1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Khyber Pass

KHYBER PASS, the most important of the passes which lead from Afghanistan into India. It is a narrow defile winding between cliffs of shale and limestone 600 to 1000 ft. high, stretching up to more lofty mountains behind. No other pass in the world has possessed such strategic importance or retains so many historic associations as this gateway to the plains of India. It has probably seen Persian and Greek, Seljuk, Tatar, Mongol and Durani conquerors, with the hosts of Alexander the Great, Mahmud of Ghazni, Jenghiz Khan, Timur, Baber, Nadir Shah, Ahmed Shah, and numerous other warrior chiefs pass and repass through its rocky defiles during a period of 2000 years. The mountain barrier which separates the Peshawar plains from the Afghan highlands differs in many respects from the mountain barrier which intervenes between the Indus plains and the plateau farther south. To the south this barrier consists of a series of flexures folded parallel to the river, through which the plateau drainage breaks down in transverse lines forming gorges and clefts as it cuts through successive ridges. West of Peshawar the strike of the mountain systems is roughly from west to east, and this formation is maintained with more or less regularity as far south as the Tochi River and Waziristan. Almost immediately west of Peshawar, and stretching along the same parallel of latitude from the meridian of Kabul to within ten miles of the Peshawar cantonment, is the great central range of the Safed Koh, which forms throughout its long, straight line of rugged peaks the southern wall, or water-divide, of the Kabul River basin. About the meridian of 71 E. it forks, sending off to the north-east what is locally known as a spur to the Kabul River, but which is geographically only part of that stupendous water-divide which hedges in the Kunar and Chitral valleys, and, under the name of the Shandur Range, unites with the Hindu Kush near the head of the Taghdumbash Pamir. The Kabul River breaks through this northern spur of the Safed Koh; and in breaking through it is forced to the northward in a curved channel or trough, deeply sunk in the mountains between terrific cliffs and precipices, where its narrow waterway affords no foothold to man or beast for many miles. To reach the Kabul River within Afghan territory it is necessary to pass over this water-divide; and the Khyber stream, flowing down from the pass at Landi Kotal to a point in the plains opposite Jamrud, 9 m. W. of Peshawar, affords the opportunity.

Pursuing the main road from Peshawar to Kabul, the fort of Jamrud, which commands the British end of the Khyber Pass, lies some 11 m. W. of Peshawar. The road leads through a barren stony plain, cut up by water-courses and infested by all the worst cut-throats in the Peshawar district. Some three miles beyond Jamrud the road enters the mountains at an opening called Shadi Bagiar, and here the Khyber proper begins. The highway runs for a short distance through the bed of a ravine, and then joins the road made by Colonel Mackeson in 1839–1842, until it ascends on the left-hand side to a plateau called Shagai. From here can be seen the fort of Ali Masjid, which commands the centre of the pass, and which has been the scene of more than one famous siege. Still going westward the road turns to the right, and by an easy zigzag descends to the river of Ali Masjid, and runs along its bank. The new road along this cliff was made by the British during the Second Afghan War (1879–80), and here is the narrowest part of the Khyber, not more than 15 ft. broad, with the Rhotas hill on the right fully 2000 ft. overhead. Some three miles farther on the valley widens, and on either side lie the hamlets and some sixty towers of the Zakka Khel Afridis. Then comes the Loargi Shinwari plateau, some seven miles in length and three in its widest part, ending at Landi Kotal, where is another British fort, which closes this end of the Khyber and overlooks the plains of Afghanistan. After leaving Landi Kotal the great Kabul highway passes between low hills, until it debouches on the Kabul River and leads to Dakka. The whole of the Khyber Pass from end to end lies within the country of the Afridis, and is now recognized as under British control. From Shadi Bagiar on the east to Landi Kotal on the west is about 20 m. in a straight line.

The Khyber has been adopted by the British as the main road to Kabul, but its difficulties (before they were overcome by British engineers) were such that it was never so regarded by former rulers of India. The old road to India left the Kabul River near its junction with the Kunar, and crossed the great divide between the Kunar valley and Bajour; then it turned southwards to the plains. During the first Afghan War the Khyber was the scene of many skirmishes with the Afridis and some disasters to the British troops. In July 1839 Colonel Wade captured the fortress of Ali Masjid. In 1842, when Jalalabad was blockaded, Colonel Moseley was sent to occupy the same fort, but was compelled to evacuate it after a few days owing to scarcity of provisions. In April of the same year it was reoccupied by General Pollock in his advance to Kabul. It was at Ali Masjid that Sir Neville Chamberlain’s friendly mission to the amir Shere Ali was stopped in 1878, thus causing the second Afghan War; and on the outbreak of that war Ali Masjid was captured by Sir Samuel Browne. The treaty which closed the war in May 1879 left the Khyber tribes under British control. From that time the pass was protected by jezailchis drawn from the Afridi tribe, who were paid a subsidy by the British government. For 18 years, from 1879 onward, Colonel R. Warburton controlled the Khyber, and for the greater part of that time secured its safety; but his term of office came to an end synchronously with the wave of fanaticism which swept along the north-west border of India during 1897. The Afridis were persuaded by their mullahs to attack the pass, which they themselves had guaranteed. The British government were warned of the intended movement, but only withdrew the British officers belonging to the Khyber Rifles, and left the pass to its fate. The Khyber Rifles, deserted by their officers, made a half-hearted resistance to their fellow-tribesmen, and the pass fell into the hands of the Afridis, and remained in their possession for some months. This was the chief cause of the Tirah Expedition of 1897. The Khyber Rifles were afterwards strengthened, and divided into two battalions commanded by four British officers.

See Eighteen Years in the Khyber, by Sir Robert Warburton (1900); Indian Borderland, by Sir T. Holdich (1901).  (T. H. H.*)