The most extensive Buddhist monastical complex yet discovered in Uzbekistan, the Kara-Tepe archeological site is spread over three sections and dates from the second century AD when territory united under the Kushan Empire enabled Buddhism to spread from India northwards along the silk road. The three sections represent three distinct architectural periods, with the uppermost (south section) cave sections dating from the 1st and 2nd century AD, the western section from the 2nd and 3rd century, and the north section from the 3rd and 4th century. Four hundred years of continuous habitation through the glory days of the Kushan Empire before suddenly being abandoned after the collapse of the Empire in the late 3rd century, when under Sasanian Influence, Zoroastrianism from the west made a comeback for a few hundred years before the Muslim Conquest.
The oldest cave sections in the south section of the complex were man-made, carved directly out of the soft rock. Over nearly 2,000 years, the roofs of many of these caves have collapsed which enabled Soviet archeologists to discover them in the 20th century. At first the archeologists thought they had discovered a tomb complex, because after the caves were abandoned in the 4th century, many were used as burial chambers. Some evidence also suggests that the caves may have been used as an early Christian monastery as Christianity spread east along the silk road between the 6th and 7th century. Like Buddhism, Christianity likely spread east to China via Termez. It was through Central Asia that the first Nestorian Christian missionaries traveled to China.
The west, or middle section, shows an evolution from the initial cave monasteries, to more advanced construction techniques incorporating both caves and more elaborate brick work with courtyards and columns supporting a roof structure. Within this section, traces of the original paint are still visible on the cave walls, and within the courtyards excavations have revealed the bases of greek style columns. Ceremonial fish ponds have also been discovered in the center of the courtyards which were likely open to the air. Columns supported a roof around the edges of the courtyards providing shade and additional meditation space, but also allowed light into the central garden area. The caves opened out into the courtyards utilizing the natural slope of the hillside, so the only walls that needed to be built were on the exit side. Otherwise these external rooms were simply extensions of the underground portion of the monastery.
The north section is also the most extensive. Here the ruin of a massive stupa is currently being excavated, protected by a large metal structure to prevent erosion. Archeologists also discovered the remains of an earlier smaller stupa within the structure of the original, a practice observed across the buddhist world. The original stupa is never destroyed, but always incorporated into the newer structure. This section of Kara-Tepe is also the best preserved. The extensive excavations have revealed a monastical complex with a large central courtyard with bases of dozens of columns that once supported a roof. In its heyday the interior must have resembled a cloister not so different from those found at a medieval cathedral, or mosque sahn.
These three monastical complexes fell out of use by the 4th century AD. With the Arab invasion most of the complex was destroyed, images of the Buddha were forbidden and smashed, and what they missed was pulverized by Genghis Khan in the 13th Century. There is also some evidence however that sections of the monastery may have continued to be used after the Muslim conquest by a secretive sect of Sufi Muslims due to the site’s proximity to the Al-Hakim al-Termizi Complex. What rare examples of Buddhist artifacts which have been found at Kara-Tepe are kept closely guarded at the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan in Tashkent, which we actually plan to visit later this week. The examples visible at the Termez Archeological Museum are unfortunately only copies of the originals.
Kara-Tepe is located within a strictly controlled military zone along the Uzbek border with Afghanistan. Our permission to enter the archeological zone had to be requested a month in advance, and even with the approvals (which came a week before our visit) there is never a guarantee that the border guards will actually let you in. We were welcome to take photographs, but our guide advised us not to make it too obvious at the checkpoint that we were actually intending to take photos. The border itself is right there in plain sight. Miles of barbed wire fences, watchtowers, military patrols, and the natural barrier of the Amu Darya separate this no-mans-land from Afghanistan just 1km across the river.
The guard took our passports, checked the permits provided by our guide, and after a few tense minutes, finally gave us permission to enter the restricted area. The dirt road (more like a trail) led right up to the edge of the archeological site, where we continued on foot in the blazing hot June sun. Fortunately these are cave monasteries, so after what seemed like an eternity we finally got a respite from the heat in the naturally cooled cave complex dug by hand by Buddhist monks nearly 2,000 years ago.
As we toured the three sections of the complex our guide Sergey left out no details. Zoning out, we couldn’t help but notice the thousands of shards of ancient clay pots scattered everywhere, similar to what we saw later at Kampyr Tepe, shards almost as numerous as the thousands of bits of shrapnel and spent ammunition. In addition to being an ancient archeological site, this is also an active military training area, although judging from the rust, I imagine some of these bullets have been here since Soviet times.