Chingis Khan and his men spent the summer of 1220 in the Nasaf Pasture Lands fattening their horses and confabulating with Sufis. When the grass began to yellow in the early autumn they proceeded 135 miles southeast to the city of Termez, on the way passing through the famous Iron Gate, a narrow defile through the mountains that separate the drainages of the Kaskha Darya and the Amu Darya (the modern-day road from Qarshi to Termez follows the same route). This was the ancient passageway between Sogdiana and Bactria. Alexander the Great probably came this way along with a host of other conquerors, ambassadors, and trade caravans. The name may not be just metaphorical; at one time, it appears, the defile was guarded by an actual iron gate.
Country north of the Iron Gate (click on photos for enlargements)
Cathedral-like rock formations in cliffs along the road
According to officials at a nearby police checkpoint, the original Iron Gate was in this defile. The new road through the area take a slightly different route.
The new road at the southern end of the Iron Gate defile
The old city of Termez is located on the banks of the Amu Darya about four miles northwest of the outskirts of the modern city of Termez. According to local lore the city got its name from the ancient Sogdian word for “crossing” or “transition place”. There was an important ford of Amu Darya here or nearby (the notorious “Friendship Bridge” linking Afghanistan and Uzbekistan is here now,) and the city did serve as a gateway between Mawarannahr and Khorasan to the south.
Termez celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of its founding in April of 2002. This date was chosen arbitrary. In fact, the city may be much older. There was already a city here when the Persian Acheamenid Dynasty occupied the area in the sixth century b.c. In 329 b.c. Alexander the Great conquered the city and under Greek occupation it became known as Demetris, named after one of Alexander the Great’s generals. In the first to third centuries a.d. the city was included in the the Kushan Empire, and it became an important northern outpost of Buddhism (the numerous ruins of monasteries, temples, stupas, and caves can still be seen in the area today). Later it became part of the Persian Sassanid Empire. in 705 a.d. the city was captured by invading Arabs. It population was Islamized, and under the Abbasid Caliphate the city became a focal point of Islam in the region The mausoleum of Hakim al-Termedi (c. 830 a.d.–c. 912 a.d), an influential early Sufi and theosophist, is located next to the ruins of old Termez and is to this day an extremely popular pilgrimage site for Muslims from throughout Inner Asia and beyond. The city was subsequently ruled by Samanids, Ghaznavids, Saljuqs, and Qarakhanids before becoming part other Khwarezmshah’s empire in 1206.
Mausoleum of Hakim al-Termedi
Tomb of Hakim al-Termedi
Near the mausoleum of Hakim al-Termedi are numerous underground chambers. I assumed that this were built by Sufis for use as meditation retreats. I learned later that they were originally built by Buddhists who lived in the area. They may have lived in them and/or used the as retreats. Of course they may also have been used by Sufis after the area was Islamized. These underground chambers may also have been used in the summertime to escape the notorious heat in the area. Termez is the hottest city in Uzbekistan, and that is saying a lot.
Steps to underground retreat
Steps from underground retreat
As soon as Chingis Khan arrived in the area he sent, as usual, envoys into the city to demand its immediate surrender. “But the inhabitants, encouraged by the strength of the fortress, half of whose walls were raised up in the middle of the Oxus [the Amu Darya River; he meant one side of the city bordered on the river], and rendered proud by the multitude of their troops, gear and equipment, would not accept submission but sallied forth to do battle,” according to Juvaini.
Artist’s rendering of the walled city of Termez
The walls of the old city can clearly be seen in this photo. The southern end of the city has been eroded away by the Amu Darya. The mausoleum of Hakim al-Termedi can be seen near the upper left-hand corner of the city walls.
The old city walls. I was told that it was possible to walk around the ruins. When I arrived in Termez, however, I discovered that there was some kind of security alert in effect and the ruins were closed. The walls were patrolled by soldiers with AK47s and they would not even allow anyone to take photos. I snapped this one off when no one was looking. As can be seen from the satellite photo above, the ruins are right on the Amu Darya River, which separates Uzbekistan from Afghanistan. Other areas along the river are always off-limits.
The Mongols set up mangonels and began a continuous day-and-night bombardment of the city. After softening up the walls for ten days, on the eleventh day they stormed the city and quickly seized it. As in Bukhara and Samarkand all the inhabitants were driven out of the city so that it could be looted at will by Chingis’s troops. The inhabitants were then “divided proportionately among the soldiers in accordance with their custom; then they were all slain, none being spared.” One woman who did escape the initial slaughter approached some Mongol soldiers and said, according to the Persian pen-pusher Juvaini:
“Spare my life and I will give you a great pearl that I have.“ But when they sought the pearl she said, “I have swallowed it.” Whereupon they ripped open her belly and found several pearls. On this account Chingiz Khan commanded that they should rip open the bellies of all the slain.
From Termez the Mongol army rode upstream on the Amu Darya into the region of Badakhstan in what is now northeastern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan. Little is known about this winter of 1220–21 campaign by Chingis Khan. The cities of Kangurt and Shuman (current locations unclear) were apparently sacked. Then, according to Juvaini’s brief account, Chingis Khan “sent armies into the whole of Badakhstan and all that country, and conquered and subjugated the peoples, some by kindness, but most by severity; so that in all that region there was left no trace of their opponents.” Chingis Khan and his army spent the winter thus occupied, and March or April of 1221 returned to Termez.