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A lost city discovered

On the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, two archeologists have discovered one of the capitals of the Kushan Empire, which ruled over parts of Central Asia during the first centuries AD. Their findings tell the amazing story of a lost city.

A lost city discovered

© Photo: P. Leriche/CNRS Photothèque

Temple or mausoleum? The next stage of the Bactrian Mission will provide the answer.

Every archeologist dreams of discovering the capital of a lost empire, a dream that recently became reality for Pierre Leriche, a CNRS senior researcher at Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS). On the Uzbek site of Termez on the Afghan border, Leriche and his colleague Chakir Pidaev (Russian Academy of Sciences) began the process of unearthing a major city that was one of the capitals of the powerful Kushan Empire. “During the early centuries of the first millennium, the Kushan Empire, in the heart of Asia, was a major player, along with the Chinese, Parthian, and Roman empires,” he explains. Most important of all, through their discoveries the two researchers have managed to piece together the city's history. And what a history it is! It all began in the third century BC when the then-future site of Termez was just a modest Greek military colony. “We have discovered the remains of a large temple with sides more than 80 meters long that definitely dates from this period,” says Leriche. The type of worship practiced there, however, remains a mystery. “A dynastic cult, or perhaps the cult of the River Oxus (present-day Amu Darya) next to which the temple was built?” The question is still unresolved. But other aspects of the temple's history have been elucidated. “The building was later consecrated, at least in part, to Buddhism.” This theory is highly probable in light of the rest of the story told by the researcher.

A little more than 2000 years ago, the Greeks deserted the country; soon after it was invaded by various nomadic populations. It was then that the city really came into its own. “In the first century, the Kushan Empire decided to establish one of its capitals on the site,” says Leriche. Termez therefore became the third residence of the Kushan dynasty, situated to the north of the first two, Bactra and Surkh Kotal. “We have uncovered a major fortification dating from this period, built in raw brick and surrounding Tchingiz Tepe hill.” Almost 500 meters of wall and fifteen strong, square, and hollow towers are being uncovered. The inner galleries of these walls and the arrow-shaped loopholes—also found in the other capitals—bear the unmistakable stamp of the Kushan Empire. To complete this line of defense, the Kushans dug a vast ditch more than eight meters wide and three meters deep, protected by an outer wall. The town did not simply serve a military purpose, however. It was one of the main points at which the Silk Road crossed the river, and as a result, it rapidly became a lively center of trade and a site of religious effervescence. Buddhist communities were very active here, as testified by the presence in the seventh century of great Buddhist scholar Dharmamitra, whose fame extended from India to Tibet. On the outskirts of the city, three big monasteries confirm the religious fervor of the time.1 At the summit of a hill, the researchers and their team discovered a platform in raw brick with architectural decoration in stone—similar to pieces already discovered in other cities—dedicated to worship. Another monument was home to a magnificent column capital carved with two busts of Buddha.

After prospering for several centuries, Termez suffered a period of decline, which ended with the Islamic era. “At that time the city once again became a major commercial center,” recounts Leriche. “With soap, glass, ceramics, and metal factories and shipyards, it was as important as the famous city of Bactra.” Unfortunately, in the autumn of 1220, the armies of the fearsome Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongolian Empire, marched on the capital. After eleven days of resistance, the population was massacred. This heralded a fatal decline for the city, which finally disappeared in the nineteenth century. A large part of the site lies in an area that is at present a military zone and a “no man's land” between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Despite recent tension between the two countries, archeologists have been able to carry out excavations since 1993, as part of the Bactrian Mission, with the backing of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, CNRS, and the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences. The discovery of Termez and its monuments has provoked a dramatic re-examination of widely held theories concerning Central Asia's ancient history. After processing the data from their latest dig, Leriche and Pidaev will return to the vestiges of the lost city—to continue their pursuit of a dream that has become reality.

Matthieu Ravaud


Notes :

1. Monasteries of Kara Tepe, Fayaz Tepe and Zourmala.

Contacts :

Pierre Leriche
ENS, Paris


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