Secrets of a lost port

Published January 24, 2014
Dawn file photo
Dawn file photo

Like the birds that come to winter in Sindh, the number of visitors to Bhanbhore is decreasing each year. But archaeologists have once more returned to the ancient site located a little more than an hour’s drive from Karachi. At the moment, a joint archaeological mission of Italian, French and Pakistani excavators are having a particularly exciting season, digging deep into the soil, discovering dwellings, coins, brick-lined walls, mud-encrusted pottery and skeletons.

A narrow road branching off from the National Highway takes a group of us to the 640-acre site. Considering that Bhanbhore, said to date back to the 1st century BC, was home to civilisations from at least three distinct eras, the museum near the entrance is surprisingly small. But the relics it houses have been arranged in an orderly manner, according to the period in which they were used.

As the young curator Abdul Fatah Shaikh points out, this arrangement helps the visitor follow the progress of the port city. The artefacts, helped by the timeline, show how a rudimentary culture evolved into a more refined way of life. Apart from rusted arrowheads, storage jars, carved and painted pottery, jewellery, and stone slabs inscribed in Kufic script, there is still much to discover about what some archaeologists say was the flourishing port of Debul, perhaps even Babarican. The archaeologists on site are trying to come up with evidence that could substantiate these theories.

To get to the ruins and see the actual digging, we go past some fortifications and climb up steps to find ourselves on an undulating terrain. The weather is cool, and a refreshing wind blows across the site; it feels good to be alive amid the ruins. We walk by an 8th-century mosque said to be South Asia’s oldest. The remains of a madressah are close by.

Bhanbhore after all is said to be the gateway of Islam in the subcontinent, where Muhammad Bin Qasim vanquished the forces of Raja Dahir, inadvertently paving the way for future school textbooks in which history would begin with this Islamic conquest.

A little distance away, a man delicately brushes away the centuries-old dust settled on a human skull still tenuously attached, it seems, to the rest of the skeletal remains. The bones are white, almost dazzlingly so. They are of the same colour as the fowl that settles near a watering spot and the goats that scamper close to the shimmering Gharo creek with their child shepherds.

Head of the Pakistani team, Asma Ibrahim, informs us that the skeleton (circa 12th century AD, she says, and still half buried) is that of a man probably in his 30s. We can all see that he has a fine set of teeth. Some of them drop off though as the mud is brushed away. She says that he was probably felled by an arrow and that his body was dumped instead of being properly buried.

Sounds like the start of an absorbing tale. But Italian archaeologist Niccolo Manassero is not exactly enthused. He has been working inside a trench which may contain the fortification walls of the city. There are also the partial remains of what he says might be two houses located very close to each other.

“Skeletons attract people but they don’t tell much about the history of a place. This trench tells us much more.” Further digs in this part of the site, he says, could reveal far more interesting things about the settlement than the skeleton. The French, meanwhile, are working a little distance away, in another trench, where shovel-loads of earth reveal red broken pottery.

Considering how Pakistan is hitting the headlines in the international press, it is reassuring to see foreign archaeological teams in the field, even if they have one lone policeman guarding them. “I feel quite safe. It’s a quiet area. But I would not go to KP,” says Manassero.

With vast portions of the site untouched it could take some time before conclusive evidence emerges to establish Bhanbhore’s antecedents as perhaps the most important port in the Arabian Sea. The team will work for three years and hopefully contribute to a fuller understanding of how the city’s inhabitants fell to the forces of war and nature.

In the meantime, bones glistening in the moonlight and the emerging contours of a hidden citadel will give free rein to the imagination.

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