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Ajina-Tepa remain in Tajikistan                     Source: Aleksandar/ Adobe Stock

Ajina-Tepa, Tajikistan – Abandoned Buddhist Cloister on the Famous Silk Road

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Although Central Asia is no longer inundated by tourists, in the past it was a dynamic and diverse area, largely thanks to the Silk Road . One of the many remarkable sites in this region is the Buddhist cloister of Ajina-Tepa in Tajikistan. This ruin is a testament to the Buddhist past of the region and is regarded as the largest such site in all of Central Asia. The cloister has been added to a tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The Mysterious History of Ajina-Tepa in Tajikistan

The modern nation of Tajikistan flourished for centuries because it was located on the Silk Road, the trade network that connected East and West. It was part of several great Empires including the Persian, Seleucid, and Kushan.

Buddhism spread to the area from India and China and was quickly adopted by the urban class, especially the merchants. Buddhist monasteries flourished in the region for hundreds of years and a distinctive form of Central Asian Buddhism emerged. Ajina-Tepa was pivotal to the spread of Buddhism in Central Asia, although little is known about its history. 

In the 8 th and 9 th centuries the Arabs made inroads into the area, especially after the Battle of Talas (July, 751 AD). The area of what is now Tajikistan came under the control of the Abbasid Caliphate . Unlike other faiths, the new Muslim rulers were not tolerant of Buddhism and the monastery may possibly have been raided by Arabs. Although there are few records of the time to explain the reason, the cloister was eventually abandoned and today there are only a small number of Buddhists in the country. Because of the Islamization of the region, the history of Buddhism in the region was largely forgotten until recently.

The location of Ajina-Tepa, Tajikistan (Google Maps)

The location of Ajina-Tepa, Tajikistan (Google Maps)

The cloister is known locally as the Devil’s Hill, a reference to the many sculptures and images of devils that were found in the hills around the site and probably left there to protect the cloister from evil fiends. The site was investigated by archaeologists in the 1960s and 1970s when Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union . Some 1500 artifacts were uncovered, including a huge reclining Buddha in Nirvana, which is now in a museum in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. This is the largest sculpture of the Buddha now in Central Asia since the Taliban destroyed the giant image in Bamyan, Afghanistan in 2001.

The Many Sights at Ajina-Tepa

The cloister was built in traditional Buddhist style and it consists of a monastery and a temple which are enclosed by badly weathered walls. The cloister measures 300 ft by 150 ft (approximately 100 by 50 m).

The large square is surrounded by numerous buildings, many of which are not in a great state of repair as they were originally built of adobe . Around the square, there is a summer house ( ivan) and a number of monks’ cells can also be seen. The gate to the cloister is still evident and it is flanked by the remains of two towers. The remains of a meeting hall or pandus, where the monks would gather for prayer and meetings, are visible. 

The ruins of the temple lie in the northern section of the site. It was here that the giant statue of the Buddha was found on a pedestal.

The entire complex was once connected by a number of corridors some of which can still be seen.  The center of the site is dominated by the Big Stupa which is 67 ft by 19 ft (20 by 5.7 m) wide. It once held relics associated with the Buddha. Although it is now in a state of decay, it was once designed in a star-plan and was accessed by a number of flights of stairs. Monks and pilgrims would circle this monument as part of their devotions. A number of smaller stupas graced at the site, but they have been badly weathered and damaged.

Buddha in Nirvana, National Museum of Antiquities (CC BY 2.0)

Buddha in Nirvana, National Museum of Antiquities ( CC BY 2.0 )

The temple and the cloister were formerly decorated with ornate sculptures and paintings and much of what remains has been restored in an authentic way, during the 2000s.

Visiting Ajina-Tepa in Tajikistan

While there is no public transport to the ruined cloister, the site can be reached from the city of Qurghonteppa by hiring a private taxi which is quite reasonable. It is free to enter the site, but there are no guides and no information available.

Top image: Ajina-Tepa remain in Tajikistan                     Source: Aleksandar/ Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

References

Fodde, E., Watanabe, K., & Fujii, Y. (2007). Preservation of earthen sites in remote areas: the Buddhist monastery of Ajina Tepa, Tajikistan . Conservation and management of archaeological sites, 9(4), 194-218. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/175355207X404188

Fujii, Y., Fodde, E., Watanabe, K., & Murakami, K. (2009). Digital photogrammetry for the documentation of structural damage in earthen archaeological sites: The case of Ajina Tepa, Tajikistan . Engineering Geology, 105(1-2), 124-133 Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0013795208003165

Williams, T. D. (2014). The Silk Roads: an ICOMOS thematic study . International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24240815?seq=1

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