Bala Hissar is one of the most historic places of Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. The word Bala Hissar is from Dari Persian, meaning, “elevated or high fort”. The name was given by the Afghan Pashtun King Timur Shah Durrani (1773–1793), who used the fort as the winter capital of the Afghan Durrani Empire, with the summer capital being in Kabul. The Sikh empire who conquered Peshawar in the early 19th century named it Samir Garh in 1834 but the name did not become popular.
The Fort has been the headquarters of the Frontier Corps since 1949. One wall of Fort Bala Hissar collapsed during the 27 October 2015 earthquake, but the wall has been reconstructed.
The fort stands on a high mound in the northwestern corner of Peshawar City. Not long ago, the fort used to be conspicuously away from the old city of Peshawar, but now the construction of new buildings has covered space between the old city and the fort. However, the fort’s position on a high mound gives a commanding and panoramic view of Peshawar and the entire Peshawar valley. On a clear day, one can see the mountains encircling Peshawar valley and beyond. The area covered by the inner wall of the fort is about 10 acres (40,000 m2) and the outer wall is about 15 acres (61,000 m2). The height of the fort is about 90 feet (27 m) above ground level.
Renowned historian Dr A.H. Dani in his book Peshawar-Historic City of Frontier writes that when Hiuen Tsang, a Chinese traveller, visited Peshawar in 630 AD, he spoke of a “royal residence”.
He says that Chinese word “Kung Shing” used for its significance and is explained as fortified or walled portion of the town in which the royal palace stood.
Hiuen Tsang then makes a separate mention of the city, which was not fortified. This shows that the royal residence formed the nucleus of a Citadel, which must have been further protected by a moat.
Dr Dani further says that a channel of old Bara River surrounded by a high spot, which includes the Bala Hissar and Inder Shahr. The higher area could have been the citadel, which is the present Bala Hissar.
Peshawar has always been a strategic city and its capturing and ruling over it was of great importance for the invaders and kings.
“In the 11th century AD, the Hindu ruler, Raja Jaipal of the Hindushahi dynasty was defeated in the vicinity of Peshawar and Mehmud Ghaznavi garrisoned the fort with his army,” says Dr Taj Ali. The British officers who visited Peshawar in the 19th century mentioned that the fort used to be a royal residence of Afghan rulers, he added.
The Bala Hissar has seen its construction and destruction by conquerors, warriors, invaders and kings on several occasions. After the overthrow of emperor Humayun by the Afghan King Sher Shah Suri, the Afghans destroyed the fort.
When Hamayun was staying in it he decided to rebuild it before proceeding to Kabul. He wanted to use the fort for his conquest of India at a later stage. As his officers did not want to stay back, Hamayun himself supervised the rebuilding of the fort, which was soon completed.
“The Afghan rulers named it “Bala Hissar” a Persian name meaning high fort while the Sikhs renamed and rebuilt it calling their fort “Sumergarh” in 1834 but the name did not become popular, says Dr Taj.
The fort was constructed on a mound with commanding view of the surrounding area including Shalimar gardens presently known as Jinnah Park towards its north. This gave more prominence and grandeur to the fort, he said.