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Ancient Buddhist Treasures Emerge Central Asia


News Category: Cultural

 Saturday, 22 December 2001



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 former Iranian provinces in Central Asia.


The land what was the North-West of Iranian Empire and a crucial East-West crossroads, in a land then known as Bactria, is now part of at least four modern countries: Former Iranian provinces of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. No major foreign archaeological team has ventured into Afghanistan for more than 20 years because of war.


The Taliban infuriated historians worldwide earlier this year by detonating two towering statues of Buddha, including murals of Shapur II, the Sasanian Emperor, which was situated over the shoulders of the larger Buddha, hewn from a cliff-face near Bamiyan in the 3rd and 5th centuries, calling them unnecessary for the strict Islamic state.


Tajikistan's chronic instability and Turkmenistan's restrictive regime mean scholars of the region's Buddhist era are pinning hopes on Uzbekistan, also a largely Muslim state but one with a secular government keen to distance itself from Islamic intolerance.


Long before Arab invasion of Iranian provinces 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, Uzbeks the new invaders and modern habitants of former Iranian provinces, put 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 (Âmû-Daryâ) river.


Where they can do their work safely, foreign 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," says 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 dynasty heyday. Historians say it played a key role in exporting Buddhism to Tibet and parts of China.


As Termez prepares to celebrate its 2,500th birthday this month, schools are starting to teach pupils a mixture of fabricated and real region's pre-Muslim history, including its Buddhist era and the preceding centuries when it was populated by Alexander of Macedonia's generals.


The Museum of the History of the Uzbek People in the capital Tashkent boasts a display of Greek coins and column capitals next to Buddhist frescoes and statues.


In next-door Tajikistan a country of Persian speakers, civil war with Uzbek Islamic extremists during much of the 1990s halted nearly all digs. Restoration is still under way on a 13-metre long, supine Buddha statue found in the 1960s.


The "Buddha in Nirvana" statue, of barklike clay, rests in the capital's yet-to-open Museum of Antiquities, near chunks of carved limestone thirsting for money and skilled experts to make them exhibit-ready.


The Tajik culture minister, who was promoting ancient Iranian culture, meanwhile, was assassinated in September, stalling movement toward renewed excavation efforts.


Meanwhile, Uzbekistan's digs have attracted global attention, especially since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union 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 modern Uzbek-Afghan border zone and therefore off-limits to nearly everyone.


A few hundred meters (yards) 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, other than graffiti etched by border guards. Shards of ceramic objects poke up from the dust that Annayev estimates date back more than 1,000 years.


UNESCO wants to use a dlrs 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.


"I think it's going to be a very interesting site for tourists from Japan and elsewhere," Lane said. "We want visitors to have some impression of what the original buildings looked like."


Uzbekistan's government says it wants to restore the sites and attract tourists, but it is too poor to fund excavations and its laws still limit foreigners' movements. It's also unlikely to relax its Afghan border, in its drive to keep out militants, drug smugglers and refugees.


Veterans of Soviet expeditions that uncovered many of these treasures miss the generous communist-era funding, but curse Soviet planners for destroying the historical site of Ayrtam with a road-and-rail bridge across the Amu Darya to support the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.


UNESCO, meanwhile, is eager to revive excavations in Afghanistan and put an end to the peddling of antiquities there.


"It may not be considered a priority at first," Lane said. "But recovery of cultural heritage is also very important to the reconstruction of the country and reconstruction of a national identity."



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