When it comes to history and architecture, Uzbekistan is best known for Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, which are all rich in architectural masterpieces from the Silk Road era and beyond. The downside: During the high season, these cities are busy with tourists.
If you like to get away from the crowds, head out south to Termez. Situated right north of the border with Afghanistan, we found the Termez region to be rich in Silk Road history as well. Home to easygoing locals who are always willing to help and chat, the sites close to each other, and the town of Termez being a convenient base from where to explore all treasures, we happily spent a couple of days here to see the sites.
In and around Termez you will find ruins of ancient settlements as well as Buddhist and Islamic sites that stand testimony to the Silk Road’s rich history. Stroll among the remains of the city founded by Alexander the Great, look up to what’s left of a 16-meter high stupa, or stand in awe of the richly decorated marble tombs of Sufi saints.
The photos below will give you a good impression of what to expect but first, let’s take a quick look at the Silk Road history itself and how it affected Termez.
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Silk Road History in a Nut Shell
The empires of the Persians, Alexander the Great, as well as the Han Dynasty in China lay the foundations for overland routes that connected the East and West. Some 2,000 years ago, the Silk Road was born.
The Silk Road never was one particular route. Over the centuries, overland routes changed depending on aspects such as climate and safety issues but all of them, at some point, crossed Central Asia.
Fascinating books have been written about Silk Road history. The books leave us bewildered and have also made us realize how embarrassingly little we know about Central Asian and Silk Road history.
In The Silk Roads; A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan, the author quotes Wolf on what we westerners generally consider to be ‘our’ history:
If you feel, or recognized, that this indeed is ‘your’ history, buy the book and start reading! (or any other of the great books on the Silk Road). A whole new world will open op to you – promised!
Anyway, I totally digress, which happens once I start talking books 🙂
Read More: Books about Central Asia & the Silk Road
Termez History in a Nutshell
The history of Termez can essentially be broken down into three eras:
1. Alexander the Great invasion and subsequent settlements of Greek troops along the banks of the Oxus (Amu Darya River). Termez became an important crossroad during the first twelve centuries or so of the Silk Road era. Among the rulers were the Kushans, Seljuks, Ghaznavids, and Khorezmshah. The flourishing times ended as a result of the destruction of Old Termez by Genghis Khan.
- Related sites: Kampyr Tepe, Kyr Kyz Fortress, Zurmala Tower, Kara Tepe, and Fayaz Tepe (see below for photos).
2. The rise of New Termez in the 14th century and Timurid era.
- Related sites: The Sultan Saodat Complex and the Al Hakkim At-Termizi Mausoleum (see below for photos).
3. The modern era started with the Russian takeover, who built Termez as a garrison town. The Russians used the nearby Friendship Bridge to invade Afghanistan in 1979. Even though Uzbekistan has been independent since 1991, the modern-day town still feels very Russian with wide, grid-plan boulevards and concrete apartment buildings. You can see Termez is developing rapidly with construction going on all over the place.
- Related sites: The new mosque (see below for photos)
Silk Road History In and Around Termez
The Archeological Museum
Before heading out to any of the ruins, take your time for the archeological museum in Termez. There is a lot of history to take in and visiting the museum will help you understand the significance of the Silk Road sites in the region.
There are a number of rooms displaying scale models of the most important sites as well as treasures found in and around Termez.
- Address: At-Termeziy 29A, +998 76 227-30-17
- Opening hours: 9 am-6 pm
- Entrance fee: 20,000 sum per person / additional fee for taking pictures (I believe 5,000 sum)
- GPS waypoint: 37.24427, 67.282648
Buddhist Archeological Sites
The remains of two Buddhist monasteries some 10 kilometers northwest of Termez predate the conquest of Islam and are from around the 3rd century AD. Fayaz Tepe and Kara Tepe lie near to each other.
We visited the beautiful ruins of Fayaz Tepe late afternoon, when the sun covered these ancient walls in warm, dark-red tinges. Watching the sunset over the desert is a good reason to linger until the end of the day (or rough camp in the surrounding area)!
- Entrance fee Fayaz Tepe and Kara Tepe: 7,000 sum pp
- There is also a small museum (and public toilet) down the path of Fayaz Tepe (we didn’t visit it and I don’t know whether there is an entrance fee).
- GPS Waypoint Fayaz Tepe: 37.28624, 67.188077
The Zurmala Tower lies close to the main road north of Termez. Older than the Buddhist monasteries, the remains of the once 16-meter-high tower that once was part of a Buddhist stupa, dates from the 1st or 2nd century.
It has a massive crack in it, and at the back is a hollowed-out space where people have kindled fires. Some of the holes in the structure are used by big yellow/red wasps to build big nests, so do pay attention to where you walk.
- You’ll have to walk across an agricultural field to get close by so make sure to wear comfortable shoes.
- No entrance fee.
- It lies some 7 kilometers north of Termez, on walking distance from the M39.
- GPS waypoint: 37.263904, 67.232358
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Kampyr Tepe, or Alexandria on the Oxus
This is arguably the most impressive of all Silk Road history sites in and around Termez. Founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, Kampyr Tepe has revealed Macedonian, Graeco-Bactrian and Kushan finds.
Behind a restored wall stretch the ruins of Alexandria on the Oxus, as the settlement is also known. Take your time to just wander about, imagining what this ancient site may have looked like. From here you have views of the lower-lying plains now used to cultivate crops.
- No entrance fee.
- We visited Kampyr Tepe in the morning but I imagine that for photography late afternoon would be the best time.
- Kampyr tepe lies about 40 kilometers northwest from Termez, west of the M39.
- GPS waypoint: 37.410717, 67.027904
Kyr Kyz Fortress
In the same area as the Sultan Saodat Memorial Complex you will find the Kyr Kyz Fortress (’40 Girls Fortress’). The remains are not of a fortress but probably a caravanserai or Samanid-era summer palace
Some sections have been restored while other parts have been left alone. A beautiful site to wander about and get a sense of the scale of the place.
- No entrance fee.
- GPS Waypoint: 37.266643, 67.290143
The 16th-century Kokildor Khanaka lacks the typical blue tiles but is attractive exactly because of its undecorated facade.
On walking distance lies the more elaborate Sultan Saodat Memorial Complex, which consists of 17 mausoleums, mosques and khanakas (hostels for Sufi holy men) dating from the 11th century onwards. This is truly a gem, a place to check out quietly, peeking inside when doors are closed, or respectfully checking out the tombs in some of the rooms.
- Kokildor Khanaka and the Sultan Saodat Memorial Complex lie about 8 kilometers outside of modern Termez and within walking distance from each other.
- GPS Waypoint Kokildor Khanaka: 37.260434, 67.298521
- GPS Waypoint Sultan Saodat Memorial Complex: 37.263097, 67.309414
About 6 kilometers outside modern Termez you will find Al Hakkim At-Termizi Mausoleum, the pilgrimage site cum burial ground of an important 9th-century Sufi saint and mystic.
The mausoleum, mosque, khanaka, caves, and a small museum are all part of a green and flower-rich park. Around the park are remains of Old Termez.
- Entrance fee: 17000 sum.
- GPS waypoint: 37.265867, 67.189197
The New Mosque
Not Silk Road history related but well worth a visit is the impressive, brand new New Mosque in modern Termez.
- No entrance fee
- GPS waypoint: 37.233248, 67.257824
Practical Information for your Stay in Termez
Where to eat, get money, and how to get around:
To drink tea & eat
Enjoy the outdoor terrace in the shade of trees next to the main market place on Termezi (street). It’s next to the Ybileynyy, western-style, supermarket. Besides drinking tea you can eat too, e.g. a hearty dish of laghman (if you want, accompanied by a shot of vodka, which is sold here too!)
To get money
There are many banks and ATMs in Termez that work with credit cards. We found only one that worked with our Maestro bank card: the ASAKA bank on 45 A Navoi (street).
GPS waypoint: 37.23623, 67.289881.
Around the market place (bazaar) you’ll find many money changers.
To get around
There are lots of buses, minibusses, and cabs.
Don’t forget to bring
- The obvious one: Your camera!
- Because of the strong sunshine: sun lotion / hat / sunglasses.
- Because of that heat, you’ll need to make sure to stay dehydrated. Please do the environment a favor and don’t buy plastic bottles. Bring a stainless-steel water bottle and a water filter system. There is an amazing selection of small, handy, water filter systems out there, such as MSR water filters or, even smaller, a SteriPen or Lifestraw. Or carry water purification tablets if weight and space really are a big issue (we do so on our long-distance hikes).
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Resources to Prepare your Overland Trip in Uzbekistan
To get the best information about other places to visit in Uzbekistan, check out:
- Uzbekistan Travel Guide, by Bradt Travel Guides
- Caravanistan, the ultimate online resource on Central Asia.
- Journal of Nomads has a number of great blog posts on Uzbekistan.
- iOverlander, the place where overlanders share practical information.
Read More: Chores when Overlanding in Uzbekistan
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