ali Masjid the pass becomes a defile not more than 600 feet wide, flanked by imposing and precipitous walls. From Zīntara village on northward, the pass becomes a valley a mile or more wide, with forts, villages, and scattered cultivation plots. About 10 miles west of Ali Masjid lies Landi Kotal fort and cantonment (3,518 feet); this is the highest point in the pass and is also an important market centre with an alternate route back to Peshāwar. There the summit widens out northward for 2 miles. The main pass, however, descends from Landi Kotal through Shinwārī territory to Landi Khāna, where it runs through another gorge and enters Afghanistan territory at Towr Kham (Torkham; 2,300 feet), winding another 10 miles down the valley to Lowyah Dakkah.

Extract from the Encyclopaedia Britannica,

These armies came through in different centuries, with different objectives and seeding new cultures while influencing the existing ones in their wake. The Khyber provides a lens to view history through highlighting the rise and fall of empires, elaborating on the story of invaders who destroyed and created empires and kingdoms, and deliberating on the devastation that was wrought on the sub-continent by these armies, almost in a parody of the earliest version of globalisation.

Section I: The Persians – First of Many

The first people that trickled through the Khyber Pass were the Persians, whose story starts with the account of how Cyrus the Great became the king of the Medes, as told in a rich tale by Herodotus. The tale written by Herodotus is based on the stories passed down in the oral tradition and tells the story of Astyages who was the father of Mandane, Cyrus’s mother. Since the story cannot be authenticated, it can be surmised to contain a bit of truth, but is more myth and legend. The chronicle of Nabonidus, briefed below, is considered more authentic.

Cyrus had succeeded to the throne on the death of his father Cambyses in 559 B.C. who had ruled a vassal kingdom of Astyages and started to build a new capital to be called Pasargade. In 553 B.C. there was a revolt against the cruel rule of Astyages in which Cyrus took the lead. He captured the capital Ecbatana (contemporary Hamadan) in 550 B.C. and contrary to the norms of the time neither did he kill his grandfather nor did he raze Ecbatana to the ground, instead making it his co-capital. This was the earliest indication of Cyrus’s abiding pursuit of kindness and mercy—he went on to gather an enduring reputation for clemency and tolerance practised throughout his rule. By defeating Astyages, Cyrus united two different Iranian people and founded the Achaemenian Empire, so named by later historians after a dynamic predecessor Achaemenes.

Although the kingdom was relatively small in size, it straddled important trade routes and linked Asia Minor, the Mediterranean and Egypt with Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. The kingdom had a distinct advantage of strategic geography that augured well for gaining significant wealth, if astutely leveraged. Cyrus was a confident ruler and followed a bold and expansionist strategy from the very beginning of his rule.

The Conquests of Cyrus the Great

On becoming the king of Ecbatana, Cyrus immediately turned towards the Mediterranean coast to capture and control the great sea ports. His attention first fell on Lydia (western part of modern Turkey) a stable country that had been ruled by Croesus since 561 B.C. Cyrus first secured his flank by occupying Cilica unopposed and marched on Lydia in 547 B.C. The kingdom was easily and rapidly conquered, and although he spared the life of the king, Lydia became the first of a number of satrapies (provinces) that would come to be ruled by Persian governors. Cyrus next concentrated on dominating the Asia Minor. The rich Greek ports and trading colonies on the Ionian coast had for long accepted Croesus as their overlord. It was only natural for Cyrus to demand their capitulation and acceptance of his overlordship as the new ruler of Lydia. All but one of the colonies submitted, the rebel being separately reduced. The Greeks were not united and also open to bribery. Further, the merchants’ avarice for money made them eager to join the rich and growing Persian Empire. The annexation of the Greek colonies by Cyrus through the 540s B.C. was the beginning of the history of long animosity and tension between the Greeks and the Persians and the root cause of subsequent clashes between the two.

Cyrus now turned east, essentially to secure the rather fragile border of his empire. For ages the Central Asian steppes had been home to nomadic horsemen who attacked settled areas in looting raids. At times they also stayed behind to become rulers of small territorial holdings. One such group was the Scythians, Iranian nomads vaguely related to the Persians, who had conquered the kingdom of Media in the 7th century B.C. Different Scythian tribes had over the years dominated the area from the River Oxus in the east to Crimea and southern Russia in the west. They were great equestrian warriors and contrary to popular belief of being ‘barbarians’ were also an accomplished people. The burial mounds of Scythian warriors that have been discovered in the steppes show that they had mastered the art of vibrant metal work and were capable of extremely sophisticated workmanship that created exquisite pieces of art. Cyrus now turned against these tribesmen, resident on the eastern borders of his kingdom.

In this attempt the great Persian king moved towards the Khyber Pass, conquering the lands that spread all the way to the River Jaxartes (modern Syr Daria in Afghanistan). In several years of campaigning, Cyrus conquered the entire region south of the Caspian Sea, Khorosan, Seistan, western and southern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The mountain passes to India now came under Persian control. On the return from this triumphant campaign, Cyrus also conquered Bactria and the great city of Bactra (modern Balkh). Around 539 B.C. Cyrus conquered Babylon but treated the people with kindness. He is remembered in the Old Testament for having freed the Jews in Babylon who had been kept captive for more than 50 years and restoring them to Jerusalem where he built a temple for them.

There is a viewpoint that the merciful treatment meted out by Cyrus to almost all his adversaries was a manifestation of a tacit acceptance of the cultural inferiority of the fledgling Persian Empire. Further, it is argued that the Persian king was aware of the fact that his people had more to gain by leaving these conquered cultures intact without destroying them. Admittedly, at this time the Persians were culturally less developed than the Babylonians, the Greeks in Asia Minor and the Indians in the eastern extremity of the empire. This fact, in combination with the shrewd intelligence of the monarch, makes one believe this hypothesis. It is certain that Cyrus realised that the Persian culture was in its infancy and needed inputs from more sophisticated cultures to grow. However, this practice of letting locals continue to rule their territories after being defeated meant that the empire in effect was a confederation of kingdoms and the Achaemenian hold was tenuous at best and superficial at worst.

Cyrus the Great died in 529 B.C. fighting the Massagetae, a Scythian tribe residing north of the River Jaxartes. There are a number of stories associated with his death, some of them extremely gory. Irrespective of the nature of his death, the fact remains that Cyrus’s famous Persian Army suffered its only significant defeat under his command at the hands of the Massagetae fighting under the command of their Queen Tomyris. Further it is also noteworthy that Cyrus died defending the borders of the empire that he had single-handedly created. He was succeeded to the throne by his son Cambyses who was killed in 522 B.C. in a coup led by a usurper called Gaumata. This was opposed by a group led by Darius—a member of the Achaemenian family—who rose up in rebellion and killed Gaumata. Merely two months after the first coup and the death of Cambyses, Darius was celebrated as the King of the Achaemenian kingdom.

Darius the Great

For two years after coming to the throne, Darius had his hands full containing rebellions that spurted in a number of areas of his domain. Darius enforced his kingship violently, and it is reported that he fought 19 battles against nine kings across the kingdom all the way to the Khyber Pass. Obviously the ‘kings’ mentioned in this report were the ones that Cyrus had left as ‘satraps’ of the various provinces that he had conquered and annexed to the empire. An inscription dating to 519 B.C. made on a cliff face at Behistun (modern Bisitun) gives a list of his territorial holdings, which reads like a list of all the countries in the then known world. The script is a cuneiform writing system that was deciphered in 1839 by Henry Rawlinson. Translated to today’s countries, the list covers Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Afghanistan, parts of North-West India and much of Central Asia. This is a huge landmass, a veritable empire, by any standards.

After putting down rebellions, and conquering fresh territories, Darius started to consolidate his empire. He obviously learned from the mistake of Cyrus who had held on to power in a rather loose manner and in the end died fighting to repulse invasions of his ‘empire’. Darius reorganised the satrapies and placed Persian noblemen or princes of Achaemenian descent as provincial governors, who owed allegiance only to the emperor. The kingdom was divided into 20 satrapies and since the satraps were personally chosen by the king, it enhanced central control over the kingdom and also assured their loyalty. Darius’s acumen is demonstrated in the next step he took to rule his vast kingdom. Fully aware of the tendency of powerful satraps to declare independence from central rule at the slightest opportunity, he set up independent military commanders side-by-side with the satraps. These military commanders reported directly to the king and in most cases were responsible for more than one satrapy, a brilliant move that precluded the chances of collusion between the political ruler, the satrap, and the military commander.

Darius created a road system to weld the empire together, realising their criticality for the development of trade and commerce. The roads finally extended to the Kabul valley and then on to India, spreading across Gandhara. The roads became the arteries for the spread of information across the kingdom with provisions for change of horses for royal messengers being made at regular intervals. By establishing a messenger system based on relay horses, Darius ensured that he was kept informed of all important happenings even in far flung areas of the empire. Darius also built a palace at Susa and then constructed a brand new capital, known today by its Greek name Persepolis, meaning the City of Persia. The ruins of Persepolis sits 30 miles from the city of Shiraz. (The city was burned to the ground by Alexander after he defeated the Persian Emperor of the time, an event covered in the next chapter.)

The importance of the ruins of Persepolis for Indian history lies in the valuable inscriptions that can still be deciphered and dates to the later part of Darius’s reign. This inscription is different from that of the Behistun cliff face, in that a new satrapy or province, called Hindush is seen to be added to the list of satrapies of the Empire. It is obvious that in the period between the two inscriptions, some parts of India had been conquered by the Persian king and added to his holdings as an independent satrapy. However, there is only limited information regarding the actual invasion and the extent of the Persian holdings. There is evidence to support the information that Darius ordered the building of a fleet of boats at Caspatyrus (probably current Peshawar) under the Greek navigator Scylax of Caryanda. The king despatched an exploratory mission under Scylax down the River Indus all the way to the Arabian Sea. The intent was for the expedition to sail for Persia after reaching the sea and thereby open a sea route to link the eastern and central satrapies of the empire. Scylax achieved this monumental feat in 30 months, adding greatly to Persian knowledge of geography.

Although the exploration and discovery of the river-sea route from India to the heart of the Persian Empire could not have been undertaken without first having brought the areas surrounding the River Indus under control, no details of the annexation of the north-west parts of the Indian sub-continent are known. It is certain that the Persian Army travelled through the Khyber Pass to secure the province of Hindush for the Empire. Circumstantial evidence, like the sailing of Scylax’s fleet indicate that the Persian satrapy of Hindush would have covered western India and the Indus valley all the way to its exit in the Arabian Sea. [In this context, India is meant to indicate the entire sub-continent without taking into account the different nations that inhabit it today.]

Darius was aware of the great wealth of India and therefore it was no coincidence that he conquered and established a Hindush satrapy. It was standard practice within the Persian Empire for all satrapies to pay a predetermined amount of money as tax/tribute to the central administration. This tax was decided by the Emperor based on his assessment of the overall wealth of the satrapy. The wealth of the Hindush satrapy can be understood from the following comparison, authenticated through Persian records. The tax from Hindush was 360 talents of gold annually, which was the equivalent of 4680 talents of silver. In comparison, Babylon the next richest satrapy of the Empire paid only 1000 talents of silver annually to the Emperor and some of the poorer ones paid only a token amount. For example, the Gandhra satrapy was obliged to pay only 170 talents of silver annually. It is difficult to translate the ancient forms of money to their actual values in modern times. In order to get a broad idea of the value of the talents mentioned above, as a guide it has been ascertained that one silver talent paid the wages of an accomplished artisan for a minimum period of 16 years. From this comparison the value of the tax that came from Hindush into the Persian Empire can be understood.

The Impact of the Invasion

It is believed that the Persians went further into the Indian sub-continent after establishing the frontier satrapy and controlling the River Indus and its surrounding valleys. It cannot be otherwise, considering the Persian military prowess and their knowledge of the wealth within the sub-continent. However, there are no indications of any long term conquest or even of large-scale battles and it can be presumed that these incursions would have been made peacefully, purely for trade and profit. The more lasting impact was that these incursions marked the beginning of an enduring cultural interaction between the Indian sub-continent and the Central and Middle-East Asian kingdoms that continued for centuries and transcended the rise and fall of dynasties and empires on both sides.

Taxila in Gadhara, situated close to the Khyber Pass, became the natural meeting point of the two disparate cultures. The exchange between the Persian and the Indian cultures was always a two-way interaction with poets, craftsmen, scholars, holy men and even adventurers moving in both ways. This movement of people commenced the exchange of material, ideas and intellectual concepts between the two established cultures that was to last for centuries. Taxila, located at the crossroads, gained importance as a centre for culture and education, becoming famous on both sides. This new interaction was in effect the coming together or a reunion of sorts of two Aryan cultures that sprang from the same roots but had gone their separate ways, which may also explain the spontaneity and ease of the intermingling and assimilation. The Persian language originated from the same root as Sanskrit and Prakrit spoken in India—both belonging to the Indo-European language family. There was also a commonality in the Fire Worship that was fundamental to the practice of the religions of both sides—Zoroastrianism and Vedic Hinduism—with even the fables regarding their gods having distinct similarities.

The exchange of ideas was freely welcomed by both sides with the Persian political and administrative ideas, architectural experience and expertise in metal work being incorporated into the Indian context. From its side India transmitted the science of mathematics, logic, music and literature to the Persians. The Persian influence, first established by Darius the Great, lives on in India even in the modern age. The assimilation of the Hindush satrapy into the great Persian Empire is confirmed by the fact that Indian soldiers fought in the Persian army of Xerxes against the Greeks. While there is no proof that the Indian contingent made any tangible difference to the final outcome of this contest between two of the most prominent ancient civilisations of the world, there was definitely an Indian presence while the fate of the then known world was being determined in the battles of the Asia Minor. The Khyber Pass had established itself once and for all as the means for the transmission of cultural developments, and more importantly as the essential gateway to India.

© [Sanu Kainikara] 2015]
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: