Buddhist Treasures Dug Up

APDusty stairs leading to the cave entrance of the Hakim al-Termizi mausoleum.
TERMEZ, Uzbekistan -- Surrounded by war, political volatility and hostile governments, archaeologists from around the world are painstakingly rediscovering one of Buddhism's richest civilizations under the forbidding landscape of Central Asia.

What in the first to seventh centuries was the Kushan Buddhist empire and a crucial East-West crossroads, in a land then known as Bactria, is now part of at least four countries: Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

No major foreign archaeological team has ventured into Afghanistan for more than 20 years because of war.

Tajikistan's chronic instability and Turkmenistan's restrictive regime mean scholars of the region's Buddhist era are pinning hopes on Uzbekistan.

"While the Taliban were destroying their heritage, the Uzbeks are conserving theirs," said Barry Lane, director of the Uzbek office of UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural heritage agency.

Long before Islam arrived in Central Asia, hundreds of Buddhist monks once prayed in solitary mud-brick chambers built into barren slopes. On festival days, columned temples lined with frescoes of crimson-robed hunters spilled with spectators.

Nearly 2,000 years later, Uzbek border guards pace the blistered earth, past spiked and electrified fences and huge, scoop-like radar complexes aimed at Afghanistan, just across the Amu Darya River.

Where they can do their work safely, archaeologists from Japan, France and elsewhere are burrowing deeply into the clay, unearthing Buddha statuettes encased under remnants of centuries of Muslim life.

Today's borders make the work "awkward and incomplete," said Tukhtash Annayev, a prominent historian and archaeologist in the Uzbek port of Termez, which is separated from Afghanistan by the Amu Darya.

Termez, today a stagnant, medium-sized city, was the Buddhist center of Central Asia during the Kushan empire's heyday. Historians say it played a key role in exporting Buddhism to Tibet and parts of China.

Many Uzbeks would be surprised to hear that. On Muslim holidays, women in headscarves and men with long gray beards recite prayers before dusty cave entrances at the Hakim al-Termizi mausoleum complex near Termez, a shrine to a ninth-century Muslim ruler. Asked why, one woman replied simply, "It's our holy place."

Yet the caves predate Uzbekistan's 1,200-year Islamic history and are believed to have served as quarters for Kushan Buddhist monks.

As Termez prepares to celebrate its 2,500th birthday this month, schools are starting to teach pupils about the region's pre-Muslim history, including its Buddhist era and the preceding centuries, when it was populated by Alexander the Great's emissaries.

Uzbekistan's digs have attracted global attention, especially since the Soviet Union's collapse opened them wider to foreign researchers. A Japanese Buddhist sect, Soka Gakkai, and a Japanese artist have funded conservation efforts in Uzbekistan, according to the Japanese Embassy.

French-led teams spend springtime flaking away chunks of dirt at the Kara-tepa monastery, which lies inside the Uzbek-Afghan border zone and is therefore off-limits to nearly everyone.

A few hundred meters away, just outside the border zone, a huge, stucco-covered stupa -- a mound containing sacred Buddhist relics -- marks the entrance of the Fayaz-tepa monastery. The site is devoid of any signs or markings.

UNESCO wants to use a $750,000 Japanese government grant to build a road connecting the two monasteries, shore up existing walls, install original column bases and murals and build a museum and gift shop.