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Uzbekistan: Buddhist Treasures To Be Restored As Part of Cultural Heritage

  • Antoine Blua

Termez -- today a quiet, unremarkable city in southern Uzbekistan -- was once at the heart of Central Asian Buddhism, and home to Fayaz Tepa, a Buddhist monastery that is more than 1,000 years old. Plans to restore the historic site are moving forward amid improved security in the region. RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua reports on how the Fayaz Tepa project is helping to preserve Central Asia's diverse cultural heritage and improve regional relations.

Prague, 17 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the seventh century A.D., a Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, visited Central Asia on his way from China to India. Later, he reported that Buddhism appeared to be thriving in the region, with hundreds of temples and thousands of monks. One place in particular stood out in Xuanzang's recollections -- the ancient city of Termez, located on the banks of the Amu Darya River in what is now Uzbekistan.

In the 14 centuries that have passed since then, instability, hardship, and religious intolerance have systematically chipped away at the region's Buddhist relics. In a move that infuriated the international community, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia in early 2001 destroyed two towering statues of Buddha hewn from a cliff-face near Bamiyan. The site was considered a key relic of both Buddhist history and Central Asian heritage.

The Taliban's ouster later that year has left countries in the region feeling more secure about the safety of their own Buddhist sites. In Termez, plans are under way to begin restoration of the historic Fayaz Tepa monastery, built more than 1,000 years ago outside just beyond the city walls. The project is co-sponsored by the Japanese government, the Uzbek Culture Ministry, and UNESCO, the United Nations cultural heritage agency. Tokyo is slated to contribute $700,000 to the project.

Michael Barry Lane is UNESCO's representative in Uzbekistan. He says the agreement is actually several years old, but that work was delayed following the events of 11 September 2001, which prompted the U.S. war in Afghanistan against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants: "In fact it was approved about two years ago. But unfortunately, between the time that the project document was signed and when it was supposed to start, the situation in neighboring Afghanistan worsened and the security was tightened in Termez region and Surkhandar'ya province. So it meant that, in fact, we were not able to bring any Japanese experts here."

The Fayaz Tepa site consists of a rectangular building complex with a stupa, a dome-shaped shrine containing sacred Buddhist relics. The walls of the sanctuary and parts of the central court bear the remains of mural paintings. Lane says the preservation work is likely to start "very soon," adding that the restoration of Fayaz Tepa is only the beginning of a more ambitious project: "The [Uzbek] Ministry of Culture has prepared a draft preservation plan, and a preliminary project has been prepared for the conservation of the site. [This eventually] will take in not just Fayaz Tepa but all of the antiquities in the Termez region, and integrate them into a kind of master plan, for the preservation of the cultural sites in Termez region dating from the Islamic period and the pre-Islamic period and so on, and for the development for cultural tourism."

Several other Buddhist monuments have been discovered in the surroundings of ancient Termez. Kara Tepa, a complex of Buddhist monastic and ritual structures, and the 16-meter high Zurmala tower, the largest Buddhist stupa remaining in the region, are among the most attractive.

The excavations of such sites has lent valuable insight into the culture of the region's former Buddhist community with the discovery of sculptures, paintings, and building inscriptions. Many of these historic relics have been gathered at the Surkhandar'ya Regional Museum of Termez, and the Museum of the History of the Peoples of Uzbekistan in Tashkent. Excavation work at the sanctuary of Fayaz Tepa has turned up one of the most celebrated pieces of early Central Asian art: a limestone sculpture showing the Buddha in meditation with disciples.

Traces of Buddhism have been found in all five former Soviet Central Asian republics. But Lane explains why so many Buddhist sites are concentrated around Termez, the former northern capital of ancient Bactria, a historic region that included southern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and northern Afghanistan: "The main inspiration for the Buddhist culture transmitted to China and Japan was the Greco-Buddhist culture -- or Hellenistic culture -- which flourished in Gandahara, in today's northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, from about the first century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. The trade route from Gandahara to the northwest also left a lot of influences and a lot of vestiges along the Amu Darya River in Central Asia. And the center of this region was Termez."

Founded 2,500 years ago in the foothills of Nepal, Buddhism spread to Gandahara. From there, the religion traveled along trade routes to reach Parthia in modern Turkmenistan and northeastern Iran, and Bactria. Mostly from Bactria, Buddhism arrived to Sogdia in central Uzbekistan and northwestern Tajikistan. Later, in the seventh century, Buddhism continued its route to southern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan.

"In Tajikistan and in Kyrgyzstan there are also some Buddhist sites dating from a later period, from the seventh and eighth centuries," Lane said. "There is one in Kyrgyzstan close to Bishkek, which is called Krasnaya Rechka (Kyzylsuu). And there is an important site in Tajikistan called Ajina Tepa. It contained the biggest reclining Buddhist statue in Central Asia [the 'Buddha in Nirvana' statue] which is now conserved in a museum in Dushanbe."

Central Asia was home to many religions before the arrival of Islam. The Magok-i-Attari mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, illustrates this cultural diversity. It was built upon a Zoroastrian temple, which in turn was built upon a Buddhist shrine.

The Uzbek historian Malik Abdyrazzoqov encourages the government to protect the country's diverse heritage at all costs: "The history of Central Asia is very old. Here we had different religions like Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, Buddhism. We had the influence of Indian, Iranian, Turkic cultures as well as Islam. All of this is the nation's heritage. Every nation has to have its own heritage. It doesn't make any difference if it is the heritage of the Russian, the Tajik, or the Jews. There's no difference. We have to say that this is all world culture."

Lane says projects like the restoration of Fayaz Tepa contribute to the improvement of international understanding, dialogue between cultures, and the peaceful resolution of crisis. He echoes a statement issued by the Japanese Embassy calling the preservation project a "symbol of tolerance" that is especially crucial at times of religious divisions like those racking the world today.

But some local observers warn the wave of cultural awareness might in fact damage rather than restore the country's historic monuments. Allimardon Annaev, a Tashkent-based historian, says cultural festivals and other events in Uzbekistan often include fireworks and cannon shots that do irreparable damage to centuries-old monuments like the Registan mosque in Samarkand. He says the problem is not handled by the authorities although newspapers have reported this fact.

"I have myself witnessed how tables and ceramic bricks -- some hundreds of years old -- breaking and falling as a result of cannon fire," Annaev said. "And, as these special cannon fires were shot, cracks appeared on the walls of the Registan Square, on the walls of the Shir Dor madrassah, and on the minarets."

Still, Lane says the Uzbek policy is very much in line with that of UNESCO's in terms of promoting cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue, and the revival of traditional cultures. He says Uzbekistan celebrates its history as a continuous chain of civilization that includes all periods and influences.

(Mirasror Ahrorov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report from Tashkent.)

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