Sirkap –Taxila’s ancient metropolis

Published March 20, 2016
Information boards at the entrance to the ancient city of Sirkap tell visitors about the site’s rich history.
Information boards at the entrance to the ancient city of Sirkap tell visitors about the site’s rich history.

The ancient city of Sirkap was once a thriving ancient metropolis, complete with streets, houses, shops and places of worship.

Stairs made in the Grecian style, leading to one of the legendary city’s of ancient Buddhist civilisation.
Stairs made in the Grecian style, leading to one of the legendary city’s of ancient Buddhist civilisation.

Sirkap flourished under various regimes, from the Greeks to the Scythians, Parthians and finally the Kashanas, but the city lost its importance after King Kanishka of the Kushan dynastry founded the nearby city of Sirsukh.

Corinthian columns – a quintessential Grecian style of architecture – stand tall at the stupa.
Corinthian columns – a quintessential Grecian style of architecture – stand tall at the stupa.

Sirkap means severed head, and is the name of the mythological demon that feasted on human flesh and killed the hero Rasalu, that was said to have lived on the site. Sirkap was founded by the Bactarian King Demetrius, who conquered the region in the 180s BCE, and was the second city of Taxila. The city was rebuilt by King Menander, and after the Bhir Mound site was abandoned Sirkap became the main city of Taxila, in the 2nd century BC.

The Apsidal temple stands despite time and climatic effects.
The Apsidal temple stands despite time and climatic effects.

Taxila Institute of Asian Civilisations director Dr Ashraf Khan said the city was influenced heavily by Grecian city planning principles introduced after Alexander the Great’s conquest in the 3rd century BC. Demetrius, who thought of himself as a Greek, built the city on the Hippodamaean plan: like a gridiron. The city was expanded by Gondophares, who also built the famous Double-Headed Eagle Stupa and the Temple of the Sun.

People stroll down the streets of Sirkap, once a legendary civilisation.
People stroll down the streets of Sirkap, once a legendary civilisation.

Dr Khan said Taxila’s sanctuaries reflect the multicultural nature of the Indo-Greek kingdom, which consisted not only of the Punjab, but also of Gandhara, Arachosia and part of the Ganges valley.

A guards’ room located at the entrance to the city. Such an arrangement indicates that residents tried to keep the city safe using defensive measures.
A guards’ room located at the entrance to the city. Such an arrangement indicates that residents tried to keep the city safe using defensive measures.

A.G. Lone, an archaeologist who discovered BC-era lamps from a Jain temple in the area during 2004 and 2005, said the city’s symmetrical pattern was born of the Greek Hellenistic period. Apollonius – 44 AD – drew a parallel between the planning of Sirkap and that of Athens during his travels, and said it was the size of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. The walls of the city are made from coursed rubble masonry, characteristic of the Greek and Saca periods.

A preserved well, which was once the main source of water for Sirkap’s residents.
A preserved well, which was once the main source of water for Sirkap’s residents.

Immediately behind the gate was what was probably a guard’s room. A Greek visitor, whose description of Taxila was included in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius, said the houses seemed like they were only one storey, but also had basement rooms.

The main street of Sirkap city.
The main street of Sirkap city.

Now a ruin, the city once boasted a 6 metre thick and 5 kilometre long defensive wall also made of coursed rubble.

Ruins of various religious buildings depict the religious diversity that existed among the city’s residents.
Ruins of various religious buildings depict the religious diversity that existed among the city’s residents.

There was a fortified acropolis or high ground within the defence perimeter, and the streets of the city were more regular than those in Bhir Mound – the first city of Taxila.

A view of the ruins of Sirkap. — Photos by the writer
A view of the ruins of Sirkap. — Photos by the writer

Along the North-South main street once stood temples, houses, shrines and stupas and on the east side of the street stood the shrine of the Double-Headed Eagle, the Apsidal Temple, and a palace on the South end.

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2016

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