The New York Times

December 26, 2001

Buddhist Treasures Emerge From Asia


TERMEZ, Uzbekistan (AP) -- Surrounded by war, political volatility and hostile governments, archaeologists are hemmed in as they try to uncover one of Buddhism's richest civilizations from the forbidding landscape of Central Asia.

In the 1st to 7th centuries, the Kushan Buddhist empire was a crucial East-West crossroads, in a land then known as Bactria. Now it spreads across at least four countries: Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

No major foreign archaeological team has ventured into Afghanistan for more than 20 years because of war, and the Taliban infuriated experts around the world earlier this year by destroying two towering statues of Buddha hewn from a cliff-face near Bamiyan in the 3rd and 5th centuries.

Even with the U.S.-led rout of the Taliban, continued banditry means it could be a long time before serious research resumes in Afghanistan. Tajikistan's chronic instability and Turkmenistan's restrictive regime also keep researchers away. That leaves scholars confined for now to the portion lying in Uzbekistan, also a largely Muslim state but one with a secular government keen to distance itself from Islamic intolerance. "While the Taliban were destroying their heritage, the Uzbeks are conserving theirs," said Barry Lane, director of the Uzbek office of UNESCO, the U.N. cultural heritage agency.

Long before Islam arrived in Central Asia, hundreds of Buddhist monks once prayed in solitary mud brick chambers built into barren slopes. On festival days, columned temples lined with frescoes of crimson-robed hunters spilled with spectators. Nearly 2,000 years later, Uzbek border guards pace the blistered earth, past spiked and electrified fences and huge, scoop-like radar complexes aimed at Afghanistan, just across the Amu Darya River.

Where they can do their work safely, archaeologists from Japan, France and elsewhere are burrowing deeply into the clay, unearthing Buddha statuettes covered over by remnants of centuries of Muslim life. Today's borders make the work "awkward and incomplete," says Tukhtash Annayev, a prominent historian and archaeologist in the Uzbek river port of Termez.

Termez is a stagnant, medium-sized city, but it was the Buddhist center of Central Asia during the Kushan empire's heyday. Historians say it played a key role in exporting Buddhism to Tibet and parts of China. Many Uzbeks would be surprised to hear that.

On Muslim holidays, women in headscarves and men with long gray beards recite prayers outside dusty cave entrances at the Hakim at-Termizi mausoleum complex near Termez, a shrine to a 9th century Muslim ruler. Asked why, one woman replies simply, "It's our holy place."

Yet the caves predate Uzbekistan's 1,200-year Islamic history and are believed to have served as quarters for Kushan Buddhist monks. As Termez prepares to celebrate its 2,500th birthday, schools are starting to teach pupils about the region's pre-Muslim history, including its Buddhist era and the preceding centuries when it was populated by Alexander the Great's followers. The Museum of the History of the Uzbek People in the capital, Tashkent, boasts a display of Greek coins and column capitals next to Buddhist frescoes and statues.

In Tajikistan, civil war with Islamic extremists during much of the 1990s halted nearly all archaeological digs. Restoration is still under way on a 42-foot-long, supine Buddha statue found in the 1960s. The "Buddha in Nirvana" statue, of barklike clay, rests in the capital's yet-to-open Museum of Antiquities, near chunks of carved limestone awaiting the money and skilled experts needed to make them exhibit-ready.

Uzbekistan's digs have attracted global attention, especially since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union opened them wider to foreign researchers. French-led teams spend springtime flaking away chunks of dirt at the Kara-tepa monastery, which lies inside the Uzbek-Afghan frontier zone and therefore is off limits to nearly everyone.

A few hundred yards away, just outside the border zone, a huge, stucco-covered stupa -- a mound containing sacred Buddhist relics -- marks the entrance of the Fayaz-tepa monastery. The site is devoid of any signs or markings, other than graffiti etched by border guards. Poking from the dust are shards of ceramic objects that Annayev estimates date back more than 1,000 years.

UNESCO wants to use a $750,000 Japanese government grant to build a road connecting the two monasteries, shore up existing walls, install original column bases and murals, and build a museum and gift shop. "I think it's going to be a very interesting site for tourists from Japan and elsewhere," Lane says. "We want visitors to have some impression of what the original buildings looked like."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company