Rising Like Phoenix From Its Ashes

Looking at the geographical location of Termez, you begin to realise why this city, wiped off the map so many times, has always risen like Phoenix from its ashes at this very location on the wide elbow of the Amudarya River, only slightly changing its place.  

When Genghis Khan seized ancient Termez and razed it to the ground in 1220, its survived inhabitants moved eastwards. The formation of the new city continued over the 13th and 14th centuries. The Sultan Saodat - a complex of mausoleums of the Termez Saiyids, descendants of the Prophet, became the central part of the city. The first (pre-Mongolian) structures of the complex date from the late 10th century and include two mausoleums with a mosque between them. The al-Mulk Mausoleum, alias Sultan-i-Saodat, gave the name to the whole complex. After the Mongol invasion, two new mausoleums were erected next to the ones built before. The city began to grow around the mausoleums. Its first name was Ghulguda, i.e. ‘The Busy Town’.  

Baked bricks were used in the construction of most of the town’s edifices. The sheer fantasy of the constructors is truly amazing, especially in the brickwork which almost exhausted the artistic potential of this material. Bricks were laid in different fashions and formed a wide range of patterns with imaginative names, such as ‘herring-bone’, ‘bow’, ‘diamond’, ‘ring’, or ‘bud’. The belts were made of dressed bricks and the four walls supporting the octagonal deck of arched sails were often crowned with big domes. This remarkably ascetic style was typical only of the Termez architecture.

The greater part of the original décor had been lost over the centuries: the place was very popular with pilgrims who burnt candles and torches there, so the mausoleum’s custodians had to repair the buildings quite frequently, which reduced the original patterns to zero. The time was not merciful to the building either. Numerous earthquakes destroyed the brickwork, and hanakas were used as kitchens or sheep pens at different stages. However, modern historians of art helped to restore the initial décor and shape of the complex, with its majolica tiles and walls painted in gold and cobalt blue.  

Now, the restored complex of majestic tripartite mausoleums with its ascetic architecture looks impeccable and perfect. Silence and noble tranquility reigns over the tombs of the Saiyids.

Al Khakim At-Termezi, the patron of Termez

According to one of the versions, his full name was Abu Abdallah Mukhammad ibn Khasan ibn Bashir, but his contemporaries used to call him simply al Khakim, which means ‘the Sage’.  

Only about 60 works written by At-Termezi have survived, but according to some scholars, his oeuvre is said to have been at least 80 treatises. Some other sources even put the number up to 400 works. 

The collections of At-Termezi’s treatises are kept in the az-Zahiriyya library of Damascus and in Alexandria (Egypt); five manuscripts are in London, and some other books can be found in Leipzig and Istanbul. As the scholars believe, At-Termezi was well aware of the Buddhist, Christian and Manichean doctrines, and their influence can be traced in his treatises. At-Termezi won recognition of his contemporaries for his wide world outlook and profound knowledge, and so he got his nickname ‘the Sage of Termez’.  

At-Termezi was buried at the walls of the Termez citadel, and later a mausoleum constructed of baked bricks was built over the tomb. In the 11th century, the mausoleum walls were decorated with alabaster stucco carvings. Later a memorial mosque was built near the mausoleum. Its décor is dated back to the 12th century. In 1389, a new mausoleum was erected next to the old one and the most impressive edifice of the complex was constructed in 1405 – that was a two-portal khanaka (shelter for dervishes). Such architectural plan was quite an unusual phenomenon in Central Asia. Today, the mausoleum houses a small archeological museum, and its collection contains very rare and interesting exhibits shedding light on the everyday life of ancient people. Below the mausoleum ground level, there is a memorial room with a white marble grave stone ‘sagana’. The gravestone can be considered a real masterpiece of the Timurid decorative stone carving art and calligraphy.     

The mausoleum can impress everybody with its unusual shape and décor – the black, gold and white colours are saturated with various magic signs and symbols. Visiting the place helps to appreciate and understand the correctness of the great Sufi’s words: the material is transient, the spiritual is eternal. 

Archeological Klondike

If to measure the whole territory which Termez used to occupy at different times starting from the period of the ancient Tarmita-Taramaeza to these days, this will be a broad expanse between the Amudarya and the Surkhandarya. The city perished in one place and rose from the ashes in another, leaving behind huge cultural strata as the evidences of the changing time. There are cities which resemble a vine – you can bend it, but it is difficult, almost impossible to mangle the vine, and even broken, it will give life to new sprouts capable of reviving. Unlike such historical ghosts as Carthage, Babylon, Persepolis, Mycenae and Thebes and many others, such towns are living and prospering even now.

Modern Termez is located in the very centre of Ancient Bactria, on the bank of the ancient Oxus River (Amudarya). If you wish to learn about its turbulent history, you should go to the Termez Archeological Museum. It was established in 2002 when the city celebrated the 2500th anniversary of its first mention in the historical annals. How long had it existed before the date? The Achaemenids, who had annexed the city to their state in the 6th century BC, already called Termez an ancient city.

The Museum houses 27,000 exhibits placed in nine halls in the chronological order. The earliest finds date back to the 100th millennium BC. 

The entrance of each hall is decorated with a stylised portal. First you will find yourself in the Stone Age – in the Teshiktash Cave of the Surkhandarya oasis. This is the oldest discovered Neanderthal site with its famous Teshiktash boy. His appearance was reconstructed on the basis of the found remains. The prehistoric boy frowns unsmilingly; you can well understand that the life in the Stone Age was hard. The stone cutting tools, scraping knives, blades for working leather, wood and stone, hunting tools, primitive bows and arrows were unearthed in the caves of Baysuntau and Kughitangtau and serve as evidence of early humans’ occupations, i.e. hunting and domestication of animals. 

Next you get into the Bronze Age. It was the time of the beginning of the rise of Ancient Bactria. The state stretched along both banks of the Oxus River blessed by the river god, Oakhsho. For centuries these waters have been flowing to the north towards Khorezm, carrying with them Zarathustra’s teaching. You will walk through ancient cities inhabited by skillful craftsmen, who could manufacture bronze mirrors and adornments, cosmetics and beautiful figurines which even today look amazingly sophisticated. ‘The Mother of Cities’ – that was how Arabs used to call Balkh, the capital of Bactria, underlying the age of the area and acknowledging its role as a cradle of civilisation. The two sides of the river were connected by a crossing; trade flourished and the exchange of cultural values was very active. The hard working and self-sufficient Bactrians were busy with the development of farming, irrigation, fishing and other skills and crafts.   

Now the plot thickens: Bactria, a prosperous state, shuddered under the iron fist of Macedonians led by Iskandar Zulkarnain, alias Alexander the Great. Here he encountered fierce resistance and Bactrians fought to the last man. To conquer Central Asian territories, Alexander sometimes used cunning deception and sometimes he took them by force. The conquered city was called in an unpretentious manner – Alexandria-Oxiana, since Alexander wanted to make it the pillar of his empire. Thus, the splendid Hellenic culture merged here with the Bactrian and Indian ones. The elegant figurines made of marble, bone and terracotta only attest to the fact. For the first time in the area’s history, the quality of mintage reached an unprecedented level. After Alexander’s death, the state fell into decay and became a ‘tidbit’ for nomadic tribes. Termez was destroyed again, and then it revived under the name of Antiochia. This royal name shows how important Termez was for the Selevkid dynasty.

Several centuries later, Buddhism gradually replaced the Greco-Bactrian culture. The Kushan-Yuezhi crossed ‘the great river of Gui Shui’ and occupied the land. The Kushan rulers took the Heliocle tetradrachmas as a good example to follow in their own coinage. You can see these coins in the museum.  A range of religious centres began to grow: their ruins are now visible thanks to archaeologists’ efforts. Karatepe, Fayaztepe, Dalverzintepe and many other ‘tepas’ have revealed astonishing Buddhist temples with their ground and underground structures. That was the period of the rapid development of all the crafts, in particular ceramics. Ceramists used to decorate their items with ornaments, embossment and glossing. One of the districts in Tarmita was inhabited solely by ceramists. Weaving, stonework, making of iron and bronze knives developed in the area at an amazing pace. The city’s bazaars were busy, and the trade relations between Termez and India grew as strong as ever, while the Amudarya connected Surkhan with Khorezm and Parthia. The Buddhist community was very influential, so more and more of the local people began to adopt Buddhism. At the same time, Zoroastrianism and the cult of Hellenic deities remained sufficiently popular.

The Middle Age brought Islam to Ancient Bactria. It was then that the construction of the new kinds of buildings for public worship began and the first mausoleums, madrasahs, hanakas and caravanserais appeared. The baked brick became the most widely spread construction material. This period was marked by the speedy development of architecture and ornamentation. The Greco-Bactrian sculptures were removed and destroyed, as once had been the figures of  Anahita, whose heads were broken off and faces were disfigured. 

Before the invasion of Genghis Khan, Termez was famous as a big river port supporting commerce both up and down the river. After ten days of the most violent resistance to the Mongolian hordes, Termez was wiped off the face of the earth. As a tribute to its fierce resistance to the enemies, Termez got the nickname ‘The City of Men’.

Soon the foundations of the first house of a new town were laid on the site of devastation. That was yet another beginning of the ancient city’s new life. Two hundred years later, it became so large and majestic that Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, the Spanish Ambassador to the court of Amir Temur, was amazed by its sheer size. In his travel notes the Ambassador described how rode to his residence through a maze of innumerable squares, busy streets and bustling bazaars.