All the same, I should like to have seen the ruins of Termez
Byron’s plan was to cross the Oxus river. The river, known by the Latin name Oxus, is also called the Amu Darya and is one of the major rivers of Central Asia. Byron has thus far traveled around Afghanistan and Iran, keeping the Amu Darya north-east, but his idea, was to go beyond that natural border, to the region called Transoxiana (that we can translate roughly “beyond the Oxus”).
But he cannot. On the 29th of May 1934, he is Mazar-i Sharif and writes about how diplomatic, political and military contingencies prevented him from crossing the river. He goes in a sort of fox-and-grapes mode: as the fox in Aesop’s fable starts to dislike the grapes that cannot be reached, Byron reconsiders the importance of crossing the river. Tashkent? It’s not a big deal. The Pata Kissar? Just two tents. The city of Chah Ab? Might have been beautiful, but wait, there are no tigers, so why bothering going there?
But Byron admits: Termez, that should have been cool. And probably, it was precisely because of Termez, that he could not cross the river. Isn’t it ironic?
“All the same, I should like to have seen the ruins of Termez; Yate describes them as looking very impressive from the south bank, and there is an early minaret among them which Sarre illustrates. But it is precisely Termez, I suppose, that those putative agents would object to our seeing. The railway from Bokhara ends there, and the place is held by a regiment from European Russia. It is the Peshawar of Russian Turkestan.”
What did he miss?
THE PALACE OF THE QARAKHANIDS
Built in the 11th century, it is one of the rare monuments in Afghanistan dating back to the early period of Islam that escaped Genghis Khan’s ravages. It was built in the 11th century by the Qarakhanid dynasty and was later restored by the Ghaznavids, in the first decades of the 12th century.
In fact, Ibn Battuta, in his rihla, writes that the city was completely destroyed and that a new city was re-built nearby the old one. In any case, this monument survived.
Its architecture somewhat reminds of the Iranian palace of Ctesiphon and Samarra. The walls are lavishly decorated, and this decoration influenced architecture in the region, of course, but also as far as in India. Some ten years before Byron’s journey, a Russian archaeological expedition, directed by Boris Petrovich Denike, researched the site and published the beautiful stucco decoration for the very first time. Byron would have certainly enjoyed it.
The minaret of Termez has a square base, that becomes octagonal and after that cylindrical. The minaret is made of brick, which is also the material used for the inscription bands that run around the shaft.
The lower inscription is partially ruined, but five words can still be detected:
في سنة ثلث وعشرين واربع مائة
“in the year 423 (AH – 1031-32 CE)”. Thus, according to Sheila Blair historical reconstruction, during the Ghaznavid period.
Above the foundation inscription, runs another inscription band, probably Qur’anic, but illegible. Above this second inscription, there is another Qur’anic inscription, containing the Throne verse, Q 2:255. Above this one, another inscription, always Qur’anic: Q 3: 18, which is the most used verse in the monumental inscriptions in Iran and Transoxiana. Read together, these two Qur’anic inscription underline the theme of the faith in God and the unicity of God. It can be that the Ghaznavid wanted to erect a monument to celebrate their power in a city, Termez, of crucial importance for economy and trade in the area. But also, they wanted to underline the supremacy of the Islamic faith in a context where different religious cultures were brought together. Termez, before the Islamic conquest, was an important center for Buddhism.
It is a romantic coincidence that I could not find any photo of the two monuments that Byron is referring to here. Archnet, usually full of photos and information, have a page dedicated to the Palace of the Qarakhanids, but no photos there. I kind of found a photo on the website of Penn University, but I cannot access it.
The photos of the minaret, are nowhere to be found. You can find photos of another minaret, dated 1108-09, located nearby Termez, on Archnet, but this is not the same minaret.
Let’s just consider this a romantic coincidence, as I said, and continue imagining the ruins and the minaret, not even Byron that went that far, was unable to see.
On the Palace of the Qarakhanids:
Archnet, as I said, has a page devoted to the ruins of the palace.
Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Architecture, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 1999, pp. 411-12, 580.
Edgar Knobloch, Monuments of Central Asia, I.B. Tauris Publishers, London 2001, pp. 148.
On the minaret of Termez:
Sheila Blair, The Monumental Inscriptions in Early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana, Brill, Leiden 1991, pp. 101-102.
On the history of Termez:
The website of UNESCO has a page on the Buddhist past of Termez [link] (last accessed: 6th of May 2018) and on the ancient city and its monuments (not the ones discussed here, though) [link] (last accessed: 6th of May 2018).
G. Le Strange, The Lands of the Eastern Caliphate, Frank Cass & Co., Londra 1966, pp. 401-402.