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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
"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
Tajik culture minister, who was promoting ancient
Iranian culture, meanwhile, was assassinated in
September, stalling movement toward renewed
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
meanwhile, is eager to revive excavations in
Afghanistan and put an end to the peddling of
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