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Scenic Swat attracts historians, archaeologists too

Scenic Swat attracts historians, archaeologists too

Known for its scenic beauty and ruins of Ganhdara civilisation, Swat valley has also tracks of the early Islamic period. Among them the Mahmood Ghazanvi Mosque in Odigram is an important site, which is said to be one of the earliest mosques in Pakistan.

Archaeologists and historians claim that it was the second oldest mosque in Pakistan and also a proof of the advent of Islam in the region.

According to archaeologists, the Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi Mosque was discovered and renovated by Italian Archaeological Mission. No doubt, it is an important landmark in the archaeological treasure in Swat, dating back to the period of Mahmud or his grandson Mawdud (1041-1050 AD).

In 1984, an inscription in Arabic engraved on a block of marble was found by chance on the northern slope of the hill that rises above the village of Odigram (identified by Aurel Stein and Prof Tucci as the ancient Ora, dating back to the times of Alexander the Great).

Mahmood Ghazanvi Mosque in Odigram is said to be the second oldest one in the country

“The find was made at a point on the great terrace halfway up the hill, below the “castle”, whose later levels represented a fortified residential area of the Ghaznavid period,” said Dr Alessandra Bagnera, who worked in the Italian Archaeological Mission, directed by Umberto Scerrato of the University of Rome at the mosque.

She said that the inscription attested to the foundation of a mosque in HE 440 (1048-1049 CE), ordered by Emir Nushtegin, a Ghaznavid general unknown to us from the sources. It was in fact in the wake of the armies of Mahmud of Ghazna in the 11th century, that Islam arrived in Swat, preceding the penetration of the Pakhtun people now constituting majority of the population.

“The excavation carried out in the area between 1985 and 1999 brought to light a hypostyle mosque with supports originally in wood and, adjacent to it, a settlement lying to the West of the Qibli wall. The mosque occupies an early artificial terrace with remains of Gandharan masonry,” said Dr Luca Maria Oliveiri, head of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat.

He said that not far from the entrance to the mosque, to the East, had been brought to light the remains of a small Buddhist sanctuary, certainly already in ruins at the advent of Islam, while another must stood to the West of the terrace.

It represents a splendid design of old Muslim architecture. The most striking aspects were traces of 30 feet high walls, a graveyard, common rooms, student rooms and a water mill.

By the end of the 12th century, the residential area to the West of the mosque was already in a state of abandonment and was being used as a cemetery.

Like almost all such areas in Swat, the area had grown around the tomb of a saint, upon which a small and simple mausoleum was erected. From some of the graves datable to the third decade of the 13th century, coins struck by the Khwarezm Shah were retrieved.

Visitors to the mosque include tourists, archaeologists, architects, historians and religious people. “I come here with friends to offer prayer once in a month. The location of the mosque and its architecture is worth-seeing,” Itebar Gul, an elderly man, told Dawn.

He said that the environment and location of the mosque was serene as a spring of cold and refreshing water, clump of trees and cool breeze enhanced its beauty.

“There is a great combination of natural beauty, heritage and religion, which attract the visitors. I had heard about the mosque and the Raja Gira castle of Odigram so we came here in our summer visit to Swat and found it a worth-seeing site,” Hibba Iqbal, a tourist from Lahore, said.

The site, after being managed by the Italian Archaeological Mission ever since 1985, has been acquired by the provincial authorities recently.

Azharuddin, a professor in Swat University, who visited the mosque with his friends, said that he often visited the area to enjoy the serenity of the location and had a walk around the mosque to see the grand architecture of early Muslim period in Swat.

“The government and the tourism department must advertise the historical mosque so that more and more tourists from across the country visit it and learn about its history and architecture,” he suggested.

Afarin Khan, a watchman of the mosque, said that the mosque attracted visitors, who became happy to see its grandeur. “Many visitors, who come to see the mosque, also offer prayers in it,” he said.

Dr Olivieri, head of the Italian Archaeological Mission, said that almost 2,000 visitors in a month visited the site due to its increasing popularity in the country.

“I wish to express the hope that, also in Pakistan, as we need in Italy, the necessity will be felt to consider Islamic archaeology as a discipline in its own right, distinct from the history of art and architecture and that consequently a new season of exploration, excavations and discoveries will see the light.

Hopefully Odigram Mosque will represent a solid starting point for these future studies in Pakistan,” he told Dawn.

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2017

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