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  • Writer's pictureHannah Landers

ABBA and Alexander: A Weekend in Termez, Part 1

One word can be a miracle...

"One word can be a miracle," was one of the last things Sergei said to us before he left us at the Termez train station. 

He told us about a young man he saw on TV when he was younger, back when Uzbekistan was still a part of the U.S.S.R. The host asked all the contestants where Karl Marx was born, and only one kid knew the answer: Trier, Germany. The host stopped there and said that because the kid knew that one answer, he should go home and back his bags. He had won a free trip. A life-changing trip. 

My one-word miracle was less of a resounding "yes" and more of a hesitant "okay." My friend Ellie was sure that this tour of the historical sites with Sergei would be exceptional; I–hating tours–only hesitantly agreed. My "okay" was enough. 

I was definitely pining for my jacket in that car

Winter in Uzbekistan hit hard after a record-setting warm autumn, but the sun was shining when we got out of the car at our first stop. I did not grab my jacket from the front seat, but after an hour and a half of standing outside, my icy fingers let me know I had made a mistake. Sergei knew everything about the history of Buddhism in southern Uzbekistan, and with the help of his trusty Russian atlas, he wanted to make sure we did, too. 

Sergei's English is exceptional, but every few sentences he would check to make sure we understood. Every time we confirmed we did or asked a clarifying question, he was ecstatic and his eyes would sparkle. 

Sergei and his atlas

He was born in Termez, a city located on the Amu Darya in southern Uzbekistan. The Amu Darya, once called the Oxus River by the ancient Greeks, is now the no-man's-land between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. While most of Uzbekistan would have been part of the Sogdian Empire, this small swath of land was part of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, which means it has a very different ancient history from a lot of the rest of the country. The capital of Greco-Bactria, Bactra, is now the modern Afghani city of Balkh--less than 60 miles as the crow flies from Termez. 

One of the legacies of this kingdom was the early spread of Buddhism into the southern part of the country. If you want the full history of this area, you will have to hop on a plane and book a tour with Sergei; you deserve to hear it from him, not in this dry blog. However, I will give you my brief overview, and I will try to abstain from any grievous historical errors. 

That first, freezing stop was at the Stupa of Zurmala. We did not get up close as a freshly tilled field stood in between us and the almost 40-foot-high tower. First, before the history, what's a stupa? Stupa is a Sanskrit word that means a heap of earth, but stupas were much more complicated than the name might imply. 

Initially, before Buddhism, stupas were mounds that covered the graves of important people. However, the kind of stupas we are talking about here were built to hold the Buddha's ashes. The relics were kept safe in a subterranean area, then there had to be a tower and a dome. Even stupas that do not have relics of famous Buddhists must still have these three architectural aspects. Every monastery had to have a stupa, but not every stupa needed a monastery. Stupas had to be built far from civilization and they could never be destroyed, but larger stupas can be built around them. You walk three times clockwise around a stupa to show your devotion.

Buddhism spread from India and Pakistan, through Afghanistan, and up to Uzbekistan. This corridor provided some of the earliest Buddhist structures out of India, because of the mountain ranges bordering the Indian subcontinent. And it stayed in this corridor due to more mountains between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and the mountains between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. 

The Stupa of Zurmala was built around the first century CE. It had been buried by sand, which preserved it, until it was excavated in the mid-1920s. Archeologists believe it would have been painted bright red. What's also noticeable about the structure is that it falls along a mulberry tree-lined path. Like Buddhism, mulberry trees are a legacy of the Silk Road, just from the East. Trade with China brought silkworms to Uzbekistan, and they only eat mulberry leaves. Mulberry trees, "tut" in Uzbek, are now found all over the country. 

The Stupa of Zurmala and the mulberry trees

See you in Part 2 for Karatepe and Fayaztepe. 

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1 Comment

Vicki Biscay
Vicki Biscay
Dec 17, 2023

It is fascinating that the history of this area is different than the rest of the country. You were lucky to have such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide.

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