About Uzbekistan

Termez. Part 2
13 March 2018
Termez. Part 2

In the last part, walking around modern Termez around the Russian fortress, which was demolished a year ago, we approached the outskirts of the Old Termez, where the living city meets the dead one. Old Termez was once on par with Bukhara, only if Bukhara was famous as the eastern bastion of Islam, then Termez was the northern bulwark of Buddhism. There are also solid Muslim antiquities here and from the deserted hills beyond the Amu Darya Afghanistan is perfectly visible.

The ancient settlements of Old Termez are scattered on the territory of 5-7 kilometers - the city was huge and shifted its location more than once during its history.

In the suburbs there are mahallas and aryks, chigirs and carved doors, all that unique daily graft of Uzbekistan that genuine tourists are so mad about.

At some point a lonely earthen tower appears in the fields and it takes efforts to recognize a Buddhist pagoda. This is Zurmala, the largest stupa in Central Asia, which is 14 meters in height and diameter:

Termez was founded about 2500 years ago, starting with the village around the current railway station and was turned into the real city by the Greeks, who settled in Bactria after the war of Alexander of Macedon, so its name could well mean what the city is associated with in the first place: "thermos" - "hot." According to another version, this is just a distorted version of the Greek "Demetrius" - at the very end of the 3rd century BC it was founded by the Bactrian king Demetrius, who crossed the Hindu Kush and conquered Northern India, and then began to equip his branch of the Great Silk Road along the Amu Darya to Sogdiana. But the main thing that the Greeks learned from India was Buddhism, in which they introduced their own unique art, not forgotten during the several centuries away from the Mediterranean; and when Tochars came from the steppe and built on the lands of the Indo-Greek kingdom the grand empire of the Great Kushans, the newly conquered Parthian Termez remained the northern tip of the Buddhist world. Now it is difficult to imagine that almost two thousand years ago they could fight with the Buddha image on the shields, and that highland Tibet with its Buddhist wisdom is owing to the missionaries, one of the most influential among whom was the resident of Termez Dharmamitra. The Zurmala, built in the 1-3 centuries AD, does not look very much like the Tibetan (Buryat, Kalmyk) suburgans or pagodas of Southeast Asia that are familiar to us, but rather resembles the Parinirvana stupa (full and final enlightenment) in Indian Kushinagar, where the buddha Gautama completed his earthly journey.

Our driver was searching for quite a long time a path to the stupa through surrounding mahallas, but in the end we realised that it will take some strolling through the field to approach it. Standing next to stupa you can see that this is not just a pile of land, but a tower of mud bricks:

Entrance. The pagoda (that is, the stupa) differs from the church in that it was possible to pray on it outside, so Zurmala does not have a room inside, but only a small passage to, apparently, the former altar.

We did not dare to go deeper there - the niche was swarming with huge hornets and local driver warned us that there might be snakes and venomous spiders. In general, it's right that the guests visit Zurmala rarely as she is not happy with the guests and it's not worth bothering her for nothing.

We will return to Buddhist temples in die time - there are a lot of them around Termez. But still the central fortress belonged to the Muslim city, one of the centers of pre-Mongolian Central Asia, that carried the nickname Gul-Gal ("Noisy") not for nothing. The way there is through a few gates:

With the decline of the Kushan Empire the rule over Termez passed to Ephtalites (white Huns), then Sassanid Iran that tried to restore Zoroastrianism here, but the rich city was always self-sufficient and in the 6th century, remembering that it was founded by the Greeks, turned into kind of free polis under the power of the local dynasty. Apparently, at that time the city turned into a major intellectual center and when in 705 Tocharistan was conquered by the Arabs, Termez surprisingly easily parted with Buddhism and accepted Islam. Its heyday was the 9th century, when two at-Termizi became famous for the whole Islamic world: Abu Abdallah, nicknamed Hakim (Sage) and Abu Isa. The first was the most influential Sufi for its epoch, who influenced this mystical trend in Islam throughout the Islamic world and apparently laid the foundation for the rule of Sufism in Central Asia; the second was a disciple of another great scholar al-Bukhari and continued his work to collect hadith, that is, the stories about the life of the Prophet that composed the Sunnah - a set of examples of how to live for a Sunni Muslim. Hadiths are not folklore, each hadith had a long lineage, a chain of oral continuity and the collectors of hadiths were primarily concerned with working through these chains, screening out unreliable ones. Al-Bukhari collected the first and largest collection of 7,000 hadiths "Sahih," the second book of Sunnis after the Koran, and at-Termezi did not exceled his teacher, but his "Juma" of 3962 hadiths is one of the six canonical collections of the Sunnah. Where Abu Isa is buried, I do not know, but to the mausoleum of Hakim at-Termezi lead all these numerous gates

On the photo above are the ruins of the Chor-Sutun mosque of the 10th century, next to which there was a minaret built in 1032 and that survived until tsarist times:

During its long history the city was under the power of the Ghaznavids, the Seljuks, and Khorezm (though far away, but still linked by Amu Darya!), but in the year 1220 Genghis Khan came  and brought devastation to all Central Asia. In Termez they have a legend about a woman who was trying to buy off Mogols with a large pearl that she swallowed while trying to escape - but the Mongols not only took the pearl with the sword, but started disembowel the other dead. Most of the Central Asian cities were completely destroyed by Genghis Khan, some were rebuilt aside from the original place, but some never revived. Termez was from the latter ones, several centuries after the invasion some kind of life was hovering around Sultan-Saodat complex mentioned in previous part - this was the abode of local Sufis, but by the arrival of the Russians the settlement had completely shrinked to the size of small village. The Mongols, however, despite all the ruthlessness to the living, had the strictest taboo to fight against the dead, therefore cemeteries in the empty cities were often almost untouched. For this reason the Old Termez is best known nowadays as the mazar of Hakim at-Termezi, and here always surprisingly a lot of people:

Behind the gates of the mazar is a well-groomed park with a mosque and a museum in almost identical buildings:

Benches with canopies, carved arbors ... Wandering around in such places you can realize better that tourists originated from pilgrims, and in Central Asia this phenomenon is just at the stage of transition.

The present mausoleum of Khakim at-Termezi was built in the days of Tamerlane, but it either did not have the "Timurid" style green-blue decoration, or did not preserve it. Around the mausoleum are probably the graves of the Khakim's descendants:

Hakim at-Termezi lived 112 years, and in his youth he made a hajj to Mecca, meeting on the way the greatest Sufis of his era. His treatise "The Seal of Saints" was in fact a generalization of the Muslim experience of the past centuries, a peculiar classification of holiness, its criteria and hierarchy. And the fact that he was born in Termez, where Islam had just arrived, probably played a role: there is an opinion that the Sufism of Central Asia is such a very peculiar fusion of Islam with Buddhism.

The hall under the big dome, probably, served as a khanaqa, and the mausoleum itself is an extension that is noticeable on the previous shots, impressive with its interior decoration:

And only the tombstone of the Termez Sage I did not manage to take the picture of - it's very difficult to approach it because of the numerous pilgrims in their colorful clothes. With its populousness this mazar is impressive even comparing with other Uzbek shrines, and just imagine how many pilgrims might be here only if the border with Afghanistan wasn't closed...

Around the mausoleum are a few chillahon, that is, underground cells, where believers retired for forty days:

Mazar wedges into the regime zone, covering most of the ancient settlement. Behind a barbed wire is a fortress with a reconstructed section of walls:

That's how Old Termez could look in life:


A part of the former shahristan (a trading quarter behind the city walls) is accessible in the space between the two gates:

A sight of clay ruins, so familiar throughout Central Asia ...

Either the cellar, or the grave:

Colored shards in gray clay are mandatory attribute of such places:

On the other side of the gates of the mazar is clearly visible Chingiztepe (Great hillfort), that was a well-fortified port beyond the city walls: Big Chingiztepa was a river caravan-saray, and Small one was a customs house.

On the other side of the gates of the mazar is clearly visible Chingiztepe (Great hillfort), that was a well-fortified port beyond the city walls: Big Chingiztepa was a river caravan-saray, and Small one was a customs house.

Behind the river is Afghanistan, you can see a small house from the Middle Ages:

Now let's leave Sufi Termez and return to Buddhist one - a couple of ancient monasteries built in the same 1-3 centuries are in the sands to the north of the site of ancient settlement, untouched by Genghis Khan only because at that time nobody lived there and the ruins were covered by sand. But firstly a few photos of the Buddhist past from the museum in Termez. In general, from the phrase "Greco-Buddhism" itself I am having a kind of light brain explosion: how Hellas and Buddha can be related? And how far apart, with some external resemblance, were their ideas: the ancient tempestuous love to life in all its manifestations and the Buddhist aspiration to be free from everything in this world. Although my knowledge in both cultures is very scarce, and can they have more perspiration points? Be that as it may, it was the Greeks who taught the Buddhists to build statues and invented the canonical "human" image of the Buddha:

Closer to the road is Fayaztepa, restored a couple of years ago. Like Zurmala, it dates  back to 1-3 centuries AD, its most valuable finds are kept in the historical museum of Tashkent, and it was discovered only in 1963 under a layer of swept sands.

That's how the stupas looked like in those days:

The dome of a stupa 10 meters high and hides inside another stupa of 3 meters high:

Near is the actual temple of many yards, the walls of which once were covered with murals:

When you see the main hall with the remains of the columns, it's hard not to remember the Chersonesos, Panticapaeum, or anything from Mediterranean region:

That’s what GRECO-Buddhism means:

Another monastery Karatepa (Black hillfort) stands in the sands in the sensitive zone. But the military from the surrounding buildings are station now in some other place and rare tourists from time to time manage to reach the place with the help of local drivers. When we were walking around the ruins, the military patrol jeep approached our driver, asked a couple of questions and drove away. So if you plan to visit the place make sure to be accompanied by a reliable local.

The monastery of Karatepa was built in the beginning of the 2nd century, and differs in that it was semi-underground, and also very impressive in size - a whole small monastic city. Under the shed is the base of the stupa:

Another former stupa is hidden in the courtyard:

Yards, corridors, "streets", the foundations of columns - everything is familiar by Fayaztepa, but much larger and more authentic - not trampled by tourists, not trivialized by restorers:

Here and there even the inscriptions on the numerous languages and the remains of the frescoes were preserved, but as I looked at the clay of the walls I managed to find only a few red spots. The colors of pre-Mongolian Central Asia were precisely red and yellow:

Caves are higher up the slope:

The general view. On the left you can see the round dome of Fayaztepa and further to the left are the hills, which you also want to believe was a gigantic ancient site:

Termez is well seen - a surprisingly squat city, over which flies the multi-storeyed hokimiyat:

A view down the Amu Darya behind the formidable line of the border. It flows here to the north, and then sharply turns to the west, so it's not Afghanistan seen here, but no less mysterious Turkmenistan. In the haze Kugitangtau fades away, the "Unapproachable Mountains" that are the continuation of the Baysun Mountains and perhaps the Airy Baba (3170m) can be seen, the highest peak of Turkmenistan, known there as the peak of the Great Turkmenbashi Saparmurat Niyazov. From the Turkmen side of these mountains there are a lot of incredibly interesting including the traces of dinosaurs on the plateau of Khojapil ...

And here, although beyond Amudarya - also not Afghanistan, but only the Prophet Island (Aral-Paigambar). In its dense greenery there is a mausoleum over the grave of the Arab commander from the conquerors of Maveranahr. Locally it is known as the mausoleum of Zul-Kifl (St. Elijah) - they say that earlier there lived in Kelife (right after Kugitangtau) a righteous man named after a biblical prophet who upon his death bequeathed his coffin to be released in the Amu Darya. The relatives fulfilled his request, but the coffin suddenly swam against the current, reached the point almost in front of Termez, and suddenly island rose from the river. Now the Aral-Paigambar belongs to Uzbekistan, but in fact it is located outside all dimensions:

And Afghanistan is just here, right behind the Amu River, which is divided into two channels. Not that long ago on both sides of the river there was a single space and even one state, but now from this side there are canals, roads, fields, cities, whilst on another are only gloomy flying sands. But only 50 km beyond these sands is the ancient Balkh (Bactra) and the sacred Mazar-i-Sharif, where to Uzbekistan recently built the railway line.

Traveling around Central Asia and learning deeply its culture, it's hard not to think about the fact that a lot of its milestones are left in Afghanistan, like the same Balkh or Herat, and it's, apparently, one of the most interesting countries in the world to travel. But I can not imagine myself there yet, as it still seems very risky to me.

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Did you know?

Uzbekistan is one of only two countries in the world to be ‘double landlocked’ (landlocked and totally surrounded by other landlocked countries). Liechtenstein is double landlocked by 2 countries whilst Uzbekistan is surrounded by 5!

Did you know that Uzbekistan lies in the very heart of Eurasia, the coordinates for Uzbekistan are 41.0000° N, 69.0000°

Uzbekistan is home to the Muruntan gold mine, one of the largest open pit gold mines in the world! The country has 4th largest reserves of gold in the world after South Africa, USA and Russia

Uzbekistan is the world capital of melons. They have in excess of 150 different varieties, which form a staple part of the local diet, served fresh in the summer and eaten dried through the winter.

It is Uzbek tradition that the most respected guest be seated farthest from the house’s entrance.

Tashkent’s metro features chandeliers, marble pillars and ceilings, granite, and engraved metal. It has been called one of the most beautiful train stations in the world.

The Uzbek master chef is able to cook in just one caldron enough plov to serve a thousand men.

When you are a host to someone, it is your duty to fill their cups with for the whole time they are with you.  What you must not do, however, is to fill their cup more than half-full.  If you do that as a mistake, say it is a mistake immediately.  Doing it means you want them to leave.  Wow!  Amazing, right?

To Uzbeks, respect means a whole lot.  For this reason they love it if, even as foreigners, you endeavour to add the respectful suffix opa after a woman's name; and aka after a man's.  Example: Linda-opa and David-aka.  You could also use hon and jon respectively.

Having been an historic crossroads for centuries as part of various ancient empires, Uzbekistan’s food is very eclectic. It has its roots in Iranian, Arab, Indian, Russian and Chinese cuisine.

Though identified with the Persia, the Zoroastrism probably originated in Bactria or Sogdiana. Many distinguished scholars share an opinion that Zoroastrianism had originated in the ancient Khorezm. Indeed, today in the world there were found 63 Zoroastrian monuments, including those in Iran, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thirty-eight of them are in Uzbekistan, whereas 17 of these monuments are located in Khorezm.

One of Islam's most sacred relics - the world's oldest Koran that was compiled in Medina by Othman, the third caliph or Muslim leader, is kept in Tashkent. It was completed in the year 651, only 19 years after Muhammad's death. 

Tashkent is the only megapolis in the world where public transport is totally comprised of Mercedes buses. And due to low urban air polution it is one of the few cities where one can still see the stars in the sky.

You would be surprised to know that modern TV was born in Tashkent. No joke! The picture of moving objects was transmitted by radio first time in the world in Tashkent on 26 of July 1928 by inventors B.P. Grabovsky and I.F. Belansky.

Uzbekistan is the only country in the world all of whose neighbours have their names ending in STAN. This is also the only country in Central Asia that borders all of the countries of this region

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Famous Islamic physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the Latin world) who was born near Bukhara was the one of the first people to advocate using women’s hair as suture material – about 1400 years ago.

Uzbekistan has a long and bloody history. The most notorious leader of Uzbekistan was Timur (or Tamerlane) who claimed descent from Genghis Khan. His military campaigns have been credited for wiping out some 5% of the world’s population at the time.

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Uzbekistan was once a rum producig country. There is still a real arboretum in Denau (city near Termez on the border with Afghanistan), grown from a selection station that studied the prospects of plant growing in the unusual for the Soviet Union subtropical climate of Surkhandarya region: only here in the whole of the USSR sugar cane was grown and even rum was produced!

Uzbekistan has been ranked one of the safest countries in the world, according to a new global poll. The annual Gallup Global Law and Order asked if people felt safe walking at night and whether they had been victims of crime. The survey placed Uzbekistan 5th out of 135 countries, while the UK was 21st and the US 35th. Top five safest countries:

  • Singapore
  • Norway
  • Iceland
  • Finland
  • Uzbekistan
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