Uzbekistan (April 2018): Termez and around

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The city of Termez sits on the southern border of Uzbekistan with Afghanistan, on the right bank of the Amu Daria river (also known as the Oxus). The region around Termez (including northern Afghanistan) has been the scene of a tumultuous history. The history prior to its conquest by Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BC remains poorly known. After Alexander′s conquest the region became part of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Greco-Buddhism developed in the region as a combination of Indian Buddhism and Greek culture. Between the 1st and 4th centuries AD the entire region became part of the Kushan empire, under the patronage of which Buddhism spread further toward China. Following the fall of the Kushan empire and a series of more or less ephemeral rulers, the region became part of the Arab Caliphate in the 8th century. In the 13th century it was conquered by the Mongols of Gengis Khan and the Old Termez city was razed. The contemporary city of Termez rose up in the 14th century as part of the Timurid empire, a few kilometers south-east of the old location. When Russia annexed the Bukhara Khanate/Emirate in the 19th century, it became a major frontier town on the Russian southern border. In 1979 it was the entry point for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Today, the modern city of Termez is not especially interesting (with at least one major exception, its excellent Archeological Museum), but the region is dotted with both Buddhist structures dating from the period between the 4th century BC and the 1st century AD and Islamic medieval monuments. The diverse population of the region include ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, Afghans, and even Tatars.


It is difficult to make sense of all the monuments around Termez, as they span so many different time periods, cultures, and religions. Moreover, some are in very bad condition and are only poignant witnesses from another time, while others have been over-restored, sometimes according to the questionable taste of modern architects. I was fortunate to have Sergey Avtaev as my guide around Termez, as his knowledge of the region′s complex history and monuments is properly amazing.


Map showing the approximate locations of the sites I visited (red dots). Their precise coordinates can be downloaded by clicking here (.kmz file) and opening the downloaded .kmz file into Google Earth.

[Note: The names of several sites are not the original ones. In fact, certain sites have been discovered and excavated quite recently. Their original names are probably lost for ever.]


Landscape seen from the Tashkent-Termez night train in the early morning, soon before reaching Termez.


(New) Termez:


Two statues in Termez: Crying Mother Monument honoring the mothers of the Uzbek soldiers who died in World War II (left); Alisher Navoi (1441-1501) regarded as the father of Uzbek literature (right).


Saint Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox church built in 1901.



Kampir Tepe:


Kampir Tepe is an ancient port and fortress city built on a loess plateau overlooking the Amu Darya river, close to the borders of both Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. This city flourished on trade between the end of the 4th century BC and 1st century AD during the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and the Kushan Empire, until the river changed course. Indeed, today, Amu Darya flows about 5km south from the ruined city. This site, which was discovered in 1972, is in my opinion the most spectacular in the region around Termez.


Model of the Kampir Tepe city exposed in the Termez Archeological Museum.


View over the outer thick fortification walls containing archers galleries on the northern side of the city. (Only a short section of the wall visible on the left of this photo has been reconstructed.)


View over the Amu Darya valley from the city. The river now flows a few kilometers further on the left of this photo.


Triptych panorama of the city seen from the outer walls on the northern side of the city.


Views of the lower part of the city. It is now somewhat difficult to make much visual sense of this mess of clay and brick structures.




Remains of warehouse facilities for the port′s trade activities. Holes are the result of jars used to store food.


Fayaz Tepe and Kara Tepe:



These are two Buddhist monastic complexes near Old Termez that peaked in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.


Fayaz Tepe seen from a small hill overlooking the site. The dome is a recent construction to protect the remains of an ancient stupa against the elements. The metallic tower in the far background on the right is a military watchtower over the border with Afghanistan.


View of Kara Tepe from the same hill. This site combines caves and external structures. The double fence visible on the right of the photo marks the Uzbek no-man′s land before its border with Afghanistan. The second photo below shows a longer section of the fence. Sand dunes lying in Afghanistan are visible in the background.



Inside Fayaz Tepe. The inner rectangular courtyard with its regularly spaced column bases clearly shows Greek influence on the architectural style of the monastery. The Greeks were also the first to attempt a sculptural representation of the Buddha in human form, based on their own representation of Apollo. This representation, which includes curly hairs and folded garment, became the canon for Buddhist art up to the present time.




Beautifully preserved sculpture of Buddha with monks excavated from the site of Fayaz Tepe and exposed in the Termez Archeological Museum.


Old Termez:


The site of Old Termez is huge and suggests the presence of an important city over many centuries. However, nothing much remains of it as it was razed by Gengis Khan′s army in the 13th century. In the 15th century the mausoleum of Hakim (the ″wise″) al Termezi, a 9th-century Sufi scholar and mystic was constructed on a small fraction of the site and remodeled multiple times since. The site is now a major pilgrimage site.


Remains of Old Termez′s fortification wall: at the entrance of the city (first photo below) and behind the mausoleum closer to Amu Darya (second photo).



Pilgrims visiting Hakim al Termezi′s mausoleum.



The heavily restored mausoleum.


Beautifully decorated domes inside the mausoleum.


Left: Tomb of Hakim al Termezi. Center and right: women praying near the tomb in the same room.


Underground caves near the mausoleum. The purpose of these caves is not clear. They may have been dug to host Buddhist monks visiting Old Termez from Fayaz Tepe and Kara Tepe, or later Sufi mystics and pilgrims. But they may also have been used for other purposes, such as storage.


Artefacts from the 2nd-3rd centuries AD excavated in Old Termez and exposed in the Termez Archeology Museum:


- Cornice (left) and architectural decor showing an elephant among lotus flowers (right).


- Statues of Buddha.


Zurmala stupa:


This 16m-high brick structure dating from the 1st-2nd centuries AD is the remaining part of a larger Buddhist stupa. It now stands in the middle of cotton fields as an old solitary witness of an era when Buddhism ruled the surrounding region. A large vertical crack suggests that it urgently needs some protection against the elements.


Elaborate sculpture of a couple (1st-2nd centuries AD), found in an irrigation ditch near the Zurmala stupa, on display at the Termez Archeological Museum.


Kyr Kyz:


This unusual building (a palace, a caravanserai, a harem...?) from the 9th century is a two-floor 54mx54m structure. Each floor is divided into 4 square areas separated by two long corridors connecting four entrance gates. The name Kyr Kyz means ″40 Girls″.


Model of the Kyr Kyz building shown in theTermez Archeology Museum.


Views of three gates of the building.




Views of other parts of the structure.





A place where local people come to make a wish by leaving a scarf.


Sultan Saodat Necropolis:


This necropolis is somewhat reminiscent of the Shah-I Zinda necropolis in Samarkand, but it is smaller and less colorful. Originally formed between the 11th and 17th centuries for the tombs of the Sayyid dynasty of Termez, it presently consists of several mausoleums around an elongated courtyard. The most ancient part of the site is at the western end of the courtyard.



Graves in the northwestern room of the complex.



Kokildor Khanaka:


This plain, but elegant structure was originally built in the 16th century as a resting and spiritual retreat place for itinerant Sufi dervishes (″khanaka″ means ″holy abode″). It is one of the few khanakas in Uzbekistan.


Jarkurgan Minaret:


This minaret, surrounded by traditional houses and small farming fields, was erected in the 12th century. Only the first 22m of the estimated 50m of the original structure remain. The minaret′s diameter slowly decreases with height. The outer surface consists of 16 half cylindrical ribs, also of decreasing diameters, in a style reminiscent of the Qutur Minar in New Delhi. The brickwork to accommodate the curved surface of the minaret and the decreasing diameters of both the minaret and its ribs is remarkable.


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