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  • Writer's pictureHannah Landers

ABBA and Alexander: A Weekend in Termez, Part 2

Sergei was born and raised in Termez. He took a class trip to the Buddhist cave monastery as a kid, just like all the students in Samarkand have had several field trips to Registan Square, Gur-i-Amir, Shah-i-Zinda, etc. Most of my students seem bored with the history of Samarkand, but for Sergei, that trip created a life-long love of the history of his city. 

The Buddhist cave monastery, or as Sergei called it, the “Buddhist cult center,” was built to expand the footprint of Buddhism in Asia. This monastery was for quiet meditation but also to devise schemes for building a religious empire. And, if you consider that Buddhism arrived in Japan almost 500 years after it arrived in Uzbekistan, I would say it worked. 

If you want to find information on the Buddhist cave monastery, “Kara Tepe” will get the most search results; however, for this blog, I am using the Uzbek spelling of the site, “Qoratepe.” “Qora” is the Uzbek word for black, and “tepe” is the Turkish word for hill. Many of the archeological sites in the area are referred to as tepes or tepas, as–like the Zurmala Stupa, they were all once covered in sand. Again, much like the Zurmala Stupa, the construction of this complex began in the first century CE, and the ruins were discovered in the mid-1920s. 

Before we entered the monastery, Sergei first informed us that there were two plausible origins of the name “Termez.” He said that locals have hundreds of versions, but only two are scientifically plausible. The first option is that the area was originally named for someone named Demetrius, but that boiled down to Termez over time and through many languages. The other option comes from these Buddhist monks as they crossed into modern-day Uzbekistan from the left bank of the Amu Darya. Taramata is a Sanskrit word that means “on the opposite bank” because they built their monastery on the opposing bank to another settlement. Again, throughout the years, “Taramata” became “Termez.” 

When we entered one section of the cave monastery, Sergei pointed out one of the site’s greatest tragedies. In attempting to preserve the site, all the murals painted on the cave walls were chipped out and sent to Moscow. He said that it was done in 2019, just before Covid. Sergei said, “It was not like this…[the art] was here for centuries” I felt a deep sadness. The structure is just open to the elements, but instead of cutting out the ancient artwork, I would love to see the whole site protected in some way. 

In the treasure room of Qoratepe, Sergei takes the time to tell us about the island in the middle of the Amu Darya. He says that we can see it when we go back up top. It’s in no-man’s-land but is still technically the property of Uzbekistan. The island is called “Aral Paygambar” or “Oral Payg’ambar” which translates to “Island of the Prophet.” The name comes from a mausoleum that was built on the island in the 11th or 12th century. In Islam, his name is Dhul-Kifl, and some people believe that this is Ezekiel in the Old Testament. When he died, he said he wanted his body sent down the Amu Darya and that he would be buried on whichever side of the river his body stopped. His body came to rest on the island and he was buried there. Many people think that he was buried in Iraq, but a mausoleum is there nonetheless. 

The island was set aside as a preserve in the 1960s, and in the 70s Uzbekistan worked with USAID to continue to develop the tugai riparian area. According to the “Biodiversity Assessment for the Republic of Uzbekistan'' compiled by Chemonomics International, Inc., the collaboration between the US and Uzbekistan ended due to political concerns in the area, which–not coincidentally–has done a lot to maintain the flora and fauna from human intervention. According to the same report, there are 165 different types of plants, 254 bird species, and 37 different animals on the island. According to the October 1999 edition of the Deer Specialist Group News, there was a population of about 100 head of endangered Bukhara deer on the island in the late 80s. 

Sergei mentioned that the World Wildlife Fund helped with a population of the Bukhara deer on the island in 1968. To make sure we were on the same page, he clarified, “The World Wildlife Fund, that panda.” While I believe him, I could only find that they helped release deer in the Zarafshan Nature Preserve in 2007. 

Another interesting note, in Greenlee County, Arizona (where I normally live), there is a constant struggle with tamarisk beetles. The beetles were introduced in 2001 to control the tamarisk clogging the waterways and overtaking native species. Then, as one might have predicted with any foresight, the beetles did not just attack the tamarisk. But here, in Central Asia, tamarisk is a native plant species and it is preserved on Aral Paygambar. 

On the way up top, Sergei warned us not to take pictures of the no-man’s-land between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. He told us that the authorities aren’t too keen on that. Sergei also took the time to talk about how much he admired the Afghan people; he said that people are not always kind when talking about them. He wanted to emphasize how intelligent and welcoming they are–in his diplomatic way, he was addressing the biases that both Americans and Uzbeks seem to have against Afghans. I hope one day to have the chance to visit, especially knowing more about the history of the area from Sergei. 

When we reached the top of the tepe, the fog burned off for just a few minutes and allowed us to see the mountain range across the river in Afghanistan. This was the view none of us thought we would get in winter, but here she was. There was a perfect shot of the monastery and the river, and he told us that it was the perfect shot. We asked if it was okay to take a picture, and he said it was because we were taking a picture of the monastery and not the border. Based on an excavated cemetery, that part of the monastery had been used by Christians in the 8th century. 

At this time, we started to understand Sergei’s long-standing love of National Geographic; it became one of the themes of the day. In another part of the monastery complex, Sergei told us about the “Underground Everest” in the region that had been photographed in National Geographic. Stop reading this right now and go look at pictures; it becomes very evident why this cave is called Dark Star. They are some of the most surreal and beautiful pictures I have ever seen. 

We made our way over to a different section of the complex, and Sergei excitedly pointed down into the room we were standing above. He shows us the bases of Grecian-style column footers. He tells us that if we show the picture to any Greek historian, they will be convinced that the picture could only have been taken in Greece. And while I am not a historian, they look pretty Grecian to me. When we get to the room below, Sergei’s third love after Termez and National Geographic becomes apparent. It is my camera. 

He kept setting us up for shots that he thought would look good; the man has a gift. I bought the camera just for this trip, and this was only its second time out; Sergei put it through its paces. After every picture he takes, he excitedly hands me back the camera, tells me to show him the picture on the digital display, and asks if we like it. 

As we wander through, I ask Sergei how many people lived in Qoratepe in its heyday. He tells us that 100 monks lived here at one point. I imagined what 100 Buddhist monks would have looked like living in this place, and I am awed and honored to walk in their footsteps almost 2,000 years later. 

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Vicki Biscay
Vicki Biscay

I wonder if you would find the same mix of cultures and religions in Afghanistan. Thanks for sharing more of your trip to Termez.

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