Pakistan's geography has placed it at the crossroads between India and Central Asia.
The Karakoram Highway and the Khunjerab Pass, at an elevation of 4,800 metres above sea level, link Pakistan with China on an ancient trade route.
An ancient bridge between China and India
At independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited more than just disputes with India. The country became responsible for preserving a rich Buddhist heritage that is best symbolized by the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Taxila, a city approximately 32 kilometres west of Islamabad.
A meditating Buddha carving in a monument located at Taxila
The city of Takshashila, as it was originally known, had the distinction of being an ancient center of Buddhist learning. It is described in some detail in the 'Jataka Tales,' an ancient Buddhist text. Several Chinese monks, including Faxian (337-422) and Xuanzang (602-664), described the city in their respective travelogues.
The Jaulian excavation at Taxila
(See a fascinating 4 minute documentary about the ancient remains at Taxila here.)
The city's history is over 3,000 years old. Its influence spread across India via the many nobles and royalty educated at Taxila University. Greek influence arrived along with Alexander the Great and his troops in 326 BC. The city flourished under the Mauryan dynasty and especially during Asoka's reign. Buddhism established itself around 2 BC and flourished in Taxila (and Swat) for the next 1,000 years.
The Gandharan Period came to an end in the tenth century AD. While it lasted, the Gandharan period saw prolific construction of monasteries, stupas and other monuments. The famous depiction of the fasting Buddha and many other valuable artifacts can be found in the magnificent Central Museum, Lahore.
Buddha stone carvings at Taxila
The practice of Islam in Pakistan is the product of many contradictory and opposing historical forces. These influences have given Islam a form unique to the subcontinent.
Ordinary Pakistanis routinely visit the shrines of (supposedly) Hindu holy men and remember medieval Mughal rulers (e.g. Babur and Akbar) who fought holy wars to expand an Islamic empire. A Muslim Empire which grew to rely on the contribution of Hindu and Sikh ministers and generals for its preservation and longevity.
It is no wonder that Pakistani Muslims are challenging the onslaught of an austere and alien version of Islam which has its origins in the harsh Arabian Desert and not in the fertile plains of Punjab.