Trans Eurasia travel

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Buddhist Termez

So pervasive has Islam's hold been on Central Asia for over a millennium that it is difficult for the modern-day traveller to envisage a time when nomadic shamanism, Persian Zoroastrianism and Indian Buddhism predated the monopoly of belief. A visit to the archeological remains of Kara Tepe and Fayaz Tepe, however, requires from the visitor just such a leap of faith.

The Buddhist monastery complex of Kara Tepe is unique in Central Asia. Not only is it the only rock-hewn Buddhist cave complex in the region, and thus the main connecting thread between the Afghan sites of Haibak and Bamiyan and the sites of the far side of the Oxus, it is also the only monastery to lie behind an electrified fence in international no-man's-land, access thus making it effectively off-limits. Excavations have revealed a series of monk cells, two stupas and examples of Indian-influenced Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts.

The Kushan site of Fayaz Tepe, two kilometres north of the Termezi mausoleum consists of the archaeological remains of a two-millenniums old Buddhist temple and monastery complex, whose impact is perhaps more intellectual than visual. The large central courtyard, the heart of the Buddhist temple, is flanked to the west by the main living quarters of the monastery and to the east by the main refectory. The restored and protected brick stupa to the north of the temple dates from the first century ВС and is only the inner section of a much larger construction that rose from the cross shaped foundations. Clay and gypsum statues of Buddha, a series of murals depicting various adorants in Kushan dress and fragments of pottery containing Brahmi, Punjabi, Kharoshti and Bactrian scripts have all been found on the site, underlining its essentially Eastern orientation. Remains have also been discovered of a two-kilometre aqueduct that supplied the monastery with water from the Amu Darya. UNESCO and the Japanese government have shored up the walls and built a museum, handicrafts shop and display of Kushan architecture.

The monastery was looted in the 5th century by Sassanid troops and later used as a burial ground and retreat for Sufic mystics of a rather different religious persuasion. Today the whole site is set in marvellous juxtaposition to a modern radar system, silently scanning the Afghan skyline for any signs of trouble.

The trio of Buddhist archaeological memorabilia is completed by the sixteen metre high Zurmala Tower, situated three kilometres southeast of Old Termez and visible from the main M-39. This sixteen-metre-high brick tower is the remnant of the largest Buddhist stupa in the area and is possibly the oldest construction still standing in Uzbekistan. Back in the third and fourth centuries AD, at the height of Buddhist influence, the base of the stupa would have been covered with white limestone slabs below red brick decoration and would have housed a collection of sacred Buddhist relics. Today, this former religious magnet lies lost in a deserted cotton field, torn by a huge, heart-rending crack.