A Mountain Range and Hundred Miles of Sand Short of Destiny
By Brig® Mehboob Qadir
This tiny piece of rock, rubble and water vapors called planet Earth tucked into a remote part of our galaxy ‘s tail , among millions of such galaxies in the universe seems to have taken on a significance far beyond what it deserves. Is it because man knows no other competitive race anywhere else in the vast universe or because there is actually none ? One can dive in and out of Stephen P Hawkings famous ‘black holes’ , hop back and forth between matter and energy, ride Einstein’s gravitational waves, be created and recreated yet there may be no answer .It follows that the extent of our comprehension is fenced by a physical proof of what we hope to possibly know and can know , the rest is conjecture or let’s say God’s own domain.
On our planet we seem to have taken what the nature dished out to us as the division of territory between land and sea quite unquestioningly. Perhaps the subdivision was so made that it left little room for retrospection over what was happening to the mankind because of what nature did to the Earth when piling up territories and digging out seas. Nature very cleverly retained a degree of flexibility in their placement by keeping the tectonic plates floating. The device does not let us forget the power of the mighty Creator when they move with devastating effect once in a while. Earth’s red hot core and its super structure are overlaid with a masterly set of mechanisms like gravity, circular rotation on an axis, orbit around the sun and an atmospheric cap. It should be clear by now that the whole arrangement was devised to control man’s waywardness and tendency to intrude other domains beyond his own. That means an inbuilt urge to overstep and excess was pre-installed into our DNA at the time of creation. It is this perfectly human instinct coupled with the accidents of geography handed down by nature that we will talk about in what follows.
There is much in this disfigured sphere called the globe which can be discussed. However we will restrict ourselves to certain physical features which by dint of being where they are changed the course of history, in some cases repeatedly. We begin from our own massif known to historians by a not so polite a name; the formidable Hindu Kush Mountain which nearly straddles all land approaches into the Indian Subcontinent from the West. What was left out southwards was masked by an equally inhospitable desert which extends right down to the Arabian Sea. A desert which not only tested to the limit, the resilience of victorious Macedonian Army returning home(327 BC) but prevented Great Persian empire’s natural expansion into our part of the world. However that diverted the direction of their unstoppable conquests towards Mesopotamia and on to Sparta and Greece. But for this fateful diversion the epic Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), led by Sparta’s King Leonidas against Xerxes’ Persian army would not have taken place and that Alexander The Great would not have defeated Darius at Guagamela west of Tehran (331 BC )and destroyed Persepolis in Iran as a revenge for Persian Army’s ravages in Macedonia. It was also quite possible that Alexander might not even have invaded India altogether after the sack of the glorious Achaemenid Empire. After all formidable Central Asian steppes had prevented his advance deeper into northern territories.
Had Hindu Kush erupted a few hundred miles farther east, there would have been no Frontier, Punjab ,Kashmir , Sindh and Rajasthan. We would not be having River Indus the way we know nor the magnificent Indus Civilization. Instead the Afghan hordes would have been scavenging the lands far and wide along its western slopes and the world would have been poorer by one great civilization. If at all Mohammad Bin Qasim had then to invade it would have been Surat and not Debal. In which case it is difficult to imagine his campaign succeeding right opposite the Hindu heartland. Just in case it did, Pakistan might then have comprised territories like Madhya Pardesh, parts of Uttar Pardesh and Delhi, and India straddling it from West over North down to East. Alternatively the Subcontinent may have had its own variety of Arab sea merchants’ soft Islam like Malaysia has.Such a juxtaposition of this legendary mountain range might also have saved Indian Sub-continent from the ravages of repeated invasions from the West ,drooling eagerly over her fabulous riches. Sikhs and their fabled kingdom would not have been known to exist. Lahore could have been a shepherd’s hamlet and Multan a dusty little caravan sarai.
Configuration of Red Sea is like the stretched finger of the Indian Ocean desperately trying to reach out to the Mediterranean. Had the tiny hundred miles strip of Sinai not intervened or River Nile opted to delta by half as many miles farther East a sea passage between Europe and Asia would have been created and Africa would have remained undiscovered at least till the start of the 19th Century. Moses would still have led his persecuted tribes out of Egypt into the Sinai through the wet patch but Peninsular Arabs would have been a little less warlike and would have benefitted from free interaction of various Western and Eastern civilizations in a much more substantial manner.Aden would have been a great commercial port thousands of years ago and Yemen possibly a cradle of civilization like Egypt.But that was not to be.
It was the insurmountable Sinai that obstructed Mediterranean Sea-Indian Ocean naval link up which forced ancient sea traders from Europe to undertake an extremely hazardous ocean voyage hugging Western and South African coasts to reach South Asian shores and farther East into South East Asia and South China Sea. Great mercantile fleets were moved by the Trade Winds needed to fill the sails of their lumbering merchant ships. From Cardiff in England to Mombai on the Indian coast it was 16000 nautical miles around the Cape of Good Hope and took nearly three months of sickening sea voyage during the favourable tail winds. On to Hong Kong on the Chinese coast it was many more weeks through pirate infested Malacca Strait and that turbulent tub known as South China Sea. Suez canal reduced the distance to half and travel time to just under six weeks.
This circuitous route was a boon for the midway stop at Madagascar, Tanzania and Oman.Hundreds of foreign merchant ships would be anchored on Madagascar and Tanzanian coasts for supplies of fresh water, food, rest, refit and medicines. Madgascar was to the sailing ships what Dubai is to the modern merchant fleets today. Omani seamen and marine guides were experts in navigating treacherous African, Indian and South Eastern sea routes, therefore hotly sought after. It was an Omani seaman who led Columbus to the discovery of Americas.
Opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 devastated this ancient sea trade and destroyed the age old prosperity of the Western and Southern African coastal belt. More significantly Madagascar lost its coveted status as an international port of call for the merchant fleets, and quickly slid into poverty and ignominy. Ironically it is now best known for cartoon characters like the famous Madagascar Penguins rather than for anything more respectable. Tampering with geography is a profound cruelty .With the opening of Suez Canal, European powers began to colonize North African and Mediterranean Sea littoral as it started to draw global trade. Egypt became the coliseum where rivalry between European colonizers was to play out ominously in future, over which that country would have no control.
A similar fate can befall countries astride Malacca Strait should the ever improvising Chinese create a sea link across the Burma-Thailand spur between the Bay of Bengal and South China Sea. An oil and gas pipeline over that hump is already on the drawing boards. China could continue to be a world trading power after two thousand years of her rise to power if the Silk Route had not passed through the volatile Central Asia to Europe and the Middle East. As long as Chinese Empire wielded power and influence over these wild territories their trade thrived and Chinese civilization continued to evolve. As their power waned so did their trade revenues too, just because intervening Central Asian kingdoms were too unruly to subdue or rely upon.
What we have seen is that it has been just a barren Hindu Kush mountain range, a 100 miles stretch of Sinai sand, a forested Burmese spur or a few hundred miles of arid steppes combined with the Caspian Sea which changed the course of history for nations on both sides of these game changer geographical barriers. Nations can grow powerful and prosper but they cannot outgrow their geography nor can they exchange it for a sunnier tract. What has been it had to be. Therefore make much of what you have.