Sophie Ibbotson, who sits on the RSAA Council, writes from the RSAA Uzbekistan Tour which visited the country last month.
There is no benefit in my writing to you of the wonders of Khiva, Bukhara or Samarkand. These are well enough known that each of us already has in our own mind a picture of the place, and that picture is more or less true. Instead, I want to transport you south to the border with Afghanistan, and more than a millennium before the first Timurid stones were laid.
A 40-minute rove from the dusty border city of Termez lies Kampir Tepe. Most likely founded in the 3rd century BC, this was a thriving Buddhist city on the banks of the Oxus River (now the Amu Darya). There were stupas, temples and monasteries here, of course, but also heavily fortified walls from where you could look south towards the greener hills of Afghanistan; caravanserais and markets; and city streets and common homes.
As you approach the site, the hilltops increasingly take on manmade forms. The sun baked mud bricks of ancient structures, dissolved and misshapen by 2,000 yard of weathering, are scarcely distinguishable from the earth from which they were first formed. Only an occasional vertical surface and the crunch of terracotta pottery shards under foot gives away their secret past.
The main excavation of Kampir Tepe was done in the 1980s, a decade after the site had first been identified during a survey of the Amu Darya riverbank. We approached on foot, navigating around the barren canyon created by the long-departed river. The sun beat down, mercilessly hot, and from the flood plain we could hear the occasional shrieks and yelps of the human crow scarers guarding the crops.
We made our way to Kampir Tepe’s fortress, also known as the Kafir Qala, which was a Kushan stronghold at the meeting point of multiple trading routes. Entering the site via one reconstructed section of wall, the entire excavation area was laid out before us, some 400m long in total. The archaeologists dug down several metres deep in places, so this is likely the only place in the world where you can walk along Kushan streets, step into their houses, and look down into the wells and pantries.
The treasures found here, of course, were removed at the time to museums elsewhere in Russia and Uzbekistan, but that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s the scale of the site that you appreciate, as well as the sense, like in Pompeii, that the residents have only recently got up and left. Great pieces of terracotta, most likely from food storage jars, are left in the kitchens and store rooms, and when you stand atop a wall, looking out towards the river and thence Afghanistan, the view is completely unchanged in two millennia.