TRAVEL: THE LOST BEAUTY OF KOH-I-SULAIMAN

Published February 19, 2023
Despite the massive fire in 2022, Koh-i-Sulaiman still has plenty to offer visitors | Photos by the writer
Despite the massive fire in 2022, Koh-i-Sulaiman still has plenty to offer visitors | Photos by the writer

Koh-i-Sulaiman — or the mountain of Sulaiman — is actually a range of mountains located in southwest Pakistan, on what is locally known as Qasay Ghar on the junction of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). It is a part of the Hindu Kush mountain range, one of the longest mountain ranges in the world, bordering Dera Ismail Khan in the east, Sherani in the west and Musakhail in the south.

Koh-i-Sulaiman was once nothing short of enchanting. Its lush green landscape would leave visitors spellbound. This mountainous region was also known for being rich in wild fruits, medicinal plants and mushrooms. Surrounded by native pinus gerardiana (pine) and pinus wallichiana (nashtar) trees, the local people dwelling in stone and mud houses would lend this mountainous range a quaint, antique look.

But it seems the days of its glory are now behind us. The once-flourishing pine forest echoing with twittering birds has now fallen still and quiet after a massive fire last year. Gone are the days when wildflowers welcomed visitors with their intoxicating fragrance.

Can the government take appropriate steps to restore the grandeur of the area?

The Geography of Koh-i-Sulaiman

Koh-i-Sulaiman is located at the junction of Sherani district in Balochistan and Dera Ismail Khan district in KP, almost 400 kilometres from the provincial capital, Quetta. Sherani was once a tehsil (sub-district) of Zhob but, in 2006, it was separated and turned into a new district.

Before Partition, the route to Koh-i-Sulaiman was developed into a road as it was used for commuting in the British era, but now it has been turned into a national highway connecting Balochistan with KP. This road begins from the Silyaza resort of Zhob to the flank of Koh-e-Sulaiman.

A massive fire last year in the Koh-i-Sulaiman range has badly affected the area. But given the fascinating folklore around it, its attraction as a potential tourist spot and its status as the biggest chilghoza forest in Pakistan, perhaps the government needs to pay closer attention

The hightest peak of Koh-i-Sulaiman, Takht-i-Sulaiman is situated at an altitude of 3,487 metres (11,440 feet) above sea-level with a unique ecosystem, a peculiar climatic condition, expansive lush green pastures, an absolutely serene environment, twisting roads and an awe-inspiring landscape that offers a panoramic view.

The highway twists through high mountains to Dera Ismail Khan via Dhana Sar. To reach the mountains of Sulaiman, the route sprouts from Ahmadi Dargah to Mala Ragha and Chachobi to Surlaki villages, whereas from Dera Ismail Khan the Drazinda-Parwezan route can be used.

Koh-i-Sulaiman is divided into two parts. The area in Balochistan is called Bargaha [Upper], while the area in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is called Largaha [Lower].

Koh-i-Sulaiman remains the biggest chilghoza producing forest in Pakistan
Koh-i-Sulaiman remains the biggest chilghoza producing forest in Pakistan

MOUNT OF SOLOMON

Though now forgotten, Koh-i-Sulaiman is a notable historic site as it is immersed in various post-Islamic — at times contesting — folktales.

Most famously, there is an interesting folk tale that suggests that Muslim scholar and traveller Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta — or, Ibn Battuta — named the mountain as ‘the Mount of Solomon’ because he believed that the flying throne of Hazrat Sulaiman — the prophet who is believed to have possessed the powers to speak to animals and jinns — descended on these mountains. Takht-i-Sulaiman literally means the ‘Throne of Sulaiman’.

As most myths travel through oral history, the exact date for these events remain unknown. However, Hazrat Sulaiman was born in 1145 BC and was seated on the throne in 1186 BC. Ibn Battuta lived in the 14th century.

One myth suggests that Hazrat Sulaiman came to India and married the Queen of Sheba (also referred to as Makeda or Malka Sahiba) named Bilquis. Upon his return, he passed through Koh-i-Sulaiman with his newly-wed bride on a flying throne. However, his bride wished to have a last glimpse of her homeland. To honour her wishes, he summoned his jinns to land the flying throne.

Some other locals believe that it was the Queen of Sheba herself who wished to descend the throne on the top of the mountain. Obeying her commands, the jinns immediately brought down the magnificent throne of the queen.

However, the alleged historic throne of Hazrat Sulaiman is placed at an altitude of 11,400 feet above sea level. Human footprints are still visible on the stone-made throne. There is barely enough space for two persons to sit on the Takht. The stone-made takht itself is a platform situated about 14 feet below the peak of the mountain.

Another myth states that Hazrat Sulaiman exercised his miraculous power to confine mischievous jinns inside the peak whenever they would refuse to obey his commands. These spirits are unleashed from captivity only in the Islamic calendar month of Safar.

When the shadows of the Sulaiman range loom over the vast plains of Damaan in the month of Safar, the locals keep their children confined to their homes to protect them from the evil jinns. Adjacent to Koh-i-Sulaiman, Drazinda village is also said to have been once used as the site of a jinn prison.

Among other myths, Takht-i-Sulaiman is also believed to bless women with fertility.

Timber-smuggling from the region has finally been brought under control
Timber-smuggling from the region has finally been brought under control

KASAY GHAR FOR SPIRITUAL TOURISM

Koh-i-Sulaiman is steeped in many other myths and mysteries. According to local tales, its hills have been the resting abode of many conquerors and martyrs, including post-Islamic lore figures such as Qais Abdul Rashid (the alleged founding father of the Pashtuns) and his son Beit Nika, who was a revered darvesh. Many Mughal rulers are also said to have camped here.

Prominent writer and researcher Mir Hassan Khan Attal states that Koh-i-Sulaiman is referred to as Kaisa Ghar or Kasay Ghar based on local legends that followed after the famous Pashtun ancestor and companion of the Prophet (PBUH), Qais Abdul Rashid — also called ‘Qais Baba’ — was buried on the top of the mountain.

Nimatullah Harvi’s famous book Maghazan-i-Afghani wa Tarikh-i-Khan Jehani corroborates the legend that Qais Abdul Rashid is buried on the top of the mountain. Thus, Kasay Ghar takes on spiritual significance for some visitors, who usually climb the mountain in summer to slaughter a lamb or a goat close to the grave of Qais.

Local researcher and writer based in Drazinda, Atlas Khan Sherani says, however, that the mountain has nothing to do with Hazrat Sulaiman. In fact, the grave belongs to a saint named Sheikh Sulaiman Sarwani. But people continue to falsely attribute the mountain to Hazrat Sulaiman and mistake the grave of Sheikh Sulaiman for that of Qais Abdul Rashid.

Lastly, he says, the mountain is called Kasay Ghar because of the Pashtun Kasi tribe — now predominantly based in Quetta — that once lived in the Koh-e-Sulaiman region and migrated away from here.

INHABITATION AND ASCENT

The famous tourist and anthropologist Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (973-1048) wrote in his famous book Kitab-ul-Hind in the early 11th century that many Afghan tribes originated and lived alongside Koh-i-Sulaiman.

“Koh-i-Sulaiman has been the third most important and ancient centre of the Pashtuns after Baakhtar and Ghor,” he explains. “All the Pashtun tribes spread in the Pashtunkhwa homeland were once settled here. The mountain is also considered to have been the birthplace of the Pashto-speaking races.”

In 1890, English historian Mountstuart Elphinstone tried to reach the summit with his companion, but failed to do so. Earlier, in 1848, another military delegation tried to climb the mountain but could not reach the throne. The same year, Gen Sir George White, along with a few of his comrades, attempted to summit the peak, but also failed due to inclement weather and insufficient time.

Finally on June 29, 1891, Major McIvor, British Joint Commissioner of the Afghan-Balochistan Boundary Commission and the then political agent at Zhob, and a few of his comrades succeeded in ascending to Takht-i-Sulaiman.

THE PINE NUTS OF KOH-I-SULAIMAN

Besides its geographical and historical importance, Koh-i-Sulaiman has also been known as being the world’s largest pure chilghoza [pine nut] forest and having pine trees that are at higher elevations as compared to other parts of the world.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), 675 tons of pine nuts, with a total market value of 3.5 billion rupees were produced from the Koh-i-Sulaiman region during the harvesting season in 2021.

The World Wide Fund (WWF) initiated efforts to conserve Koh-i-Sulaiman’s unique forest back in the 1990s, despite the challenges from the forest-owning communities.

In 1992, WWF-Pakistan estimated that 10,140 trees and 72,000 cubic feet of timber was exported or smuggled to other parts of the country from the region. During the same year, the organisation initiated a strategy to link forest-owning communities in order to conserve and protect the valuable forests. In 2013 the organisation completed a survey report that estimated the total production of timber at 130 metric tons with a 117 million rupee revenue.

In two decades (1985-2014), approximately 100,000 mature trees were cut down to sell in the market. A forest conservation and management committee was formed in 2006 and eventually the committee completely banned forest cutting. The imposition of a fine of Rs 25,000 was one of the conditions of the agreement set by the committee. Finally, the conservation agreement bore fruit and forest-cutting was reduced significantly and, in 2014, only 760 trees were cut down by the local people.

FAO’s official data shows that Pakistan is the fifth largest producer of pine nuts in the world. Around 15 percent of the world’s demand for them is met by Pakistan and the dry fruit grown in the Sulaiman range is 74 percent of the country’s total production.

FAO also estimates that the forest on 26,000 hectares in the Sulaiman range produces 675,000 kilogrammes of pine nuts annually. Although South Waziristan, Chitral and Gilgit Baltistan areas also have chilghoza forests, but the pure chilghoza forest is found only in the Sulaiman range.

DEVASTATING FIRE

The area came under the media spotlight in May 2022 when a massive fire engulfed the Koh-i-Sulaiman range.

On May 9th, 2022, a fire erupted in the pine forest in Dahana Sar Darazinda near Dera Ismail Khan, which spread rapidly and was fuelled by gusty winds to the other sides of the mountain. Roaring ferociously, the wind-driven flames spread rapidly and gulped down the tall pine trees on the mountain slopes, besides the herbs and shrubs that came in their way.

The provincial and federal governments took notice of the horrific fire and launched relief operations. Finally, after two weeks, the biggest Iranian firefighter aircraft, the Eloshin-76, managed to douse the flames and prevent its further spread, saving the rest of the forest.

The reason behind the Koh-i-Sulaiman blaze is yet to be known. It is estimated that at least one third of this valuable forest has been affected and was turned into ashes. The initial assessment shows that the fast-moving wildfire, raging for almost 15 days, has burnt down thousands of native chilghoza and olive trees.

According to satellite images provided by the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco), the fire has affected around 11,000 acres of land, which ranges from 22 to 25 percent of the total land.

TOURISM AS A LIVELIHOOD ALTERNATIVE

The verdant and dense forests offer a potential site for tourism in the country. It is believed that if steps are taken to promote tourism in this scenic part of the country, it could not only provide an additional source of income for the local community, but also restore the lost beauty of Koh-i-Sulaiman.

Tourists from every nook and corner of the country are likely to visit this mountainous region round the year due to its unique geography, versatile history, its chilgoza trees and spiritual significance.

Similar to the neighbouring Zhob and Sherani districts, which are also known for their natural beauty but remain neglected, little has been done to develop area.

It is worth mentioning that, in 2021, the government had decided to develop the Koh-i-Sulaiman mountain range as the country’s first Trans-Boundary National Park, in partnership with the Ministry of Climate Change and the forest departments of Balochistan and KP, under the protected areas initiative (PAI). However, that project is yet to be initiated.

The writer is a Balochistan-based journalist. He can be reached at mandokhail.rafi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2023

Opinion

Editorial

Miles to go
Updated 14 Jul, 2024

Miles to go

Some reforms agreed with the Fund are going to seriously impact economic growth and fresh investments, at least in the short term.
Iddat ruling
14 Jul, 2024

Iddat ruling

IT was a needless, despicable spectacle which only ended up uniting both conservatives and progressives in ...
Cricket shake-up
14 Jul, 2024

Cricket shake-up

SOMEONE had to take the blame and bear the brunt of the fallout from Pakistan’s disastrous showing at the T20 ...
Injustice undone
Updated 13 Jul, 2024

Injustice undone

The SC verdict is a stunning reversal of fortunes for a party that was, both before and after general elections, being treated as a defunct entity.
Looming flour shortage
13 Jul, 2024

Looming flour shortage

FOR once, it is hard to argue against the reason that compelled flour mills to call a nationwide strike from...
Same old script
13 Jul, 2024

Same old script

WHEN it comes to the troubling issue of enforced disappearances/ missing persons — either Baloch or belonging to...