July 27, 2019
Imagine it is 1st millennium BCE and you come across a small settlement on the right bank of a meandering river. The kingdom is Balkh or Bactria and the river is Amu Darya. The settlement is called Taro Maetha in Bactrian, meaning “settlement across the river”. Fast forward to 1st and 2nd century BCE and the town flourishes with trade along the river as well as overland with lands in the east as well as Persia in the west. A couple centuries more and it sees the Macedonian named Alexander come sweeping in like a hurricane, conquering all that lay before him. As he had done many times before, he founds a citadel here, calling it Alexandria Oxiana and the town becomes Antiocha Termita. We now know it as Termez.
Each epoch has left their mark and the layers sifted by excavations show pot sherds from 1st millennium with scratched patterns, terracotta figurines of goddesses, pots and pans of increasingly complex designs, coins from Greco-Bactrian eras and those of Kushan eras.
The Al Hakim mausoleum that is a popular local outing on a weekend, itself is built on the remains of a stupa from the Kushan era. Wandering out on the site, I see a number of metal roofs protecting underground storages carved out of rock and soil. The basements or perhaps even the buildings are all that remain of old Termez. Climbing down into the caves is apparently a popular pastime as hordes of locals slither into one hole or another.
But the last one has no caves; it has a couple of trees growing out of the brick-face. I see bits of ribbon and cloth tied to the branches. There is something familiar about it I think. And then it clicks into place.
I saw this just a couple of weeks ago at the shrine of Haji Pirada in Balkh, Afghanistan. The armed and guarded border might run through the area now, but the traditions and customs remain the same. They have probably been the same for many a century.