In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great was extending the reach of Hellenic influence eastward during his conquest of Central Asia in the area known in the classical era as Transoxiana, that is the land beyond the Oxus, an area today shared by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. Wherever Alexander went, settlements and fortifications were established in strategic locations to defend the frontier, keep an eye on the locals, and to support the supply lines assisting the rapid expansion of the Macedonian Empire. One such site in southern Uzbekistan on the banks of the Amu Darya is believed to be the legendary city of Alexandria-Oxiana, or “Alexandria on the Oxus”, a logistics base strategically located along the river which served as the superhighway of antiquity in Central Asia, linking the silk road to both the Aral and Caspian Seas. Today the ruins are known as Kampyr Tepe.
Like the Uzboy distributary that once linked the Oxus to the Caspian, the Amu Darya is susceptible to rapid changes in course as it winds along its vast floodplain. The river has served as the border between various empires for millennia, but when the river shifts it doesn’t ask for permission from the states it divides.
When Alexander the Great founded the Kampyr Tepe settlement on the right bank of the Oxus near the mouth of the Surkhandarya high atop the edge of a sandstone bluff, the river flowed deep and wide directly alongside the city. The elevated cliffside location was easy to defend on a bend of the river with sweeping views over the northern plains, across the river to Bactria (Afghanistan), and both up and downstream. The deep water flowing at the base of the cliffs allowed for river vessels to easily dock alongside for transhipment of supplies and equipment. Adding to the site’s strategic location was it’s proximity 70km due north in a straight line from the ancient city of Bactra (Balkh), center of the Zoroastrian religion, and founded between 2,000 and 1,500 BC, at least a thousand years before Alexander the Great. At this location Alexander likely crossed the Oxus in the year 328/329 BC on the road to Nautaca (Shakhrisabz) and Maracanda (Samarkand).
After the city’s founding, it flourished for at least 500 years first under the Macedonian Empire, then the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, and finally the Kushan Empire. Evidence at the site suggests that the city was a model of cosmopolitanism where different cultures and religions co-existed side by side for hundreds of years. Residents happily followed the traditions of the Greeks, continued to practice Zoroastrianism, and then adopted Buddhism as it spread northwards along the silk road. A key trade hub on the Oxus, the city reached its peak under the rule of Kanishka the Great in the first half of the 2nd Century AD. During this time a Buddhist monastery was constructed outside the city walls. Hordes of coins discovered at Kampyr-Tepe from this time period are written in multiple languages, and depict deities from several different religions.
The policy of religious tolerance practiced by the Kushan empire is a classic example of syncretism, in which different cultural beliefs are merged allowing for an inclusive tolerance of other faiths. It allowed the empire to thrive across a wide geographic area encompassing many distinct cultural identities, and led to the spread of Buddhism along the silk road. Even as the Kushan Empire encouraged patronage to Buddhist monasteries, under Mahayana Buddhism, all religions are part of the same Dharmakāya, or body of truth, of which the Buddhas are one such manifestation. Therefore, the Empire was able to maintain cohesiveness across vast cultural divides for over 200 years before entering a period of decline.
The decline and split of the Kushan Empire coincided with the inevitable shift of the main channel of the Oxus away from the site of Kampyr Tepe. The marshy landscape extending from the bluffs of the city toward Afghanistan experiences seasonal flooding that sometimes cuts a new primary channel for the river. With the shift of the main waterway to the other side of the flood plain nearly five kilometers to the south, the thriving port city no longer had a reason to exist, and was quickly abandoned. By the 3rd century AD the city was totally deserted, and was soon lost to the sands of time.
Soviet archeologists only rediscovered the site in the 1970’s as an expanding cemetery just to the east of the complex encountered a desert pavement of clay pot shards. On closer inspection, erosion of the cliff face above the marshes of the floodplain revealed whole pots sticking out of the wall still completely intact. Further excavation revealed a perimeter wall, moat, residential area, citadel, temples, warehouses, and a wharf. Geological evidence suggested the primary channel of the Oxus once flowed directly alongside the bluff, confirming the hypothesis of the archeologists that the newly discovered ruins must have been an important logistical hub on the silk road, and cultural artifacts discovered confirmed the time period coincided with Alexander the Great’s conquest of Central Asia. Along with Ai-Khanoum, located further upstream along the Afghan border with Tajikistan, Kampyr Tepe is one of only two candidate cities for the possible location of the historic lost city of Alexandria on the Oxus.
Today the site is located well of the main road in the sensitive border zone between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, although not as sensitive as the active military training area of Kara-Tepe closer to Termez. Kampyr Tepe has been nearly completely exposed, although it was impossible to remove every single artifact. Thousands of dolia (clay pots) lay scattered all over the place, half buried, shards impossible not to step on, 2,000 year old remnants of an ancient civilization not worth collecting due to sheer volume. The walls of homes are still intact with clay pots neatly stacked in storage rooms, simply left behind by residents who knew there was no point in bringing them along. When the river suddenly changed course, there was no way to float stores and belongings to a new destination, so what couldn’t be caravanned across the desert was simply left behind for archeologists to discover 2,000 years later.
Our guide, Sergey, brought us to Kampyr Tepe from Termez at about 11:am on a crystal clear June day where the ambient temperature was about 39°C (102°F), 14% humidity, and an oven-like breeze from the southwest. As we toured the site under the unrelenting midday sun, we were amazed by the unrestricted access we had to the ruins, and incredible state of preservation considering 2,000 years of exposure to these harsh conditions. Clay pot shards were everywhere, as were eroding dumps of Kushan garbage collapsing from the cliff face onto the ancient riverbed below. Animal bones, layers of ash visible from the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple, totally intact un-excavated pots with their lips sticking up out the dust. There’s simply too much history here, and not enough archeologists, or funding, to fully discover everything that still lies underneath the sand.
As it was explained to us by our guide, archeologists are more concerned with exploring a single grid at a time at a massive site like Kampyr Tepe, carefully excavating each cultural layer to get a detailed picture of life in a city they already know (based off other more obvious evidence) was a major logistics base on the Oxus. There’s little concern some undiscovered treasure will elude their efforts because the site which has been around for nearly 2,500 years isn’t going to simply disappear overnight. The ruins are strictly protected by the antiquities authorities in Uzbekistan, are a UNESCO listed silk road heritage monument, and its location in the sensitive border zone means it never goes unobserved. Whatever treasures still await discovery at Alexandria Oxiana will still be there, as if the city itself isn’t a enough of a treasure all on its own.