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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 April, 2004, 05:02 GMT 06:02 UK
Uzbekistan's best kept secret
By Monica Whitlock
BBC Correspondent, Uzbekistan

Kampyr-Tepe, in southern Uzbekistan, was built at the time of Alexander the Great's empire and occupied for about 500 years until it fell into decline.

Kampyr-Tepe, southern Uzbekistan
The fortified city controlled a key route from central to south Asia

Since it was discovered, a generation ago, it has been closed to the public because it stands in a sensitive and tightly guarded military zone, right on the Afghan border.

The city perched on a high shelf of land - cut into clay walls that dropped sheer into the plains below.

Caught in the light of a winter afternoon, an entire city spread as far as we could see, the dun-coloured dust touched with gold.

It was here that Alexander raised his capital more than 2,000 years ago. This was the furthest conquest, then, of the Greeks in Asia.

From our vantage point, we could see why. Far below, beneath a swirl of starlings, we could see the plains melt into those of Afghanistan, Alexander's route here from Persia.

At our feet spread the whole of the south.


There was not a sound but the birds flocking and turning across the precipice, wheeling and turning back.

The small houses were in the nearest part of the city. Square rooms opened on to a grid of narrow passages, criss-crossing to make streets.

Buddha's head
Stunning artefacts are plentiful

Stacks of pots and plates sat outside, as though the people of Kampyr-Tepe had left the washing up one evening after dinner.

Great round platters and bowls, made of the same ochre dust as the plain.

At first we were amazed. Why had they not been taken off to some museum? Dated, labelled... or stolen even?

But the more we looked, we realised there were just so many, they were ordinary, just part of the land.

When two boys - hard and tough as men - drove their handful of sheep through the city, they did not waste a glance on the pots. Why would they?

Foreigners though, now that was interesting; they spend the rest of the day following shyly and smiling.


Kampyr-Tepe was a fortified city in Alexander's time, and remains a military base to this day for a reason as old as the land - its special position at this crossing between central and south Asia.

It is patrolled by the army of modern Uzbekistan.

Special permission to visit can only be granted by the government in Tashkent.

The way in is through a military checkpoint, at the time specified.

Map showing location of Kampyr-Tepe

Turn up late and the soldiers will bar the way and you will never see Kampyr-Tepe, just the plain around pitted with pill-boxes and fenced with barbed wire.

The deep south of Central Asia has a feel all its own.

It has a special stillness and a scent of new bread from the intense sun beating on the straw, that, mixed with mud, is the building material used 1,000 years ago... and now.

Buried treasure

It wears its past casually. Kampyr-Tepe is just one of its treasures.

There are sights here, in this quiet and private place, that almost anywhere in the world would have bus-loads of visitors trooping to and fro, buying souvenirs and cups of tea.

"You see that big pit there," said an old farmer, Hamrah Baba, living on the plains to the north of Kampyr-Tepe.

"When I was a boy, we used to lower each other down there in turns, hanging on a rope. We did not think it was special.

There are secrets buried with the past... long dead secrets

"Then, these men came from Tashkent and found all sorts of things. They found gold and those chessmen."

The gold was 35kg of solid gold jewellery, set with turquoises. The chess pieces may be the oldest on earth.

The pit where Hamrah Baba once played is in the citadel of Dalverzin-Tepe. Capital of the Kushan empire, it was one of the richest on the planet.

There was not a sound but the starlings, wheeling and flocking, wheeling and turning over the edge of Afghanistan.


There are secrets buried with the past... long dead secrets, and recent political secrets.

Uzbek children
Children gathered at the edge of the excavation at Dalverzin-Tepe

One night in the Soviet time, archaeologists got a call at their dig at a sunken palace right on the Afghan frontier by the river Amu, that some people call Oxus.

It was an urgent order from Moscow. "Move fast," they said. "Get the stuff out, now."

They dug as fast as they could, grabbing from the ground a frieze of marble musicians, and a hoard of daggers - relics of an army that had once passed that way.

They were right to feel that something was up.

It was the winter of 1979 and a few days later, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, across the palace, crunching what was left.


Long before the Arabs came here with their new religion of Islam, Buddhist monks lived in Central Asia, the conduit through which Buddhism travelled from India to the East.

The giant Buddha statues at Bamian in Afghanistan lay on the same road.

Sleeping Buddha in Tajikistan
The sleeping Buddha can be found in the Archaeology House of Tajikistan in Dushanbe

They have been destroyed, but a wonderful sleeping Buddha, 16m long, still lies peacefully in Tajikistan.

And near Kampyr-Tepe, we were invited to the site of a Buddhist lamasery, where the mendicant monks lived underground in a labyrinth, to protect them from the terrible heat and cold of the plain.

One could almost feel their soft steps in their sunken corridors and imagine them rinsing their begged rice at the stone bowl that still stands in their kitchen.

They left no gardens, no orchards, no grand palaces.

What they left was something simpler.

"They left some very special papers," said our guide excitedly. "We found them in sealed jars."

"What did they say?" I asked.

"Oh they said that we too lived here."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 April, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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