An ancient temple dating back to the early centuries of Buddhism has been unearthed in the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan – part of the ancient Gandhara region which was conquered by Alexander The Great and gave rise to a mixture of Buddhist belief and Greek art.
Archaeologists believe the temple dates to around the middle of the second century BCE, a time when Gandhara was ruled by the Indo-Greek kingdom of northern India, and was built over of an earlier Buddhist temple that could have dated as early as the third century BCE.
This means that people would have built the ancient temple a few hundred years after the death of the founder of Buddhism, Siddhārtha Gautama, who lived in what is now northern India and Nepal between about 563 BCE and 483 BCE.
The excavated remains of the temple found so far, near the center of the modern town of Barikot, are over 3 meters high and consist of a ceremonial platform surmounted by a cylindrical structure which housed a conical Buddhist monument or dome shape. called a stupa.
Above: Much of the work of archaeologists involved excavating the ancient fortress and another temple at the “acropolis” on the outskirts of Barikot.
The temple complex, which was built and rebuilt several times, also included a smaller stupa, a cell or chamber for monks, a staircase, the podium of a pillar or a monumental column, vestibule halls and a public courtyard that overlooked an old road.
Radiocarbon dating will establish precise dates for the structures, but the Barikot temple is clearly one of the earliest Buddhist monuments ever found in the ancient region of Gandhara, Luca Maria Olivieri, an archaeologist at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and the International Association for Mediterranean and Oriental Studies (ISMEO) which led the excavations with Pakistani and Italian colleagues, told Live Science.
Ancient and modern
Italian archaeologists, who have worked at Swat since 1955, began excavations at Barikot in 1984.
Their mission had been to preserve the important archeology of the city by leasing vacant land and digging in as much as possible, thereby protecting it from urban sprawl and clandestine archaeological digs that sought to salvage artifacts for sale in foreign antique markets, he said .
Above: Thousands of ancient artifacts were unearthed during the Barikot excavations, including this Buddha face carved from gray schist.
Until a few years ago, excavations at Barikot had included the southwestern parts of the city and the acropolis – but not the city center, where land rental costs are very high, he said. he declares. (The land at Barikot sites is often private property, and renting it on terms that allow excavation is easier and cheaper than buying it.)
But the newly discovered temple was found on land acquired by provincial archaeological authorities near the center of town, which enabled the team to begin excavations there in 2019. Pits made by looters had previously suggested that something important might be buried there.
“For years, we observed what came out of the foundation trenches of modern houses, agricultural excavations and pits left by clandestine excavations,” Olivieri said. “[So] there were hints that there was a large monument there.”
The temple was located along an ancient road leading to the ancient city‘s main Buddhist monument, a 65-foot-wide (20 m) stupa that was revealed by public works a few years ago. it is now the site of an electricity pylon.
In addition to the architectural features of the buried temple, archaeologists have uncovered more than 2,000 artifacts at the site, including coins, jewelry, seals, pottery pieces, stones and statues, some of which bear inscriptions. that can be used to date them, says Olivieri.
Barikot is mentioned as “Bazira” or “Beira” in classical sources from the time of Alexander the Great, who conquered the already ancient kingdom of Gandhara in 327 BCE. Its name meant “the city of Vajra”, referring to an ancient king mentioned in “The Mahabharata”, a Sanskrit epic poem which is said to relate events from around the 9th and 8th centuries BCE.
Alexander was King of Macedon in Greece, and he led military campaigns in the east against the Persian Empire from 334 BCE, staging an invasion of northwestern India – his most distant conquest – in 326 BC.
Alexander eventually turned back to Europe at the behest of his nostalgic troops, but he died in Babylon in 323 BCE, probably from a disease such as malaria but perhaps from poisoning.
His generals then divided up his territories; the Bactria region north of Gandhara came to be ruled by ethnic Greek kings, while Gandhara reverted for a time to native Indian rule under the Maurya Empire.
Olivieri said Buddhism was already present in Gandhara during the time of Menander I, a descendant of the Greek kings of Bactria, who established the Indo-Greek kingdom around 165 BCE and took over the region, but he may have -be been restricted to the area. the elite.
Later Buddhism became much more widespread and Swat became a sacred center for the religion, especially during the Kushan Empire from around 30 CE to 400 CE when Gandhara became famous for the Greco-Buddhist style which portrayed Buddhist subjects with Greek techniques. art.
Swat also has a temperate microclimate, which allows for two harvests a year – in spring and late summer – so ancient Barikot was an important center for managing the region’s agricultural surplus.
As a result, Alexander probably used the area as a “granary” to supply his armies before continuing their military campaign into southern India. according to a press release from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
Olivieri said the Italian archaeological mission has completed its final season of excavations at Barikot, but the team will return later this year to conduct further investigations at the site and hopefully reveal more of the ancient temple.