The Queen in Swat.

By Mohammad Zahid

The picturesque Swat valley tucked away between mountains and thick green forests in the North-West of Pakistan was first visited by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip in 1959. Two years later President Ayub Khan invited Queen Elizabeth II to visit Pakistan and following Prince Philip’s previous trips, she accepted on the condition that they would travel to Swat.

At that time, Swat was a princely state of Pakistan and had its own royal family headed by Mian Gul Jahanzeb, known as the ‘Waali’- the ruler- to welcome the Queen. Zebu Jilani, the granddaughter of the former Swat ruler recalls, “I was probably eight years old when the Queen visited Swat. It was a great moment. Though my grandfather was regularly receiving foreign dignitaries including the Queen of Malaysia, everyone was really proud and honoured that the British Queen was visiting. We all wore our best clothes for that day.”

Prior to the Queen’s visit, an advance party from Britain visited Swat to assess whether the place was suitable for her to visit. When the day finally arrived, the royal guests received a very hospitable welcome. Jilani says, “Me and my elder cousin presented a flower bouquet to the Queen and her husband Prince Philip in Saidu, home to the ruling family. They shook hands with us and asked us our names and whether we go to school.”

In February, 1961 Swat was hit by one of the harshest winters but thousands of people stood alongside the road to catch a glimpse of the Queen. Dr Seraj, then a college student, was also waiting in a queue in the main town of Mingora, to welcome the guests. “The Queen travelled in on a roofless car. It was an American automobile, from the fleet of the Wali. The Queen was very enthusiastic as she waved to the cheering crowd.” Due to heavy snow, some of the roads were blocked preventing the Queen from visiting some of the more remote areas.

The Swat valley has archaeological sites dating back to the Buddhist and Gandahara civilisations, which greatly interested the Queen at the time. The former Waali of Swat had preserved all the archaeological sites and set up a modern museum in Mingora, where some rare historic relics, statues and artefacts were put on display. This museum was later damaged, following the Taliban insurgency in 2007.

“The Queen was also impressed by the education, welfare and justice system, established by my grandfather” says Jillani. “ My grandfather was a great fan of education for everyone. He had established a network of schools for boys and girls, clinics and roads in every village. ” says Zebu Jillani, who now runs a charity, the Swat Relief Initiative, promoting education and health care, to help women and children.

When the princely state of Swat was dissolved and merged with Pakistan, its teachers filled the shortage of trained teachers in other parts of the North West Frontier province. “One of the reasons for the Queen’s visit was to help establish good relations with Britain and later on some people were sent for further training and education to Britain.”

In recent times Swat has made the headlines for harbouring an extreme form of Islamic rule with the Taliban insurgency and fighting that followed. This wiped out many of the schools and brought destruction to large parts of the local area. Zebu Jilani recalls with nostalgia how peaceful the valley was when it hosted foreign guests and that it was once a hub for tourism. “She called the Swat Valley the Switzerland of the East and greatly admired the efforts taken to conserve wild life and forests.”

Jilani still reminisces about how the Queen was greeted all the way in the Malakand Pass, where once Winston Churchill had been sending war reports from his pickets now known as Churchill’s pickets. “The people were so open-minded and hospitable, that after the visit many named their daughters Elizabeth to honour their guest.”

For those who were lucky enough to witness the Queen visit Swat, the shooting of 14-year-old girl activists by Taleban will surely evoke memories, along with the painful realisation that receiving such guests is today an elusive dream. Instead the beauty and rich cultural history of Swat remains hidden away and shrouded in mystery.