The Khyber Pass cuts a 32 kilometer (20 mile) path across the Safed Koh Mountains (part of the larger Hindu Kush range) between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Khyber Pass has been a strategic military pass for centuries. The British writer Rudyard Kipling called the pass "a sword cut through the mountains."

Photograph by J. Bruce Baumann, National Geographic

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    1. British writer Rudyard Kipling's 1890 poem The Ballad of the King's Jest begins with this stanza:

      When spring-time flushes the desert grass,
      Our kafilas wind through the Khyber Pass.

      Even today, caravans and tourists usually travel through the Khyber Pass only in spring and summer. Why?

      The Khyber Pass, described by Kipling as "a sword cut through the mountains" is a narrow gap through the formidable Hindu Kush range. It is too steep and cold to safely traverse during winter and late autumn.

    2. The Khyber Pass cuts through the Hindu Kush mountain range. Hindu Kush means "Hindu killer." Hindustan is the traditional name for India, and Hindu is the religious faith of the majority of people there. What are some reasons the mountain range could be called "Hindu killer"?

      The Hindu Kush could be nicknamed "Hindu killer" for two main reasons. First, the mountains are extremely dangerous, with high elevations and extreme climate preventing development or reliable transportation. Second, the Hindu Kush are the traditional "gateway to India" for invaders from the north and west, such as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.

    3. The Khyber Pass is in what is today Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly known as the North West Frontier Province) of Pakistan, near the city of Peshawar. It is a border region. What is the neighboring nation? (This map will help you.)

      The Khyber Pass is on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

    4. Pakistan is not a member of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the coalition supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, the American war in Afghanistan. It is, however, the ISAF's most important ally. Why?

      According to the New York Times, more than 80 percent of American and ISAF supplies to Afghanistan flow through Pakistan, much of that through the Khyber Pass, one of the few clear gaps in the Hindu Kush. American and ISAF military leaders are working to find alternate routes, perhaps through Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan. Alternate supply routes would make the Khyber Pass less vulnerable to attacks from Afghan insurgents. As of late 2011, reliable alternate routes had not been established.

    5. The flying bullet down the Pass,
      That whistles clear: "All flesh is grass."

      That is the opening stanza of another Kipling poem, Arithmetic on the Frontier. The provincial government of Khyber Pakktunkhwa quotes it on their website. What did Kipling mean by "All flesh is grass," and why is it relevant today?

      Kipling is actually quoting the Bible (Isaiah 40:6). The biblical author, as well as Kipling, compares human life to a blade of grass: short, and easily cut even shorter.

      Peshawar and the Khyber Pass have been ravaged by the war in Afghanistan, making the phrase an apt one for the Khyber Paktunkhwa government to use.

      Bullets continue to fly down the Khyber Pass: In late 2010, Pakistan temporarily closed its border to Afghanistan after an American helicopter crew accidentally shot and killed Pakistani soldiers in a tragic incident of "friendly fire." American and ISAF troops have killed dozens of insurgents in the province, and insurgents target local civilians as well as foreign military troops. Suicide bombers bomb mosques and marketplaces.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    Alexander the Great Noun

    (356-323 BCE) Greek ruler, explorer, and conqueror.

    caravan Noun

    group of people who travel together for safety and companionship through difficult territory.

    climate Noun

    all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    development Noun

    construction or preparation of land for housing, industry, or agriculture.

    elevation Noun

    height above or below sea level.

    Encyclopedic Entry: elevation
    formidable Adjective

    intimidating, or causing fear or hesitation due to difficulty.

    gap Noun

    steep-sided opening through a mountain ridge.

    Encyclopedic Entry: gap
    Genghis Khan Noun

    (1162-1227) founder of the Mongol empire.

    Hindu Noun

    religion of the Indian subcontinent with many different sub-types, most based around the idea of "daily morality."

    kafila Noun

    caravan, supply train, or string of pack animals.

    Khyber Pass Noun

    gap in the Hindu Kush mountains linking Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    mountain range Noun

    series or chain of mountains that are close together.

    poem Noun

    written or spoken composition notable for its beauty or rhythm.

    Rudyard Kipling Noun

    (Joseph Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936) British author and winner of the Nobel Prize (1906).

    stanza Noun

    part of a poem, marked by a certain number of lines or syllables.

    steep Adjective

    extreme incline or decline.

    tourist Noun

    person who travels for pleasure.

    transportation Noun

    movement of people or goods from one place to another.

    troop Noun

    a soldier.