Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Lahore: The heart of Pakistan

Lahore: The heart of Pakistan
Published 4 Feb 2013 

Alicia Mollaun, a PhD candidate at the Crawford School at ANU, is based in Islamabad. All photos were taken by Alicia. 

Badshahi Mosque.

Lahore is a stunning old city and is widely considered to be the cultural capital of Pakistan. It has gone through many transformations and since its establishment around the second century, the city has passed through many conquering hands, from Hindu, Moghul and Persian to Afghan, Sikh and British. 

Part of Lahore's inner city is dotted with remnants of colonial architecture: a magnificent post office, white-pillared government buildings and a stunning gothic-esque cathedral. The other part is dominated by Moghul architecture, with shops and eateries crammed in among the 'gates' to the centuries old walled city.

Spice markets in the old city.

Punjab, with Lahore as its capital, dominates Pakistan in many respects. It is the most populous and prosperous province by far, accounting for over 55% of Pakistan's population and 59% of its GDP. Punjab's dominance is the source of much tension in Pakistan, as other provinces fear of the 'Punjabization' of the country. So much so that a proposal to split Punjab, creating a new fifth Pakistani province, is currently before the federal parliament. 

Lahore has much of the same fantastic Moghul-era architecture as India boasts, but without the hordes of Western tourists. Lahore Fort (left), whose construction dates back to Moghul Emperor Akbar's time in the 16th century, was empty when we arrived early on a Saturday morning, save a few boys playing cricket outside the diwan-i-am (hall of public audience). 

Tourists are still a rarity in Lahore, with Pakistan's security situation discouraging a lot of travelers. According to the World Tourism Barometer, India receives over six times the number of tourists that Pakistan does, and despite The Guardian's best efforts to promote travel to Pakistan, numbers are low compared Pakistan's tourism potential. [fold]

That said, a lack of Western tourists has rendered visitors to Lahore something of a tourist attraction in itself. Word spread quickly that there were goras (white people) in the fort and we were swamped with men taking pictures of us on their mobile phones (see above). We even had a security guard with a whistle, shrilly blasting away, ordering the crowds back. As we progressed through the fort, it was like our group of five was the pied piper, leading a merry band of tag-alongs though the historical monument. At no time did we worry for our safety; curiosity was the only thing keeping the onlookers traipsing after us, wondering, who were these tall foreigners wearing shalwar qameez?

Inside the courtyard of one of the mosques of Lahore's old city, the noise from the traffic and street hawkers melts away and it is quiet and peaceful. There are a few men dotted around the courtyard, mostly sitting and chatting. My friend and I have dutifully covered our heads with dupattas, a long scarf that is a common accessory for most Pakistani women. We walk in bare feet over the cold stone tiles and gaze up at the amazing minarets. 

The Badshahi Mosque (pictured top) is the fifth largest in the world and can hold up to 100,000 worshipers. A few of the men get up from their groups and approach us, ask us where we are from and if we will pose for photos with them. We politely decline, which results in the furtive snapping of pictures on mobile phones. While walking through the covered prayer area a young man approaches and strikes up a conversation, thrusting a piece of paper at us. It is his resume. He tells us that he desperately wants a job and a visa to Australia.  

Unemployment in Pakistan, particularly among youth, is high. The economy is flailing. Last year, Pakistan Economy Watch, an independent think tank, released figures that claimed over half of Pakistan's workforce is unemployed. This is particularly disheartening for Pakistan's youth, who comprise 60% of the population. 

It is not just the employment situation that remains desperate in the Punjab and greater Pakistan; people continue to suffer through electricity and gas shortages. Despite being Pakistan's most prosperous province, the energy crisis still bites in Punjab. 'Load shedding' cripples local industry, with many textile factories closing or running at a fraction of potential output. 

Later that night, at one of the many restaurants in the old city, the power goes out, leaving everyone to carry on by candle light for a few brief moments before a generator whirs to life. It's all part of the charm.

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