Articles / Essays

A genuine Petition for Preservation of an exceptional Archaeological Site of Gulmit Ondra Fort in Hunza Valley, Northern Pakistan

July 16, 2022

By Fazal Amin Beg

The ancient Ondra Fort is one of the unique archaeological site not only in Hunza but in the entire Gilgit-Baltistan Region.It is situated on a plateau-like hillock in Gulmit, the headquarters of today’s Gojal Subdivision of Hunza district and earlier as the autumn-winter capital of Hunza State. Although, the oral narratives inform and try to connect it with relatively recent past (some generationis back), the archaeological evidences de facto try to establish its historic significance for more or less two thousand years back.It needs a thorough, appropriate and specialized studies on the subject matter rather than depending on on any apportioned information based on partial descriptions only.
In November 2009, when the polling was going on for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA), Ahmad Hilal of Swat district of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa (KP), a good friend of mine and an archaeologist working with a German Archaeological Exploration Team in United Arab Emirates, had visited me and I requested him to visit the Ondra Fort to have a look and an initial survey of it to provide us with his expert views and advice on the important ancient site. Mr. Zafar Iqbal of Gulmit, a renowned Tourist Guide, accompanied him onto the ruined fort.
After his initial survey, Ahmad Hilal provided the community in a gathering of hundreds of people (where Mr. Mutabiat Shah son of Yekshumal, a former member of GBLA was also present) that not a single stone of the site should be moved by any human as the Fort was so unique in its nature and historic significance that goes back to the distant past for having its links and relationship with the archaeological sites found in other sites of Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan, and even across the borders.
When I was doing my PhD coursework from Quaid Azam University, Islamabad from the Taxila Institute of Asian Civilization (TIAC) in 2010-2011, I myself wrote a paper on it too and presented it in a Seminar, too. The paper depended on the primary source as well as looked for the secondary sources. For being a crossroad between Central and South Asia and China, the connection of Gulmit Ondra fort thus could be traced and established within the archaeological sites of the whole region prominently with the Haldeikis̃h (Sacred Rocks of Hunza), Tashkurghan (Stone Fortress) of Tashkurghan County of Xinjiang (China), the fortresses within Badakhshans of today’s Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Bactria (today’s Balkh) and the like. On the other, towards the southern direction, the relationship could be explored and established with the highly significant sites of Gilgit-Baltistan Region, Taxila and Gandhara, and may be Harappa and Mohenjo Darho.Even Ahmad Hilal was of the view that the structural remains of Ondra Fort suggest its linkages with the archaeological sites found in the Middle East.
To illustrate, the phenomenon needs an urgent academic and technical intervention on top priority in a holistic manner lest the ruined and ancient fortress is further ruined by the local community due to lack of knowledge and ignorance on the important subject.Unfortunately, some of the community leaders and activists either cannot realize the states of affairs or have something else in their minds, or have their limited worldview to look at the Ondra Fort solely in recent cultural context, or to look at it within the ambit of tourism and economic development so to expose the site to the tourists and promote for commercial development.
We can witness one of such landmark phenomena of December 2019 and January 2020 in line with construction of the Gulmit Ondra Stairs (natively known as Gulmit Poygah) that was envisioned by Gulmit Organization for Local Development (GOLD) and implemented by the Gulmit Educational an Social Welfare Society (GESWS) through a forum named as Cultural and Heritage Committee.During and after construction of the stairs, there also remained some genuine differences among these civil society forums on regarding the construction of the stairs. Starting from the bottom of the Ondra hillock and reaching up to its height, the stairs of the wonderful project comprises of almost 1700 that were constructed incredibly and enthusiastically by mobilizing the local community that was accomplished within a period of one month only. Although, the Gulmit Poygah stood to be not only as a landmark, it was found an example to other local village communities who also initiated for such type of ventures, despite the fact the landscape of Ondra Fort is undoubtedly matchless. However, one of the giantly negative impacts soon after its construction emerged in terms of accessibility to each human individual’s to the Fort, which was not so devastating earlier. At present, various types of tourists (local and domestic (especially the children, careless adults and commercially motivated individuals) have got access to the top and the ruined fort is crying for its further deterioration.
To add further, I would like to mention an important point here that in my personal capacity, being a native of Gulmit and a student of anthropology and archaeology, I tried to sensitize the high and due significance of Ondra Fort and its long term effects to the community in different social media forums as well as meeting them in persons. The sensible and educated leaders and natives of Gulmit strongly agree with regard to the archaeological importance of the site but few of them seem either lacking to feel and realize the importance or may have their egotistic strengths to realize the potentials embedded in the archaeological site.
For being a human heritage of the distant past, there is no doubt that Gulmit Ondra Fort appeals for its urgent preservation on top priority.The concerned institutions and organizations of the civil society , the related Government organizations such as the departments of Archaeology, Culture and Tourism and more particularly the academia need to venture for the preservation of the Gulmit Ondra Fort. Once the concerned archaeologists and other related experts conduct their proper and technical surveys and genuine studies on the site and come up with their objective findings and conclusions, the archaeological site could then be decided for its fate in the near future with the consent of the local and indigenous community for being the ultimate heir and owner.
The concerned Government institutions and organizations, especially the Cultural and Tourism Department of Gilgit-Baltistan region, should rather must be conscious enough regarding the archaeological value and significance of the Ondra Fort instead of looking at it superficially in tourism and commercial context which should be the last option after the appropriate and technical studies, findings, conclusions and recommendations of the renowned and tested archaeologists, other concerned scholars and experts.
Finally, I would therefore sincerely recommend that the related public sector organizations and institutions should come forward and hire the services of the renowned but related archaeologists from the few universities of Pakistan and especially from abroad such as North America and Europe. One of such prominent examples is Professor Dr. Mark Kenoyar from the United States (well known for his great archaeological and anthropological fieldwork in South Asia and Middle East. Professor Kenoyer has his decades long and extensive fieldwork also on the archaeology of Pakistan such as Harappa Civilization and Mohenjo Darho.
In conclusion, it is noteworthy that two months ago when I got an opportunity to formally interview Mr. Amir Hayat son of Qamatullah Baig, a retired teacher and a community leader, who has led GOLD (Gulmit Organization for Local Development) as its Chairman.It was during his tenure that how did they come up with a plan to initially construct the stairs and to strive for preservation of Gulmit Ondra Fort.The interview is in Urdu , which will enable the related institutions, academia, agencies, organizations of the public sector and NGOs to understand his strong persspectives and recommendations for practical implementation.
You may therefore click on the following link to watch, listen and understand the interesting discussion and robust perspectives of Master Amir Hayat as a proactive community leader with EaglesWorld:

Production, presentation and copyright@EaglesWorld2022
Interviewer: Fazal Amin Beg in may 2022
Videography: Asrar Azim of Gulmit
Twitter: (@FazalAminBeg)
FB Page:

#OndraFort #GulmitOndraFort #Gulmit #AmirHayat #FazalAminBeg #ArchaeologicalSite

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