An Urdu saying about Multan translated with poetic licence into English goes:
With four rare things Multan abounds,
Heat, beggars, dust and burial grounds.
Any visitor to the town, which is extremely hot in summer, will see an element of truth in this couplet. It’s attributed by native tradition to a saint who, being flayed alive, called on the sun to avenge him. Multan’s also extremely dusty, as the annual rainfall seldom exceeds thirteen centimetres (five inches).
But its tombs and other historic remains make it well worth visiting for an overnight stay. For all its heat and dust, Multan has always been a rich prize for invaders. Up to 1947 it was the centre of the hides and skin trade in the subcontinent.
In Alexander’s time it was probably the capital of the Malloi, a fierce tribe who shut themselves up in the fortress when he approached. Alexander was outnumbered ten to one; nevertheless, in what his subjective historians described as a feat of amazing personal bravery, he scaled the battlements of the citadel and dropped almost alone into the fortress.
“He happened to land on his feet beside a fig-tree. He slashed with his sword and hurled any stones that came to hand: the Indians recoiled, as his three attendants leapt down to join him, carrying the sacred shield (of Achilles).” But the skills of the Indian archers were his undoing; his helpers were wounded and a metre-long (three feet) arrow pierced his armour and struck him in the chest. But when an Indian ran forward to finish him off, Alexander stabbed his attacker before he struck home.
Then he collapsed, spurting blood, beneath the cover of his Trojan shield. Eventually the walls collapsed and the Macedonians rushed in to massacre the men of Multan “down to the last woman and child”. Although his wound was serious, Alexander recovered.
Hsuan Tsang, who visited Multan in AD 641 found the city agreeable and prosperous. “The greater part (of the people) sacrifice to the spirits; few believe in the law of Buddha.” He also described the temple dedicated to the sun god as magnificent and profusely decorated.
”The image of the Sun-Deva is cast in gold and ornamented with rare gems. Its divine insight is mysteriously manifested, and its spiritual powers made plain to all. Women play their music, light their torches, offer their flowers and perfumes to honour it.”
The idol, broken up by Mahmud of Ghazni, was later restored and then finally destroyed by Aurangzeb in the seventeenth century. Muhammad bin Qasim, who took Multan for the Arab Caliphate, besieged the city for more than two months in AD 712. According to one historian 6,000 warriors were put to death and their dependants taken as slaves. Not long after this, Muhammad bin Qasim was sent home to face death by execution.
Multan fell to Mahmud of Ghazni in 1005 and the Mongol, Tamurlane, in 1398. It was then taken by Nadir Shah of Persia in 1739 Ahmed Shah Durrani in 1752, and Ranjit Singh, the Sikh, in 1818.
In l848 British forces re-enacted Alexander the Great’ s siege of Multan, which led indirectly to the Second Sikh War and the annexation of the Punjab by the British in 1849. The Sikh governor Mulraj had refused to pay revenue to the Sikh Council of Regency in Lahore. Two young Britons sent to Multan as emissaries to negotiate a settlement, were murdered.
So Herbert Edwardes, the young political agent of Bannu fame, galloped to the rescue from Bahawalpur, covering the ninety kilometres (60 miles) on horseback in twenty four hours in sweltering June. Defeating Mulraj, he drove him into the citadel at Multan where Mulraj held out for another six months before the citadel’s walls were breached. The same year the British annexed the Punjab.