Day 15: Buddhism in Uzbekistan

Restored Stupa of Fayaz-Tepe (1st-3rd Century AD) near old-Termez

Before there were Chinese Buddhists, before there were Korean Buddhists, and before there were Japanese Buddhists, there were Uzbek Buddhists, or at least late Greco-Bactrian and Kushan Buddhists.  As Mahayana Buddhism spread out of India through Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan, Termez became a center of Buddhist teaching at an essential hub on the silk road.  From Termez missionaries branched out to spread the teachings of the Buddha to all corners of the known world, especially to the east.  Buddhism was brought to China, Korea, and Japan not from the south via India and Southeast Asia, but from the East, via the silk road from Central Asia.

Stupa of Zurmala (1st or 2nd Century AD) rises from an active agricultural area on the outskirts of Termez

The Greco-Bactrian empire overlapped culturally with the Indo-Greek kingdoms on the subcontinent from the 3rd century BC to the 1st Century AD which allowed early Mahayana Buddhism to spread northwards into what is today modern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.  Greco-Bactrians were displaced by the Yuezhi people in Afghanistan by the 2nd century BC, incorporating the Greco-Bactrian language and Indo-Greek traditions, and eventually united the Kuschan empire by the 1st Century AD.  The culture maintained much its ancient Greek heritage, but Kuschan authorities increasingly adopted Buddhism as a way to solidify their hold on power across such an expansive territory.  Under the 2nd Century Kushan Emperor Kanishka the Great, the Kushan empire reached its peak influence in the region, spreading Buddhism to China and points further east along the silk road.

Any traveler along the silk road from the east or west during this time would have passed through Kushan territory.  By the dawn of the common era, monasteries were rapidly being established along the silk road trade routes securing Buddhism’s foothold and ensuring its spread, with Kushan rulers increasingly patronizing monasteries and encouraging pilgrimages furthering its spread and cultural influence.  With Termez on the crossroads of the world and firmly within the grasp of the Kushan Empire, important monasteries like Fayaz-Tepe (1st-3rd Century AD) and Kara-Tepe (2nd to 4th Century AD), and the Stupa of Zurmala (1st or 2nd Century AD) were well established.

Greco-Bactrian architectural influence at the 2nd to 4th Century AD ruins of the Kara-Tepe archeological complex

Termez today is an archaeological treasure trove of at least a dozen Buddhist monasteries which were built along the banks of the Oxus.  Buddhism thrived here for 6 centuries, until the territory was finally captured by the Arabs in the year 705 and turned into a center of Islam, a religion which also benefited greatly due to the location of Termez as a crossroads of the Silk Road.  While Arab traders had already spread Islam to India by the 7th century, it wasn’t until the Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent via Central Asia that the religion became solidified in the region.  With the Arab invasion most of the Buddhist cultural heritage was destroyed, and what they missed was pulverized by Genghis Khan in the 13th Century.  The few remaining pieces that have been uncovered by archeologists in recent years are now some of the rarest and most valuable artifacts in Central Asia.

As the heart of Buddhism in Central Asia 2,000 years ago, Termez offers visitors a rare glimpse at an often overlooked period of world history.  Solidly Muslim today, Central Asia has a very cosmopolitan past.  The Zoroastrian religion, Greek, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and many more saw their rise, spread, and decline here all thanks to the superhighway of the ancient world, the Great Silk Road.

deep within the 2nd Century cave monastery of Kara-Tepe

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