Some ninety-six kilometers to the south of Hyderabad on the National Highway is the ancient town of Thatta, with its rich echoes of Sindh’s distinguished past. One of the mysteries of the empty, silent zone in which Thatta stands is that it was once fertile and prosperous, plentifully peopled, and connected by trading links to distant countries.
The city itself is more than 2,000 years old. It was at Thatta that Alexander the Great rested his weary troops after their long and dusty journey from the north while his admiral Nearchus assembled his fleet at the apex of the Indus delta ‘to lead it down the tortuous channels of uncharted waters of the great river Indus to the sea.’ In more recent times Thatta enjoyed the high patronage of the Mughal emperors of the subcontinent.
Nearby in the Makli Hills, tombs of the Mughal nobility are to be found intermingled with hundreds of thousands of graves from earlier and later eras in a vast necropolis that extends over an area of fifteen square kilometers. Perhaps the best-preserved monument is the tomb of Issa Khan Tarkhan, governor of Thatta during the reign of Emperor Shah Jehan. It consists of a square tomb-chamber which is carved up to the dome and surrounded by a two-storeyed pillared verandah.
The main structure and the enclosure walls are profusely decorated with richly-carved surface tracery. Shah Jehan had a special affection for Thatta. During the struggle for succession that followed the death of his father Jehangir, Shah Jehan briefly took refuge in Sindh and was treated with great kindness and hospitality. In later life, as a gesture of gratitude, he ordered the building of a mosque in Thatta. Now known as the Shah Jehan Mosque, it is a splendid example of Muslim architecture, admired for its glazed tile work and symmetrical arches painted with floral patterns. Why should a city once so rich, which acted as a magnet for the great and the powerful in former times, have been reduced today to little more than a provincial town of narrow undistinguished alleyways between brick and adobe buildings? The answer is the Indus, whose changing course elevated Hyderabad from anonymity to the rank of the third-largest city in Pakistan.
That ta’s prosperity was based on its role as a busy river port. In the early eighteenth century, according to one visitor, more than 40,000 vessels plied for hire here and the countryside around was ‘very fruitful and pleasant . rich and fertile almost as covetousness could wish’. The effects of silting of the river channel to the sea and a gradual eastward swing of the main body of the Indus, however, brought an end to Thatta’s greatness. In the mid-nineteenth century an English traveler walked down long streets of uninhabited houses and reported his disappointment at finding the city’s glory ‘completely departed’ and its appearance ‘ruined and deserted’.
Matta was not the only victim of the geographical forces at play in the broad sweep of the Indus delta. At nearby Bhanbore the remains of another once-busy port dating back to the first century BC have been discovered. Archaeologists identify the site with the ancient city of Debul stormed and captured by Mohamed Bin Oasim in 7 T I , at the beginning of the campaign that made Sindh the first home of the Islamic faith in the subcontinent. The remains of what is almost certainly the earliest mosque in South Asia have been found here, bearing an inscription that gives the date of construction as 727. The River Indus buries its past as it makes its future. Bhanbore, in all its sublime antiquity, lies a bare sixty-four kilometers from Karachi, the brash historical upstart that is modern Pakistan’s largest, richest and most energetic city.