Sweet Abbottabad

May 3 2011

Bin Laden died in a beautiful part of Pakistan. Some sections of the government, army and ISI must have known of his fortress in Abbottabad: above the town, only five kilometres to the northeast, at Kakul, is the Pakistan Military Academy, established at Partition. Both are in the Hazara region of what was until recently called North-West Frontier Province and is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Islamabad Capital Territory, sixty kilometres away, is an enclave between the former North-West Frontier Province and the Punjab.

Abbottabad was named after Major (later, General Sir) James Abbott (1807-96), of Blackheath. He was Commissioner of the Hazara district from 1845 to April 1853, after the annexation of the Punjab in the Sikh Wars. He had been one of Henry Lawrence’s young men.

Most Sikhs in what is now the Pakistani Punjab fled to the Indian Punjab at Partition in 1947.

Abbott founded the town, at 4,100 feet in the Sarhan Hills, in January 1853.

-abad is an Indo-European place-name ending related to “abode”.

According to many web sources, a Hazara gazetteer of 1883 (was that part of the Imperial Gazetteer?) declared Abbottabad (I am not quoting anything exactly) the most beautiful hill town of the subcontinent, with horse chestnuts, elms, ash, pistacia, chinar (Kashmir maple), Himalayan pine, cedars of Lebanon, camphors of England and shrubs and flowers of all kinds, including fragrant gardenias.

Abbott wrote a far from brilliant poem, Town Abbottabad, before he returned to Britain. This is the text of the inscription on marble in Lady Garden Park in the city:

“TOWN ABBOTTABAD

I Remember the day when I first came here
And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air

The trees and the ground covered with snow
Gave us indeed a brilliant show

To me the place seemed like a dream
And far ran a lonesome stream

The wind hissed as if welcoming us
The pines swayed creating a lot of fuss

And the tiny cuckoo sang it away
A song very melodious and gay

I adored the place from the first sight
And was happy that my coming here was right

And eight good years here passed very soon
And we leave you perhaps on a sunny noon

Oh Abbottabad we are leaving you now
To your natural beauty do I bow

Perhaps your winds sound will never reach my ear
My gift for you is a few sad tears

I bid you farewell with a heavy heart
Never my from mind will your memories thwart

By Major Abbott

There is also a version in Urdu, perhaps on the reverse of the same stone.

Toynbee visited Abbottabad and Kakul on Friday, March 11 1960. At Kakul he discussed global security with soldiers.

Cadets and officers who have taken a course at the Pakistan Military Academy at Kakûl must surely have received an unconscious education in the appreciation of beauty, as well as a deliberate one in the art of war. My own stay was for a bare three hours, yet, in that brief time, the beauty of the landscape made an imprint on my mind which will not fade. Whoever it was that chose this site for the Academy should be congratulated. It has been sited on the upper slopes of an amphitheatre surrounded by mountains that, on this sunny day, shone blue and purple. Here, just above Abbottabad, the mountains are high enough still to hold, in flecks, the remains of their original “forest fleece”. Yet they are mere foothills by comparison with the giants to the north. The southernmost, and lowest, of the snow-peaks peered up beyond them – just enough to enable the imagination to picture the farther ranges that mount, rank over rank, towards the “roof of the world”. Right-about-turn, and one’s eye can feast on brilliant green fields, fed by rushing streams and rills, that fill the bottom of the basin down to the point where the valley narrows and dips on its way to join the Indus.

A lecturer’s reward is the discussion that follows his talk, and I have never been better rewarded than I was today. The discussion was lively, and all on a high intellectual level. Our subject was “security and disarmament in the Atomic Age”; but, if my argument held good and my hopes came true, that would not call for the liquidation of this Academy. The framers of its curriculum have realized that, in our age, it is not possible to become an effective professional soldier without a foundation of general knowledge. About half the time and energy of the cadets is allocated to non-military subjects which put the military part of their education in its proper setting. About one third of the personnel is drawn from social classes which used to be written off as “non-martial” till soldiers drawn from them won V.C.s and other high military distinctions in the Second World War. In fact, the Kakûl Academy is an educational institution which would continue to be one of Pakistan’s valuable educational assets, even if the World’s present efforts to achieve disarmament were to be unexpectedly rapid and complete.

Abbott in a turban; painting by B Baldwin, 1841, National Portrait Gallery

Between Oxus and Jumna, OUP, 1961

3 Responses to “Sweet Abbottabad”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The gazetteer would be the Gazetteer of the Hazara District 1883-4.

    Does the rhyme of here and air give us a clue as to his accent?

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Email from a friend, relevant at the end:

    “AA [Addis] is boom city – new construction everywhere, existing new buildings tacky and hideous, even by African standards. The situation […] is glorious, ringed by mountains. My hotel would have been charming, in a run-down, tatty way, but for

    a) a very noisy guard dog that barked all night and

    b) the amplified chanting of monks in a nearby monastery and

    c) the fact that I only had abt 5 hours in bed anyway, largely because of the jobsworth Ethiopian immigration officials.

    Not the smoothest journey I have ever made.

    I watched the demonstrations in WDC and NYC when the the assassination of Mr Bin Liner was announced: at about the emotional and political level of the Palestinian response at the time of 9/11.”


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