30 km downstream from Termez, Kampyr Tepe was a Macedonian town in Bactria, just north of the river Oxus, founded by Alexander the Great. It might have been the place were he crossed the river, and it was probably called Alexandria on the Oxus; Ai Khanum on the Afghan-Tajik border is also a contender for the title, but evidence nowadays tilts the scales towards Kampyr Tepe.
Founded in the 4th century BCE, Macedonian, Graeco-Bactrian, and Kushan finds point to a Golden Age in the first and second centuries CE, under the rule of Kanishka the Great. Afterwards, the city was abandoned and never returned to after being flooded by the Oxus, thus revealing much about early city planning to archaeologists.
For a long time, the site was off-limits due to its proximity to the Afghan border. Nowadays, you can visit again to see what remains of this famed city. Visitors often rate Kampyr Tepe the most impressive archaeological site in the south of Uzbekistan. The 2500-year-old ruins consist of Hellenistic style fortifications, a residential area, trade suburbs and a port.
Got stuck: how Alexander founded Alexandria-on-the-Oxus
In the summer of 330 BCE, the last Persian king, Darius III Codomannus, was killed by his lieutenants. Alexander the Great, who had been spoiling for a fight for some time already, announced he would punish the murderers of his former enemy. One of the conspirators, Bessus, proclaimed himself king of Persia, and ruled under the name of Artaxerxes V. Hunted down across Persia by Alexander and slowly abandoned by his lieutenants in turn, he retreated to Bactria (southern Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan) and Sogdia (the area of Samarkand).
Alexander was on the move to catch his prey. Detouring through Kapisakanis (Kandahar), he crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and invaded Bactria and Sogdia.
Crossing the river
To get to Bessus, he had to cross the river Oxus first, though. Kampyr Tepe is one likely location where he might have crossed in 329 BCE. Bessus had burnt all the boats, and building a bridge was impossible due to the heavy current; in any case, there was no wood around, and concrete hadn’t been invented yet.
So it had to be done the old-fashioned way: stuffing leather tent covers and water skins with straw to float soldiers across. The whole operation took 5 or 6 days.
Then something strange occurred, if we can believe the ancient sources. As Alexander’s army approached a town, its inhabitants surrendered in great celebration. They spoke a form of degenerated Greek and claimed to be descendants of a Greek clan from Milete, deported there 150 years earlier by the Persian king Xerxes.
The invading army did not deliver on local hopes of liberation, though. Alexander judged the deported Greeks to be traitors who abandoned their homeland and conspired with the Persian enemy. The town was completely leveled, and every man, woman and child within the city walls was butchered.
Then it was time to deal with Artaxerxes V. Alexander saw to a proper punishment: Artaxerxes was defaced, literally, before being either (here the sources disagree) crucified, or strapped between 2 bent trees and ripped to pieces when the saplings sprang upright.
The Macedonian conqueror then proceeded north to the banks of the Syr Darya, where he founded Alexandria Eschate (today’s Khujand) to fence the border from the nomadic, unpredictable Sakh people.
Founding Alexandria on the Oxus
Then, an insurrection started, which was to last for several years. Like many other armies after him, Alexander got stuck in Afghanistan. Because the rebels were supported by the native population, he decided to resettle everyone in newly founded cities.
Two of these have been identified: Ai Khanum in northeastern Afghanistan and Kampyr Tepe in southern Uzbekistan. He left thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of his Greek mercenaries behind to keep the place under control. The local population became serfs to the Greeks.
Still, the rebellion continued. Only after Alexander married a local princess did things (temporarily) quiet down, and he could continue his campaign into India.
After walking across a little bridge, climb on top of a big sand ridge to see the panorama unfold of a complete, mostly excavated city, lying on the edge of a platform high above the river plain. In big, comfortable houses some 600 families must have lived.
Other than Ai Khanum, where a theater and agora have been identified, Kampyr Tepe looks more like a fortification. Big civil buildings have not been excavated, although they could have been located downstream where they got washed away in floods. What has been found, suggests Kampyr Tepe had a logistical function: there are tons of dolia (huge earthenware pots) just laying around the site: too many to keep in a museum.
The citadel is big, consisting of more than 100 rooms. Besides ceramics and sculpture, some unique Bactrian manuscripts on papyrus have been unearthed at Kampyr Tepe.
There is evidence that a number of different religious groups co-existed peacefully in Kampyr Tepe: relics of Hellenism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism from similar time periods have been discovered here. Religious tolerance and syncretism flourished under the Kushans. Outside of the city walls you can see the ruins of a Buddhist monastery with clear influences of Zoroastrianism in its architecture.
Visiting the site
- On the map: OSM / Gmaps
- We did not see any public transport going here: you will likely need to hire a driver.
- Entrance is free
Other sights nearby:
- Modern Termez & the archaeological museum
- Fayaz Tepe & Zurmala stupa
- Old Termez & Mausoleum of Al Hakkim At-Termizi
- Jarkurgan minaret
- Kyrk Kyz Fortress, Sultan Saodat & Kokildor Khanaka
Sources: Alexander’s story comes from Into the Land of Bones by Frank Holt (Amazon), where he juxtaposes Alexander’s (mis)adventures with those of more recent would-be conquerors like the British and Americans.