THE FRONTIER QUESTION
The most sensitive nerve in the British Empire terminates in Afghanistan, and the ghost of the czar is always dancing about the Khyber Pass, through which caravans laden with merchandise find their way across the mountains between India and the countries of Central Asia. Every time there is a stir in a clump of bushes, every time a board creaks in the floor, every time a footstep is heard under the window, the goose flesh rises on John Bull's back, and he imagines that the Great White Bear is smelling around the back door of his empire in India. Peshawur is the jumping-off place of the Northwest, the limit of British authority, the terminus of the railway system of India and the great gateway between that empire and Central Asia, through which everything must pass. It is to the interior of Asia what the Straits of Gibraltar are to the Mediterranean Sea, and the Dardanelles to the Black and Caspian seas. While there are 300 paths over the mountains in other directions, and it might be possible to cross them with an army, it has never been attempted and would involve dangers, expense and delays which no nation would undertake. The Khyber Pass has been the great and only route for ages whether for war or commerce. The masters of Central Asia, whether Persians, Greeks, Macedonians or Assyrians, have held it. Alexander the Great crossed it with his army. Timour the Tartar, whom we know better as Tamerlane, came through upon his all-conquering expedition when he subdued India to found the Mogul Empire, and if the Russians ever enter India by land they will come this way.
The pass is reached by crossing a stony plain ten miles from Peshawur, and winds through gorges and crevices in the mountains for thirty-three miles at an altitude averaging 7,000 feet above the sea. At one point the mountains close in to about 500 feet apart and the rocks rise in sheer precipices on either side; in other places the gorge widens to a mile or more and will average perhaps three-quarters of a mile the entire distance. It is a remarkable gateway, a natural barrier between hereditary enemies and easily defended from either side. Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, is 180 miles from the western entrance to the defile.
The British fortifications are at Jamrud, nine miles from Peshawur, and the terminus of the railways, where a strong garrison is always kept. The pass itself is controlled by a powerful semi-independent native tribe called the Afridis, estimated at 20,000 strong, who receive subsidies from the British government and from the Ameer of Afghanistan to keep them good-natured on the pretext that they are to do police work and keep order in the pass. It is blackmail and bribery, but accomplishes its purpose, and the pass itself, with a strip of highlands and foothills on the Afghanistan side, is thus occupied by a neutral party, which prevents friction between the nations on either side of the border. The Afridis are fearless fighters, half-civilized, half-savage, and almost entirely supported by the subsidies they receive. Nearly all of the able-bodied men are under arms. A few, who are too old or too young to fight, remain at home and look after the cattle and the scraggy gardens upon the gravelly hillsides. The women are as hardy and as enduring as the men and are taught to handle the rifle. The British authorities are confident of the loyalty of the Afridis and believe that the present arrangement would be absolutely safe in time of war as it is in time of peace - that they would permit no armed body, whether Russians or Afghans, to cross the pass without the consent of both sides, as is provided by treaty stipulations.
The arrangement is as effective as it is novel and the Afridis carry out every detail conscientiously. The pass is open only two days in the week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. No one is permitted to cross or even enter it from either side except on those days. And even then travelers, tourists and others actuated by curiosity are not allowed to go through without permits. The caravans going both ways are required to camp under well-formed regulations at either entrance until daylight of Tuesday or Friday, when they are escorted through by armed bodies of Afridis horsemen. There is not the slightest danger of any sort to anyone, but it is just as well to go through the ceremony, for it keeps the Afridis out of mischief and reminds them continually of their great responsibilities. These caravans are interesting. They are composed of long strings of loaded camels, ox-carts, mules and donkeys, vehicles of all descriptions and thousands of people traveling on foot, who come sometimes from as far west as the Ural Mountains and the banks of the Volga River. They come from Persia, from all parts of Siberia and from the semi-barbarous tribes who inhabit that mysterious region in central Asia, known as the "Roof of the World."