The old and the new

April 28, 2019

The heritage trail in the walled city of Peshawar is getting a mixed response from locals, where it is enabling businessmen to flourish and is attracting tourists, it is also causing inconvenience to commuters

The old and the new

The Cultural Heritage Trail in Peshawar’s old walled city is a remarkable work of restoration of a historic street between the Gor Khatri archaeological site and the Cunningham clock tower, commonly known as Ghanta Ghar, built in 1900 AD.

One look at the heritage trail street instantly made me feel that I was on a set from an old movie. No electricity poles and cables, no potholes or speeding vehicles narrowly missing me. Instead, you see beautiful benches, Victorian-style streetlamps and plants at regular intervals.

Nawaz ud Din, Assistant Director and Research Officer at the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tells TNS that the archaeology department started restoration work on the trail in 2013, when a survey by the archaeology department identified 16 patches of historic value in the walled city. "The purpose was to work on the lost history and preserve and restore anything that came from the glorious past of this historic city," he says.

The cultural heritage trail is the pilot project initiated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Urban Planning Unit. "When it was handed over to the archaeology department, we formed teams to explore possibilities of the restoration techniques we could use on site," he adds, continuing that teams inspected the restoration work done by the Aga Khan Development Network in Lahore and other cities across the country.

Restoration work on the project began in December 2017 and the four restoration components were supposed to complete in four months. However, "the transformation of the trail took just over six months to finish," he adds. The trail was officially inaugurated in June 2018.

"First, we removed all the ugliness, including electricity poles and wires and arranged for underground distribution system of wires to each building. Pedestrian route was constructed in the second phase. The third phase gave the historic buildings a facelift, while the fourth and final step was the beautification of the trail. It included installation of lampposts, benches and plants."

From the western gate of Gor Khatri to Ghanta Ghar, 40 houses were in their original historic shape. These houses and an additional 87 buildings built on new patterns were given facelift to look historical.

Explaining the restoration process, Uzair Adeel Khan of Arch-Tech Engineering Consultant, says that the trail was restored by retrofitting, following UN accepted standards of conservation, preservation and renovation. "Material and carving techniques were carefully chosen to relate to the exact era of the construction, i.e. the Sikh era or the Persian art and architecture. We used lime mortar instead of cement in the exact ratio after lab tests to give originality to the restoration."

Initial cost of the project was estimated at Rs513 million. However, revised costs went up to Rs707 million with the inclusion of the Sethi mohallah, built in mid-19th century by the Sethi family of traders in Peshawar.

He adds, "Everything on the trail had to look more than 100 years old".

Initial cost of the project was estimated at Rs513 million. However, revised costs went up to Rs707 million with the inclusion of the Sethi mohallah, built in mid-19th century by the Sethi family of traders in Peshawar.

A house, owned by the archaeology department since 2006, is commonly known as Sethi House. It’s a famous tourist attraction as local and foreign tourists frequently visit it in groups. It was constructed in 34 years between 1850 and 1884. "It was used as a school till 2003. The house was whitewashed and the woodwork was painted, damaging the beautiful fresco work by the school administration," Muhammad Mehtab, in-charge of the Sethi house tells TNS.

Other houses are still in their original shape. The walls have fresco work with poetry inscribed in Persian. "Hindko, Pashto and Urdu languages are also used for poetry.  Everything inside these houses is unique. The light work, glass work, water channels, brick work, windows and chini khana are all unique as they represent different religions and cultures," Mehtab adds.

The heritage trail is attracting domestic and foreign tourists alike. "Tour operators have already declared the heritage trail as their priority spot for tourists visiting Peshawar. Some Indian Sikh pilgrims visiting their religious sites in Peshawar and other parts of KP also visited the trail last year," says Nawaz ud Din.

During the day, some tourists and mostly locals frequent the heritage trail. A senior citizen, Muhammad Hussain, while sitting on a bench, sipping qahwa, says, "I am waiting for my friend to join me. It is a fine morning to spend with old friends."

The evenings bring out an altogether different gathering. Families from the nearby streets flock to the dramatically lit street. Some take advantage of the benches to enjoy family meals ordered at a number of restaurants that too have been given a new look.

The heritage trail was originally a purely pedestrians’ route to let the tourists walking down the trail, get ‘lost’ in the historic past of Peshawar without any modern distractions. However, residents and business owners convinced the concerned authorities to allow their vehicles on the route when needed.

"We introduced environment-friendly rickshaws burning compressed natural gas to facilitate people in the area. Those living or working on the trail were given conditional access for vehicles at specific times only. These include, access to vehicles for loading and unloading goods of merchants doing business on the trail," says Nawaz.

Mudassir Mushtaq owner of a small general store on a corner of the heritage trail claimed his business had become profitable after experiencing losses during the construction period. "Many locals and foreigners now visit this place. The traffic jams, smoke, dirt and noise have all disappeared. Recently, the German ambassador to Pakistan visited this trail. A group of Vietnamese tourists came here a couple of weeks ago."

Though his business has improved, Mushtaq highlighted an issue that this scribe also witnessed on the spot. Elderly women and children used the route as a short cut to go to Chowk-e-Yadgar, Sarafa Bazar and other places. Now they have to take a long route in a rickshaw to reach there.

While Musaddir was narrating this, we both saw an old woman angrily getting out of a rickshaw. She started arguing with a guard, asking him to let the rickshaw pass as she was in a hurry to take her ill grandson to the Lady Reading Hospital. No access through the trail meant the otherwise six minutes’ drive was going to take half an hour for her to reach the hospital. The traffic sergeant eventually intervened and let her go through the trail.

While enjoying the delicious beef tikka karahi on the trail, I met a local tourist Abdul Haseeb. He was not happy with the careless approach towards the beautiful walkway. "It is important to maintain the beauty of the trail but people carelessly litter the place. If I and everyone from this area don’t act responsible, who will?" Abdul Haseeb asks.

Nawaz ud Din informed that other similar projects depended on the success of the pilot project. "A survey by the archaeology department identified 1,800 houses and building of historic value in the walled city. There is a great potential to make the historic Peshawar city one of the best tourists’ spots in the province," he adds.

But will it be? Perhaps time will tell.

The old and the new