In the Boysun region of southeastern Uzbekistan, a joint Russian-Uzbek archaeological expedition recently achieved an historic first . They have just finished their initial round of excavations at an ancient fortress known as Uzundara. This was one of a group of military installations built in the region approximately 2,300 years ago, when the lands of what is now southern Uzbekistan were part of the larger central Asian kingdom of Bactria.
Between 2013 and 2019, archaeologists assigned to explore ancient Bactrian ruins carried out excavations on the perimeter of the fortress complex, in a section known as the citadel. In 2021 these researchers from the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Uzbekistan’s Institute of Art Studies of the Academy of Sciences, and the Ikuo Hirayama International Caravan Sarai of Culture in Tashkent, Uzbekistan finally turned their attention to the central area of the Uzundara fortress, and to its surrounding walls.
Details about the fortress were initially obtained from ground-penetrating radar and topographic surveys. These revealed the presence of the main quadrangle and the triangular citadel, along with a tall outer protective wall that included 13 rectangular watch towers.
A view of the excavations of the main quadrangle of the Uzundara fortress in 2021. ( Institute of Archaeology RAS )
Through their initial discoveries, the archaeologists have established that Uzundara was constructed sometime early in the 3rd century BC. At this time, Bactria was part of the Hellenistic (Greek) Seleucid Empire , a breakaway kingdom formed from the larger Macedonian Empire that had been created by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.
The Seleucid Empire faced continuing problems with nomadic raiding groups from the north, and fortresses like Uzundara were constructed to protect the Bactrian border of the empire from these enemies specifically. The fortress saw plenty of action over the course of its 100-year-plus existence, before finally being destroyed by the nomads it was built to stop sometime during the mid-2nd century BC.
A variety of arrowheads vlot and signet rings, plus Chinese crossbow bolt on the left are evidence of the battles for this stragetic point. ( Institute of Archaeology RAS )
“Excavations have shown that the fortifications are perfectly preserved,” commented Russian Academy of Sciences archaeologist Nigora Dvurechenskaya, one of the leaders of the latest expedition. “For the first time since the destruction of the fortress, the walls of Uzundara saw the light again: we uncovered half of the corner tower, which remained two stories high, opened the [tower] passage and the fortress walls with two galleries, which survived to a height of up to three meters.”
The Rise and Fall of the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom
The current excavations have produced intact artifacts and remains that have allowed the archaeologists to reconstruct the fortress’s history, as its ownership was passed from one Hellenistic ruler to another.
Original construction at the Uzundara site was initiated under the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus I, who ruled the country from 281 BC to 261 BC. What is the southern part of Uzbekistan now was the northern border of Bactria at that time, and it was from this direction that nomadic invaders from the north and east would make their incursions into Seleucid territory.
While the purpose of the fortress at Uzundara never changed, the political identity of those that possessed it did.
A silver coin of the Alexander type, presumably from the time of the co-reign of Antiochus I and Seleucus I, ca. 295-280. ( Institute of Archaeology RAS )
Around 255 BC, the governor of Bactria, Diodotus, declared his nation’s independence from the Seleucid Empire, effective immediately. Surprisingly, it seems Antiochus II, the then-ruler of the Seleucid state, accepted this declaration without a violent response. Diodotus soon named himself king of the independent Graeco-Bactrian kingdom, in the process establishing the Diodotid Dynasty that would rule the kingdom for the majority of its 150-year existence.
Despite the shift in political authority, the threat from northern nomads remained the same. Under Diodotus and his successors, Uzundara continued to function as a military outpost on a dangerous border. The threat remained the same after the Diodotid Dynasty was overthrown by Euthydemus, the governor of the Graeco-Bactrian satrap (province) of Sogdiana, who then established his own ruling dynasty starting around the year 230 BC.
Later on, the northern threat continued to worry King Eucratides the Great , an ancestor of the Diodotids who overthrew the Euthydemid Dynasty and restored the Diodotid Dynasty to power in 171 BC.
Silver and copper coins of Euthydemus I and a bronze arrowhead. ( Institute of Archaeology RAS )
Ultimately, the concerns of all these leaders proved to be prophetic. Sometime after Eucratides came to power, nomadic invaders succeeded in destroying the fortress at Uzundara. Only a few decades later a nomadic group from western China known as the Yuezhi overran the whole country, conquering an independent Graeco-Bactria kingdom that had feared their arrival since its very beginning.
The Construction, Destruction, and Rebirth of Uzundara
In an Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences press release , Nigora Dvurechenskaya provided a detailed update of the artifacts and remains that have been uncovered in the main quadrangle and near the outer walls of Uzundara so far.
Among the highlights are several coins bearing the insignia of Euthydemus I, which dates them to around 230 BC. At a lower (earlier) layer, excavations produced a single coin of an Alexandrian type, which was minted during the reign of Antiochus I (281 BC to 261 BC). Remnants of weapons and ceramic pottery were also found at this earlier level, giving archaeologists an interesting glimpse into how soldiers were living and how they were armed when the fortress was first constructed.
Left: Greek inscription on a jug. Right: fragment of a terracotta decorative panel. ( Institute of Archaeology RAS )
From the final era in which Uzundara was occupied, the archaeologists unearthed a Chinese crossbow bolt with a well-preserved iron base. Perhaps this had been seized by the Bactrians from an earlier Yuezhi raid.
The fortress wall and northeast corner tower were found preserved up to a height of 12 feet (3.5 meters) in the former case and 15 feet (4.5 meters) in the latter. Estimates are that the tower once rose as high as 26 feet (eight meters). Two intact passageways were found that led from the tower to the outer eastern walls, revealing more about the architectural design of the imposing edifice that was constructed to defend Bactria’s northern border.
Access to the shooting gallery from the northeast tower. ( Institute of Archaeology RAS )
In retrospect, it is clear that the fortress of Uzundara was doomed from the start. In its construction were planted the seeds of its destruction. Once it was erected the fortress immediately became a target for nomadic invaders, who would know that destroying it would open a big hole in Bactria’s first line of defense. When the Yuezhi finally overran Bactria in the late second century BC, they faced no resistance from soldiers stationed at Uzundara, which had already been destroyed and abandoned.
But now the remains of this ancient fortress have been rediscovered. Over the next several years, Russian and Uzbek archaeologists will be kept busy at the site, performing many excavations and uncovering even more amazing artifacts that show what life was like for soldiers who guarded the ancient kingdom of Bactria 2,000 years ago.
Top image: A view of the excavations of the main quadrangle of the Uzundara fortress in 2021. Source: Institute of Archaeology RAS
By Nathan Falde