Termez, along with its previous incarnations, has been a Silk Road hub for more than 2500 years. Throughout its illustrious history, the city switched rulers, religions, allegiances and even locations with the consummate ease of a circus performer.
Gather its faded stars under one roof and sit back to watch Buddhist monks discuss philosophy with Mongol invaders, Greek garrison guards ogle Soviet tanks and Bactrian Silk Road traders talk shop with modern Afghan entrepreneurs.
Strategically perched on the Amu Darya, ancient Termez has seen borders become bridges and then become borders again. With the security situation in Afghanistan what it is, Termez and the wider Surkhondarya province remain a cul-de-sac. For those who do make it this far, a variety of Islamic and especially pre-Islamic sights await.
In the wake of Alexander the Great’s invasion, Greek troops built a line of fortifications along the banks of the Oxus, and Termez grew up at a crossing point on the river as part of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom, its capital in Afghan Balkh.
The ensuing centuries were to see Termez thrive at the crossroads of an intense material, spiritual and artistic melange, where the afterglow of Mediterranean classicism collided with the nomadic Turkic and the Buddhist Indian world to shape a new Bactrian identity.
When the Bactrian state finally collapsed, it was the first such event in history to be recorded in both Greek and Chinese histories, expressive testament to the extent in which Bactria managed early on to bridge the Eastern and Western worlds.
The succeeding Kushan ruled an empire that stretched from Delhi to Khorezm, an empire every bit as powerful as its contemporaries in Rome, Parthia and Xi’an, but which remains to this day largely anonymous. Indian trade brought Buddhism and Gandharan art, who both found a patron in the Kushans’ greatest ruler, Kanishka I. When the Chinese monk Xuanzang arrived in Tarmita (Termez) in 630, he counted more than 12 monasteries housing some 1100 monks.
By the 7th century, though, Buddhism was already in decline and the area was ready for a hostile takeover by Arab invaders, energised by Islam. The Arab general Musa ibn Qasim seized Termez in 689 and proclaimed himself king, only to be overthrown by Caliph Uthman in 704.
In the 10th and 11th centuries Termez rose again, this time under the rule of local dynasties and the Bukharan Samanids. The Sultan Saodat complex and the Al Hakkim At-Termizi mausoleum still testify to Termez’s regional significance at the turn of the millennium.
Time was running out, though; the Mongol hordes were approaching. In 1220 Genghis Khan and his men razed the city and killed every man, woman and child inside the city walls.
New Termez rose up in the 14th century, slightly to the east from Old Termez. When Ibn Battuta visited, he found a thriving city with a famous river market. Termez’s perfume and soaps were in high demand; not for locals, though, it seems, as Ibn Battuta remarks how local women only washed their hair in sour milk.
The city’s reconstruction continued apace, so much so that in 1404 the Spanish ambassador Clavijo complained Termez was so noisy it could be heard in Balkh 100 km away! After the Timurid high point, the area largely disappeared from the pages of history as local rulers squabbled away, until Russia finally took over in the 19th century.
The third and final city of Termez is from that time, a Russian garrison town on the southernmost border of the Russian Empire. A naval base was built on the river at nearby Chardzhou, and military boats monitored the border closely.
For 80 years or so Termez was one of the furthest and most sensitively sealed outposts of the Soviet empire, enforcing an unnatural religious cut-off point between Islam and atheism. From the mid-1990s, it has marked Uzbekistan’s front-line with militant Islam.
Modern-day Termez, a Soviet-planned city of grid plan boulevards and unsensibly spaced-out developments, bears few traces of its compelling history. The interesting bits are found on the edge of town, or just beyond.
Like elsewhere, life revolves around the bazaar on At-Termizi street near the crossroads with Navoiy street. The clock tower here marks the center of town.
Plenty of restaurants, fast food places and shops line At-Termizi street, while a bit more north you will find the archaeology museum, the only real sight inside the city. When picking a place to stay in Termez, it is sensible to base yourself here.
Sights & planning
Should you visit?
Termez is great for anyone who likes their sights quiet and undisturbed; there are few other tourists around. But beware that the oldest sights are all archaeological sites – which are not for everyone. All the valuable finds have been taken away to museums. You know for yourself if you enjoy this kind of thing.
Backpackers on a budget need to consider the costs: we recommend to visit with a guide and driver (~60$).
If you are headed to Tajikistan via Denau, definitely detour. If not, it depends on your interest in history and wanting to see a different side of Uzbekistan.
Surkhandarya province as a whole, with its sparse mesas, desert landscapes, grottoes, Sufi mausoleums, waterfalls and mountain villages, is best experienced with your own car, or with a guide driving you around. The same goes for Termez: hire a driver + guide for a half or full day excursion if you do not have your own car – some sights are not served by public transport. If you are on a tight budget, you will have to work harder to try and see everything, and make sense of it.
A 4-hour excursion is enough to have a look at the sites just outside Termez: Fayaz Tepe & Zurmala stupa, Sultan Saodat & Kokildor Khanaka, Kyrk Kyz and Al Hakkim At-Termizi. If you add on Kampyr Tepe and the Jarkurgan minaret, it will be a full 7-hour day.
If you have a serious interest in archaeology or Islamic architecture, you will need several days to see it all. Even if you don’t, we do recommend taking the trouble to go as far as Kampyr Tepe; most general-interest tourists rate it as a very impressive site.
Keep in mind that Termez is situated in the hottest part of an already very hot country. Avoid the summer months.
To put everything in context, first visit the archaeological museum. After that, weave your way through history via the following sites:
- Alexandrian site: Kampyr Tepe
- Buddhist sites: Fayaz Tepe & Zurmala stupa
- Early Islamic era:
- Post-Mongol: Sultan Saodat & Kokildor Khanaka
Near the Afghan border are 3 more archaeological sites of significance: Kara Tepe (Buddhist monastery), Ayrtam and Kobadiyen (site of the Oxus treasure). You will need a special permit to visit these. In any case, the major finds from Kara Tepe are now residing in the history museums of Termez and Tashkent, while the Oxus treasure is in the British museum in London.
More obscure sights in the region are plenty, for instance Dalverzin Tepe or the labyrinth fortress of Sapalli Tepe. Start your research at the archaeological museum.
55 km north of Termez, near the town of Shirabad, stands the mausoleum of Khoja Abu Isa Mohammed Imam Termezi, one of the 7 collectors of the Hadiths.
- Sergei Avtayev: +998 91 237 64 49, [email protected] (hat tip Jon B)
- Rayhon Frunzevna: +998 915 80 89, [email protected]
Where to stay
In-depth reviews are coming soon.
- Surhon has cheap, disgusting doubles for 25$ with a view. Luxe rooms are 40$ and decent: good if you are 3.
- Asson is reasonable value for money at 40$ for a double with all basic amenities.
- Ramz, just behind Surhon, has clean doubles for 30$ and offers basically the same as Asson.
- Meridian is the only luxury hotel. It got a bit old but it’s still the best by far. 80$ for a spacious standard room.
- Did not review Intourist, but it is the only hotel you can book online. Location outside of the center.
Inside the city
Inside the city, various minibuses take you around for 500 or 1000 sum. You can flag a gypsy cab down to anywhere around town for maximum 5000 sum.
Getting in/out of Termez
Termez train station is located a short bus or taxi ride away from the center, at the northern end of At-Termizy. The most useful train is the overnight train between Termez and Tashkent (15h, 15$), which stops at Samarkand. Other destinations like Boysun, Denau and Qarshi are reached faster and cheaper by bus or shared taxi.
For more information, see taking trains in Uzbekistan.
Bus / shared taxi
The bus station is located outside of town on the M39. Minibus 15 takes you there from At-Termizy. You can find buses and shared taxis from here to Denau, Boysun and Qarshi as well as numerous smaller destinations nearby, as well as buses to Uzbekistan’s major cities.
Direct flights connect Termez with Tashkent (1h30, ~75$), Saint-Petersburg and Moscow. The airport is a 15 minute taxi ride from the city center (aim for 10 000 sum).
If you are heading over the Friendship Bridge into Afghanistan, see our notes on crossing the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.