Termez may be best known for its many Buddhist archeological sites, but the 2,500 year old city also boasts several important architectural landmarks from the Islamic era. For those travelers already familiar with the Sah-i-Zinda Necropolis in Samarkand, the Sultan Saodat Ensemble may seem underwhelming, however those who make the effort to explore this ancient mausoleum complex won’t be disappointed. The architecture dates from the 11th and 12th centuries during which time the city of Termez was passed around under the control of various empires thanks to its strategic position on the right bank of the Amu Darya. Within the span of 200 years the city was part of four empires.
After the collapse the Samanid Empire at the turn of the 11th century, Termez found itself a frontier town of the Ghaznavid Empire, soon under the control of the Karakhanids in their conquest of Transoxiana. Before the collapse of the Samanid Empire, the Khwarazmian Empire had agreed with the Ghaznavids that the Amu Darya would be their mutual boundary. This of course was of no interest to the Karakhanids, who in their conquest of Transoxiana clashed with the Seljuqs, and the Khwarazmians who took control of Termez in the year 1206. By the year 1217 Khorezem controlled all of Transoxiana to the Aral and Caspian Seas, through Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, to the Persian Gulf.
As a major crossing point of the Oxus on the Silk Road, Termez remained the center of attention. When the city refused to surrender peacefully in the year 1220 as intercontinental warlord Genghis Khan came knocking at the gate, the city was destroyed in a two day siege, ending any territorial disputes among inferior regional powers for good. Termez was rebuilt during the Timurid era on the right bank of the Surkhandarya, but had lost prominence by the 18th century.
Fortunately for the Sultan Saodat Ensemble, it was located well away from the various historic centers of Termez, thus managing to stay well preserved even following the total destruction unleashed by the Mongol Empire. The complex was an important burial site for the so-called “Sayyids” of Termez, those who claimed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Historically speaking, the Sayyids were not so much a dynasty than they were people able to trace their lineage to a direct descendant of the Prophet. This gave the Sayyids a place of privilege in society and as such they often found themselves occupying prominent positions, which despite the turnover in overlords, managed to rule Termez from the 11th to 15th centuries.
The Sultan Saodat Ensemble is an example of this privilege, where like the Sah-i-Zinda Necropolis in Samarkand, only the elite were buried. The Termez Sayyids particular claim was based on the family’s founder, Termez Sayyid Hassan al-Amir, a supposed fifth generation descendent of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali.
The two oldest mausoleums of the complex date from the 11th century and can be found at the end of a paved plaza flanked by later structures that were built alongside the originals. The two most ancient chambers are connected by a vaulted mihrab with an iwan faced with blue tiles. The structure also features a characteristic decorative patterned brick facade reminiscent of the 10th century Saminid Mausoleum in Bukhara, and the nearby 12th century Jarkurgan Minaret. The architectural style presented here represents a rare glimpse of the period between Saminid and Karakhanid architecture of which there are few surviving examples, no thanks to Genghis Khan.
Additional mausoleums continued to be built right through the Timurid Era, and as recently as the 17th century. Ruins of even later mausoleums can also be seen adjacent to the well preserved original architectural ensemble in an interesting example of how later generations lost knowledge of more durable building techniques of the past. While the complex was restored in 2002, officials didn’t even bother to work on the younger ruins which date from a time period well after Termez had been largely abandoned.
Only a few depopulated villages remained in the area until the Russian Empire finally recognized the former city’s strategic importance at the ancient silk road crossing point of the Amu Darya. These settlements were consolidated by the late 19th century, rebuilt first as an important Imperial outpost during the Great Game, and then further fortified as a frontier and regional administrative center of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until well after independence that Uzbekistan got around to restoring important historical cultural landmarks in Termez such as Sultan Saodat, which today serves as important pilgrimage site for followers of Husayn ibn Ali, from as far as Uttar Pradesh in India, where the Termez Sayyids migrated as early as the 11th century. Along with Bukhara, Termez was a first stop for ancestors of those who claimed to trace their lineage directly to the Prophet. Visiting the Sultan Saodat Ensemble remains of important religious significance for the faithful, and a fascinating historical landmark for modern-day silk road travelers.