When Muhammad bin Qasim sailed up-river along the Indus in Pakistan’s Sindh province, he must have heaved a sigh of relief as the citadel of the city he was about to attack floated into sight. Despite its bulging watch towers and massive stone walls, the size of the fortification didn’t worry him. The citadel was but a stone’s throw from the water’s edge, child’s play for his giant catapults to hurl boulders across and into the city. Debal would fall. Debal would be his.
The year was 711 CE and Qasim was leading the Arab conquest of Sindh for the Umayyad Caliphate. This was the very first of the Islamic invasions in the Indian subcontinent and Debal, positioned at the mouth of the Indus River and well connected with other urban centres, would be the gateway.
In the 1920s, when archaeologists came upon the ruins of fortifications along the Gharu Creek in Sindh, they believed they had found the lost city of Debal. Located 65 km southeast of Karachi, they called it the ‘site of Banbhore’.
Systematic excavations were carried out only in the 1950s and 1960s, and material evidence not only suggested that this could be the ancient city of Debal but there was evidence of three distinct civilizations – the Scytho-Parthian period (1st BCE – 2nd CE), Hindu-Buddhist period (2nd CE – 8th CE) and Islamic period (8th CE – 13th CE).
The earliest two levels relate to the invasion of the Scythians or Sakas into the subcontinent in the late 2nd century BCE. This was followed by the invasion of the Parthians or Pahlavas; then the Kushanas, who were great patrons of Buddhism; the influence of the Guptas; followed by the Brahman dynasty.
While much of Bhanbore’s earlier levels are waterlogged, the upper level presents a well-preserved early Islamic urban centre. It revealed the remains of houses and streets, both within and outside the citadel. Outside the city’s walls was an industrial area, a large artificial tank probably for the supply of drinking water, and a graveyard.
This was once a thriving, medieval river port city, which earned its wealth from the import and export of goods. Its strategic location on the Indus made it Sindh’s primary port, connected to China and the Middle East. This is borne out by the remains of ceramic and metal items that seem to have been imported from Syria, Iran, Iraq and China.
The city also manufactured luxury goods, which can be seen from the discovery of 40 kg of ivory pieces. There is also evidence of textile processing, glass-making, glazing and metallurgy workshops.
What is interesting is the discovery of a wall that divided the city into two sections – east and west. While there is evidence of a Shiva temple in the western section, the eastern portion bears the ground plan of a mosque. Measuring 34m x 35m, the mosque had a central open courtyard surrounded by cloisters.
Stone slabs with Kufic inscriptions discovered at the mosque bear two dates, 727 CE and 906 CE. It was a stunning find. If 727 CE is when the mosque was built, that would make it one the earliest-known mosques in the subcontinent.
This was only 16 years after the young Arab commander had conquered Sindh. We know the story of his victory over Debal from the Chachnama, an 8th-century text and one of the main sources on the history of the Sindh and the entry of Islam into the subcontinent.
The Chachnama says the attack on Debal had been triggered by an act of piracy that had greatly angered the powers of the Umayyad Caliphate.
It says that a ship bearing gifts from the King of Sri Lanka, meant for the Caliph, had been raided off the coast of Debal and the gifts stolen.
Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, a Governor in the Ummayad Caliphate, blamed Raja Dahir, the last Hindu ruler of Sindh, for allowing the pirates to commit this audacious act. The Raja had to be punished. It was an excuse to make inroads into the subcontinent.
When Qasim laid siege to Debal, Raja Dahir was in Aror, then the capital of Sindh. After he took Debal, Qasim proceeded to capture other cities like Nerun and Siwistan before confronting and killing Dahir in the Battle of Aror.
The city at the site of Banbhore went into decline in the 13th century CE. The Indus appears to have shifted course and the creek had silted up, rendering the port unusable. It was never occupied after that, its story covered in dust, till it altogether disappeared from the pages of history.
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