Tag Archives: history


The car scrunched down the gravel track, bumping from rut to rut before lurching to a halt in front of a battered old gate.  Children turned to look as we got out of the old Toyota.  Elderly men squatting by the side of the road stroked their beards pensively as they observed us.  As we pushed open the gate and entered the graveyard it felt as though several hundred pairs of eyes were fixed on us.  They weren’t hostile, merely curious, as the locals tend to be when a tall Englishman and his Pakistani friend turn up in a bazaar in northern Pakistan.

I had come to visit Murree’s Old Cemetery.  Murree, a town some forty miles from Islamabad, flourished when the soldiers and administrators of the British Raj realised that spending the summer months in the verdant foothills of the Himalayas was preferable to sweating it out on the plains of the Punjab.  Every summer, as the sun soared in the Indian sky and the mercury rose ominously, the British would flee, trailing up into the hills like animals fleeing from a brushfire.  Here they would remain for the worst of the summer heat.  Here they built hotels and cottages, here they danced, here they came to recuperate from injuries sustained on the battlefields of the empire.

And here they died.  The cemetery tells their tales well enough.  Rows of graves, some plain, others ornate, some crowned with crosses which seem incongruous in what has now become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, tell of the generations of British imperialists who died here, so far from home.  Some graves are those of soldiers – “In Memory of Lt. David Albert Beere”, “Pte. R. F Theobald” – others of administrators – “Charles Arthur Sharpe, scholar of King’s College Cambridge and Engineer in the Public Works Department of India” – while others are painfully personal, such as the grave of one Violet Rose Ward who died aged 30 leaving a husband and both her parents, or that of young Heather June Finnegan who died in 1945, aged 7.  The cemeteries of Murree – there are several – testify to the diversity of the British Raj.  All of society was here, from babies to grandparents, brilliant young scholars to hoary old veterans of the Afghan Wars, and when they died they were buried in traditional Anglican cemeteries, a last taste of home in a distant land.

The Old Cemetery is overgrown now.  Many of the graves are broken, their headstones toppled by tree roots, while goats crop the grass and leave their droppings on the decaying slabs of marble.  It is neglected, ignored by the seething masses that throng the bazaar outside.  It is a poignant place, full of memory, a corner of a foreign field that is, somehow, England.  We pushed the gate open, let it creak shut behind us, and walked back to our car as a squadron of emerald parakeets careered overhead, the sound of their screeching echoing around the valley.


Here’s a confession: I have been to Lahore a total of five times and only recently, on my fifth trip there, did I get round to visiting the Badshahi Mosque.  This is strange, seeing as it is one of the premier historical attractions of Pakistan and I am keenly interested in history.

Never mind, though – despite my tardiness I eventually got around to visiting it, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Its size alone makes it stand out – it is vast, with a courtyard large enough to accommodate some 95,000 worshippers.  It was the largest mosque in the world for over 300 years, until it was overtaken by the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

I don’t want to add much more – if you want to learn about it, head over to Wikipedia in the first instance – but I can confirm that it is large, beautiful, a remarkable piece of Moghul engineering, and that we were welcomed warmly when we visited.  Hopefully the above photo will speak for itself…

The film protests seemed to make people around the world think that Pakistanis are inherently angry people.  Such a small issue, they said, and such a disproportionate response!  The days of rioting seemed to confirm their suspicions that the population of Pakistan consisted of mainly angry people and religious fundamentalists, many of whom were also pretty angry.

I disagree.  The thing which strikes me most about Pakistani people is how hospitable and friendly they are.  I was struck by this when I arrived here and it continues to have an impact on me, more or less every day: when shopkeepers offer to buy me drinks and chat, when taxi-drivers and samosa-sellers try to refuse my money, when just about every man I meet in the bazaar engages me in polite and interested conversation.


The amazing thing about this is that Pakistanis have every reason to dislike and distrust foreigners.  The land which is now Pakistan has been invaded by just about every military conqueror that history has to show: Alexander the Great, the early armies of Islam, the Afghans, the Persians, the Moghuls, and finally my ancestors, the British.  And even after that, when Pakistan was founded and people finally achieved their independence, the influence of world powers flowed across this land: the long proxy way against the Russians in Afghanistan and then the Americans, with their counter-terrorist operations and their drone strikes.

Think about it: if your country had lived through all of that, wouldn’t you be suspicious of outsiders?  And if those same outsiders were still bombing targets within your country, free from any restraint imposed by international law, mightn’t you be a bit angry?

But no, Pakistanis are invariably polite, welcoming and hospitable, despite the fact that foreigners have been meddling in their affairs for about two thousand years.  Angry Pakistan?  Painfully Polite Pakistan, more like.