Banbhore – Ancient Commercial Metropolis

BANBHORE

Ancient Name of the city: Debal

Modern name of the town: Banbhore

Province: Sindh

Country: Pakistan

Debal became an important Arab regional commercial metropolis and premier port city in Sindh during the period of Arab rule in Sindh. The site where this thriving port city was located was located is presently known as Banbhore. It is located on the right bank of Gharo Creek, 64 kilometres towards the east of Karachi.

Known by different names at different times, Banbhore served as the premier port of Sindh for more than two millenniums from fourth century BC till the beginning of 17th century. It was at the height of it glory in the second half of eighth century and early ninth century (Abbasid period). In this period its status was considerably enhanced due to establishment of long-haul trade routes between the Persian Gulf and China, and increased interactions with different regions of the powerful Abbasid Empire. It served not only as a port city, but also as a major garrison town, and an important industrial and commercial centre.

Like many great ancient and medieval cities, the metropolis of Debal was constructed at two levels. The Citadel was located on a hill facing the seafront on one side and a sweet water lake on the other; the Lower City was where most of the common citizens lived and where the industries and agricultural farms were located. During medieval times Debal was connected through a branch of the Indus River with the inland river ports.

 THE CITADEL

 The Citadel of the ancient city of Debal was located on a 15-meter high mound. It was spread over 2.5 hectares. It was a fortified settlement in the pre-Arab period. After Arab occupation the fortifications were considerably strengthened in different periods of Arab rule. The Arabs employed heavy blocks of semi-dressed limestone and thick mud plaster in the construction of the walls. To provide additional strength and grace and to the whole structure, the abutments were reinforced and 46 semi-circular shaped bastions were built into the walls at short, regular intervals.

The hill on which the Fortress of Debal was located later came to be referred to by the locals as Sassui jo Takar (Hill of Sasui) after its association with the heroine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s romantic novel Sassi and Punhun.

The Citadel was divided into two sectors, which were divided by a mud brick wall.

 One sector contained the Palace and offices of the Governor of Debal as well as large Trading Houses. Important Public buildings, including the Grand Mosque and Assembly Halls, were also located in this Sector. A gateway on the eastern face of this sector opened up towards the harbour, while another gateway towards the west led to the Industrial Estate

The other Sector was located towards the north. A gateway was provided at the centre of the northern wall of the citadel. Stairs from the outer side of this gateway led to the sweet water lake.

The northern sector was divided into several blocks of houses, meant for people in different income groups. The houses on the Citadel were meant exclusively for Government employees and those working in the trading houses.

RESIDENTIAL SECTORS

 There were two residential sectors in Debal city. One of them was located on top of the citadel, while the other one was on the plains surrounding the citadel hill on the northern side.

For a population estimated at around 150,000, there must have been 25,000 houses in and around the Banbhore Citadel. About 10 percent of the houses were probably located in the Residential Sector of the Citadel, while the remaining 90 percent must have been located in the lower city around the lake.

Although the grid layout pattern was not followed, some degree of planning and control was exercised by the civic authority, resulting in a fairly neat arrangement of houses. A network of wide roads and narrow lanes divided the area into large and small blocks and inspite of the high density of population, there were sufficient number of open spaces and public squares.

 There was a great deal of variation in the sizes of the houses and in their quality of construction. The larger houses very often occupied an entire block; they were invariably provided with a spacious courtyard and limestone blocks were mostly employed in the foundation of the houses as well as for the walls. The smallest houses, on the other hand, were normally located in a cluster with common side and rear walls and they were mostly constructed with mud bricks.

In the Residential sector adjacent to the lake, perhaps no need was felt for a specific layout plan as there no such restriction for space as on top of the citadel. Less durable materials, clay and wood were used in the construction of houses in this sector, which is why very few remains of houses have survived. Reports of Arab travellers indicate that clay and wood were the materials commonly used in the construction of houses in this sector.

 THE GRAND CONGREGATIONAL MOSQUE

 The Grand Congregational Mosque of Debal has the singular honour of being the first major Congregational Mosque in South Asia. An inscription found in the remains of the Mosque indicates a date of 109 AH (727 C.E.). This was probably the date on which the extended plan and decorative works at the Mosque were completed. The foundations of the original Mosque constructed at the site were laid by Muhammad bin Qasim himself soon after he conquered the city in 711 C.E.

The covered area of the Grand Congregational Mosque inside a meter-thick boundary wall of dressed limestone blocks was about 40 meters by 42 meters. The Mosque was laid out on the Basilica pattern – a style, which became popular during Umayyad rule in Syria and elsewhere. The nave comprised of the covered prayer chamber and an open courtyard measuring 25 meters by 20 meters. On either side of the Prayer Chamber and courtyard, there were the covered aisles. At the rear end of the Mosque (where facilities for ablution were probably provided), the construction was similar to that of the side aisles.

The column bases in the Prayer Chamber section of the Mosque indicate that three rows of eleven wooden columns each, supported the superstructure of the Prayer Chamber, which most probably comprised of finely carved wooden arches spanning the columns, and a flat wooden roof. In almost all the Mosques belonging to the later period of Islam, the Mihrab (a niche in the Qibla Wall) was a standard architectural feature, indicating the direction of the Kaaba. However, in the Grand Mosque of Banbhore, like some other Mosques belonging to the early period of Islam, the Mihrab was not provided, which in itself is an indication of the early period of construction of this Mosque.

Some portions of flooring of the Mosque have survived, which indicate that semi-glazed monochrome tiles were used in the floors of the Prayer Chamber and courtyard, as well as in the side aisles and ablution chamber. This is perhaps the first case of use of glazed tiles for flooring in this part of the world. It seems most likely that the semi-glazed tiles were brought to Banbhore from Iraq by masons sent by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muhtasim Billa for carrying out repairs to the Mosque after it was damaged by an earthquake.

For the decoration of the Mosque, wood carvings and calligraphic designs seem to have been extensively employed. Among the most impressive pieces, which have survived in a very good state, are fourteen dressed sandstone slabs on which Arabic texts are beautifully carved in the heavy monumental Kufic script commonly employed by the Umayyad artisans. These inscribed sandstone blocks decorated the northern face of the outer wall. Two other Kufic inscriptions found from inside the Mosque refer to Amir Muhammad Ibn Adi and Ali Ibn Musa and have dates inscribed on them 293 AH (906 C.E.) and 109 AH (727 C.E.), respectively.

Besides the remains of the Grand Mosque, the other most important architectural remains, which have survived in this sector of the Banbhore Citadel, are pieces of flooring paved with lime plaster. There are indications that the walls of the building were similarly plastered. The type of flooring and the location of the building in the immediate vicinity of the Grand Mosque, indicate that this floor was a part of a very important building, perhaps that of the Dar Al-Imara. A hoard of coins belonging to Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphs and some of those minted locally, was also found in the vicinity of this plastered floor.

ANCHORAGE

 The anchorage on the right bank of Gharo Creek at Banbhore provided a safe haven to trading vessels from the lurking danger of plunder by pirates operating in the Indian Ocean in ancient and medieval times. It also provided protected berthing facilities in stormy weather. Because of these important factors, right upto the 17th century, Banbhore remained an important port of call in this region for trading vessels.

All through this period the anchorage area at Banbhore continued to develop to meet the changing requirements of small and large ocean going vessels. It provided excellent facilities for repair and maintenance of long-haul vessels, warehousing for convenient supply of trading goods to regional markets, refuelling facilities for food and drinking water supplies besides opportunities for lucrative import/ export trade with the Indus basin region.

Plenty of space was available for such activities in the anchorage area as the mound on which Banbhore Citadel was located was at a convenient distance from the Creek. The entrance to the Citadel from the Anchorage was through the impressive Eastern Gateway. On the opposite side of the Citadel, the equally impressive Western Gateway provided access to the Industrial Sector where manufacturing facilities were close at hand to provide technical support for ship building, repairs and maintenance work at the Anchorage.

Presently swamps cover a lot of the area where the anchorage facilities were located in that period. Therefore most of the physical evidence has been destroyed.  However, Chinese stoneware belonging to the T’ang Dynasty, other imported articles, and glazed ceramics and other locally produced articles, found during the excavations in the Citadel area, indicate that the prosperity enjoyed by Banbhore during the period of Arab rule was largely due to its importance as transportation, commercial and communication centre of the Arab World.

These days, the port city, which once provided sustenance to a population of 150,000 inhabitants, mostly through economic activity generated by international trade, is virtually an abandoned settlement. The rules of the game have changed. With huge ocean going vessels transporting millions of tons of cargo annually in containers, a modern port with a huge container terminal, has been developed at an appropriate site on the same Gharo Creek, on which Banbhore is located. The new port, which is located 21 kilometres from Banbhore towards the Arabian Sea, is named Port Qasim, after the great Umayyad conqueror.

INDUSTRIAL SECTOR

  North of the Citadel, spread over more than an acre, was an area specially earmarked for location of craft industries. Broken pieces of pottery are strewn all over the place and every now and then one comes across deformed metallic objects. Archaeological investigations have revealed structural remains of large troughs, which were probably used for dying fabrics. Also found from this site, are remains of large number of kilns, heaps of ashes, crucibles, broken glass and ivory pieces.

The large variety of articles displayed in the Archaeological Museum indicate the type of sophisticated glazed ceramics and luxury goods that were being produced in the Industrial Estate at Debal (Banbhore).

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