Archaeologists in northwest Pakistan’s Swat Valley have unearthed a roughly 2,000-year-old Buddhist temple that could be one of the oldest in the country, reports the Hindustan Times.
Located in the town of Barikot, the structure likely dates to the second century B.C.E., according to a statement. It was built atop an earlier Buddhist temple dated to as early as the third century B.C.E.—within a few hundred years of the death of Buddhism’s founder, Siddhartha Gautama, between 563 and 483 B.C.E., reports Tom Metcalfe for Live Science.
Luca Maria Olivieri, an archaeologist at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, led the dig in partnership with the International Association for Mediterranean and Oriental Studies (ISMEO). The excavation site is in the historical region of Gandhara, which Encyclopedia Britannica describes as “a trade crossroads and cultural meeting place between India, Central Asia and the Middle East.” Hindu, Buddhist and Indo-Greek rulers seized control of Gandhara at different points throughout the first millennium B.C.E., notes Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA).
The temple’s ruins stand around ten feet tall; they consist of a ceremonial platform that was once topped by a stupa, or dome often found on Buddhist shrines. At its peak, the temple boasted a smaller stupa at the front, a room or cell for monks, the podium of a column or pillar, a staircase, vestibule rooms, and a public courtyard that overlooked a road.
“The discovery of a great religious monument created at the time of the Indo-Greek kingdom testifies that this was an important and ancient center for cult and pilgrimage,” says Olivieri in the statement. “At that time, Swat already was a sacred land for Buddhism.”
In addition to the temple, the team unearthed coins, jewelry, statues, seals, pottery fragments and other ancient artifacts. Per the statement, the temple was likely abandoned in the third century C.E. following an earthquake.
Barikot appears in classical Greek and Latin texts as “Bazira” or “Beira.” Previous research suggests the town was active as early as 327 B.C.E., around the time that Alexander the Great invaded modern-day Pakistan and India. Because Barikot’s microclimate supports the harvest of grain and rice twice each year, the Macedonian leader relied on the town as a “breadbasket” of sorts, according to the statement.
Shortly after his death in 323, Alexander’s conquered territories were divided up among his generals. Around this time, Gandhara reverted back to Indian rule under the Mauryan Empire, which lasted from about 321 to 185 B.C.E.
Italian archaeologists have been digging in the Swat Valley since 1955. Since then, excavations in Barikot have revealed two other Buddhist sanctuaries along a road that connected the city center to the gates. The finds led the researchers to speculate that that they’d found a “street of temples,” the statement notes.
According to Live Science, Buddhism had gained traction in Gandhara by the reign of Menander I, around 150 B.C.E., but may have been practiced solely by the elite. Swat eventually emerged as a sacred Buddhist center under the Kushan Empire (30 to 400 C.E.), which stretched from Afghanistan to Pakistan and into northern India. At the time, Gandhara was known for its Greco-Buddhist style of art, which rendered Buddhist subjects with Greek techniques.