The city of Termez is located in Uzbekistan rather peripherally and is less visited by tourists than the Tashkent-Samarkand-Bukhara-Khiva axis. It is located in the southeast of the country on the border with Afghanistan, on the northern bank of the Amu Daria.
Going to Termez requires some patience
Due to its eventful history, it is not easy to get an overview of all the monuments. They span many epochs and cultures.
The example of Termez shows in an ideal-typical way how the change in the meaning of a city is dependent on the political, economic and social changes of the times. In Termez, spatialities and temporalities are spread out before the visitor as if on a tableau.
Complex layers of political and economic power
Between the 1st and 4th century AD, the entire region was part of the Kushan Empire, through which Buddhism spread further. After the conquest by Alexander the Great in the late 4th century AD, the region became part of the Greek-Bactrian kingdom. As a result, the so-called Graeco-Buddhism developed as a combination of Indian Buddhism and Greek culture. In the succession of Alexander, several kingdoms, some of them short-lived, were formed under Alexander’s generals in the entire cultural area, which was characterised by this intensive exchange between Hellenistic culture and Buddhism. With the arrival of the Arabs, Islam spread in Termez from around the 7th century. The old Termez fell victim to Gengis Khan in the 13th century. The present town was built from the 14th century onwards as part of the Timurid Empire, a few kilometres southeast of the old site.
With the conquest of further parts of Turkestan by Tsarist Russia, Termez once again became an important border and fortress town.
In 1979, the city was the bridgehead for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.The period of the 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan was fatally a heyday for Termez.
„The soldiers and their families lived here. There were houses of culture, a philharmonic orchestra, various clubs and sports facilities for children. At the central market you could find used clothes and all kinds of electronic devices and technology. From Tashkent, Dushanbe and Samarkand people came to Termez for video recorders, jeans and chewing gum, although access to the town was restricted due to the presence of the army“.Novastan 2017
There were houses of culture, a philharmonic orchestra, various clubs and sports facilities for children. At the central market you could find used clothes and all kinds of electronic devices and technology. From Tashkent, Dushanbe and Samarkand people came to Termez for video recorders, jeans and chewing gum, although access to the town was restricted due to the presence of the army“.
The smuggling involved practically all the inhabitants of the town. Even militiamen and border guards were present on the black market with goods imported from Afghanistan.
The industry that existed in Termez was already closed in the 90s. Since then, the town’s inhabitants have survived with small-scale agriculture: they keep cattle and grow fruit and vegetables in gardens. Grazing sheep and cows in the streets of the town are a common sight (cf. Novastan 2017).
Agriculture for self-sufficiency in traditional staple crops (here grapevines and vegetable crops) is very important throughout Uzbekistan – but in recent years large farms have been gaining in importance, including greenhouse crops during the winter months.
The extensive cotton cultivation for export for which Uzbekistan is known provides work for many people, at least seasonally, although, as is widely known, under precarious conditions; so the level of labour migration to Russia is high in the peripheral city.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the military history of Termez was repeated, so to speak, with the war in Afghanistan as a consequence of 11 September – the German Federal Armed Forces had an air base in Termez from 2002-2015 to supply the troops in northern Afghanistan.
During this period, Termez experienced a brief new flowering, as the „Bridge of Friendship“ was increasingly used for trade across the Amu Darya during the years of deceptive new security. The foreign troops, on the other hand, were unable to contribute to an increase in economic output. For apart from the fact that one or the other German soldier went shopping in the market from time to time, the soldiers were forbidden to have any contact with the inhabitants of Termez. The German army not only flew in all their food but also transported all their rubbish away.
A view over the city from the Soviet-era Ferris wheel
In the near future, however, Termez could once again become a kind of gateway between Central Asia and South East Asia. The condition for political, economic and social change, however, is, as always, peace in the adjoining regions.
Kampir Tepa is an ancient port and fortress town, situated on a loess plateau overlooking the Amu Darya River near the borders of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. The Graeco-Bactrian fortress and settlement, which benefited from the trade between the Greek-Bactrian kingdom and the Kushan empire, was then situated directly on the river. Today the Amu Darya River flows about 5 km south of the excavation site, which was discovered in 1972. Complex canal systems were the basis for the concentration of the population in places like Kampir Tepa, allowing cities to develop. The settlement is built of mud bricks and is therefore in a state of permanent decay, which archaeologists have been fighting against with their work since its discovery.
The ancient city of Kampir Tepa is situated on the former banks of the Amur Darya. From the excavation site, one has a view of the river, which is now five kilometres away and marks the border with Afghanistan.
Fayaz Tepa and Kara Tepa
Not far from the ancient city of Termez, there are two excavation sites of former Buddhist monasteries. The foundation of Fayaz Tepa dates back to the 1st century. The temple was used until the 3rd or 4th century. This makes the complex one of the oldest Buddhist centres in the world. Old Termez was situated on long-distance trade routes of the Silk Road, which led from India to the north and on which Buddhist influences also spread to Central Asia, from where they first found their way further to East Asia. Buddhism had a significant influence on Central Asia before the introduction of Islam, as can be seen in the Buddha statues known from Afghanistan, formerly Bactria, which show elements typical of Greek culture such as folded robes. For a long time, Buddhism and Islam will have existed side by side. Some authors suggest that certain practices in Sufism have their origins in overlaps between Buddhism and Islam. In Kara Tepa, the second former Buddhist monastery complex, the stupa was reconstructed, where sacred objects were kept as relics and which was a place of prayer and meditation.
The stupa and the foundation walls of the monastery of Kara Tepa, which have been raised for conservation reasons.
Kyrk Kyz fortress
The Kyrk Kyz palace is a self-contained fortress with a total of 50 rooms. It is believed that the complex was the country residence of the ruling Samanid dynasty in the 9th and 10th centuries. The fortress is considered a typical example of the Kushk or castle type. There is a fusion of pre- and post-Islamic architectural styles specific of the Sogdian and post-Sogdian feudal periods. The square-shaped building has an edge length of 54 metres and consists of four tree complexes separated by corridors, which in turn are divided into numerous rooms. The rooms included bedrooms, storage rooms and a large mosque consisting of six domes, which forms the centre. All the rooms are arranged on two floors around the food stores and the water basin of a central, dome-shaped courtyard. Progressive decay has meant that the two floors sometimes look like one. Nevertheless, the ensemble offers a unique opportunity to move around the interior of a castle typical of the Samanid period and belonging to a regional feudal dynasty.
Sultan Saadat complex
The Sultan Saadat complex is reminding of the necropolis of Shah-i Zinda in Samarkand, but it is smaller and less decorated with coloured tiles. Instead, the view of the exposed mud bricks, which form sophisticated patterns, is all the more impressive. The necropolis was originally built between the 11th and 17th centuries for the tombs of the Sayyid dynasty of Termez. Since the completion of the last building in the 17th century, it consists of several mausoleums around an elongated courtyard. The oldest part of the complex is located at the western end of the enclosure. The complex includes a mosque with a portal structure with an arched passageway near the gate (darvaza-khana), 16 mausoleums from the 14th century, some from the 16th and 17th centuries, a residential house (khanaka) and other rooms. The history of the construction of monuments of the complex is inseparably connected with the history of the Termez-Sayids. They played an essential role in the history of Maverannahr and Khorasan. In the rooms of the tomb, there are well plastered low gravestones marking the graves of the Sayids. There are no inscriptions on the tombstones. The inscriptions flanking the portal of the mosque have a glazed mosaic covering (cf. Pander 2005).
The restoration of the Sultan Sadaat complex was strongly promoted under the first president of the new state of Uzbekistan Islam Karinov as political-ideological reasons; the picture on the right shows him praying in the mosque of the complex.
A short distance from the Sultan Saadat complex one finds Kokildor-Ota Khanaka, built in the 16th century. Originally it served as a recreation site for wandering Sufi dervishes and other holy men. It has a three-part, extended large front. The Kokildor khanaka, with its curved side wings and complex vaults, owes much of its design to Afghan influence and is in many ways closer to Balkh architecture than Bukhara.This is due to the fact that the Timurid Empire of that time had spread as far as Delhi and Tamerlane’s architects took in influences from all over his empire (cf. Pander 2005).
Al Hakkim mausoleum
Al Hakkim was a Sufi scholar, mystic and author of the 9th century who lived in ancient Termez and is known as one of the first great writers of Sufi mysticism. After he died in 869, a mausoleum (10th century), a mosque (12th century) and a Timurid Chanacha (15th century) were built in the following centuries. Inside the shrine, a Sunduk tombstone carved from marble tells of his life (cf. Pander 2005). Next to the mausoleum are numerous underground chambers, which may have once been used by Sufis for meditation. Initially, however, it was Buddhist monks who lived and prayed in these rooms. The mausoleum and the park surrounding it is a popular place in the historic landscape of the old and new Termez and is often visited by pilgrims.
Inside the Al Hakkim mausoleum
The Historic Urban Landscape of Termez
Termez is an outstanding example of an urban landscape that has changed both its location and its political, economic and social orientation continuously. The multiple stratifications of the urban area are the result of a historical stratification of cultural and natural values and goods and involve the political and geographical environment. In Termez, all of this lies before the eye of the beholder as if on a tableau, as the different sites have usually not been built over, but are located next to each other, sometimes several kilometres apart. The future of Termez is open, it depends above all, as in the past, on the political and economic developments along the old and new Silk Roads.
Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)
Photos: © Stefan Applis (2002, 2008)
Klaus Pander (2005). Zentralasien. Dumont Kunstreiseführer. Ostfildern.
Novastan (2017): Termez – Die Stadt, die vom Krieg und von der Grenze lebt. Novastan. https://novastan.org/de/usbekistan/termez-die-stadt-die-vom-krieg-und-von-der-grenze-lebt/
Cristina Scherrer-Schaub, Richard Salomon & Stefan Baums (2012). Buddhist Inscriptions from Termez (Uzbekistan). A New Comprehensive Edition and Study. Indo-Iranian Journal 55, pp. 139-170. https://stefanbaums.com/publications/scherrer-schaub_salomon_baums_2012.pdf
I also love visiting cities ha has together deep history and recent history (for us, as for them it’s present, not history).