Italian mission discovers ancient Buddhist temples in Gandhara, Pakistan

An aerial view of the temple

One of the most ancient Buddhist temples in the world has been uncovered during the latest archaeological excavation campaign of the Italian mission in the city of Barikot, in the Swat region of Pakistan

The findings date back to approximately the second half of the 2nd century BC, though they may be even older and date back to the Maurya period (3rd century BC) — only Carbon-14 dating will provide more solid evidence. This discovery sheds new light onto the forms of ancient Buddhism and its spread in old Gandhara, adding a piece to the puzzle of what we know about the ancient city. 

The oldest Italian archaeological mission in Asia was started by Giuseppe Tucci in 1955 and is currently led by Professor Luca Maria Olivieri of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (Department of Asian and North African Studies). Since 2021, Ca’ Foscari began a collaboration with ISMEO (the International Association for Mediterranean and Oriental Studies), which is jointly funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums KP Province (DOAM KP) and the Swat Museum.

“The discovery of a great religious monument created at the time of the Indo-Greek Kingdom testifies that this was an important and ancient centre for cult and pilgrimage. At that time, Swat already was a sacred land for Buddhism,” says Professor Olivieri.

The city of Barikot

Barikot is mentioned in Greek and Latin texts as “Bazira” or “Vajrasthana” — one of the cities besieged by Alexander the Great. The archaeological stratigraphy dug during the campaign and Carbon-14 dated reveal that the city did, in fact, exist during Alexander the Great’s campaigns around 327 BC. Barikot was an important city for the management of all the agricultural surplus of the Swat valley, which is special among the valleys of Karakoram-Hindukush because of its microclimate, which allows for harvesting grain or rice twice a year — once in spring and once at the end of summer. The city was, therefore, a sort of “breadbasket” that Alexander the Great used before continuing his campaign towards India. Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus highlighted the role that Barikot played by describing it as a “rich city” (urbs opulenta) in his Histories of Alexander the Great (Historiae Alexandri Magni).

The excavation site is impressive — located in a vibrant green, lush valley at 800 metres above sea level, between the magnificent Hindu Kush mountains, it has a history that stretches from the Bronze Age to the end of the Middle Ages.

A view of Swat valley and Barikot hill

The temple and archaeological excavations in 2021

Barikot was inhabited without interruptions from Protohistory (1700 BC) until the Middle Ages (16th century AD) and holds over 10 metres of archaeological stratigraphy. In October 2021, as the fieldwork of the ISEMO-Ca’ Foscari Italian Archaeological Mission on the city’s acropolis was coming to an end, the archeologists decided to explore a different location in the centre of the ancient city, which had been plundered — as evidenced by a series of clandestine digger’s trenches — in the land recently acquired by the Pakistani archaeological authorities.

The archaeologists were in for a surprise: their work slowly unveiled a fascinating Buddhist monument, which — despite being repeatedly subjected to acts of vandalism during the years — has been preserved. The temple is over three meters tall and has a particular structure and shape. It is built on an apsidal podium on which stands a cylindrical structure that houses a small stupa. It is clearly an example of Buddhist architecture. On the sides of the front of the monument are a minor stupa, a cell, and the podium of a monumental pillar or column. The staircase leading to the cell has been reconstructed in three phases, the most recent dating back to the 2nd-3rd century AD, coeval with a series of vestibule rooms which used to lead to an entrance that opened onto a public courtyard overlooking an ancient road. 

The oldest stairway of the monument bore in situ half of a step-riser with a dedicatory inscription in Kharosthi, that can be dated to the 1st century AD on palaeographic grounds. The other half of the step-riser was found turned upside down, reused as a floor slab in the later phase of the monument. Moreover, archeologists found some coins in the inferior strata, along with many inscriptions written on ceramics in Kharosthi script. The monument was abandoned at the beginning of the 3rd century AD, when the lower city was destroyed by a devastating 

During the excavations, archaeologists discovered that the monument was built on the remains of an earlier structure flanked by a small, archaic stupa which precedes the Indo-Greek period, around 150 BC, during the reign of the Indo-Greek King Menander I or of one of his first successors. According to Indian Buddhist tradition, Menander I converted to Buddhism. Yet the site held even more surprises for the archaeologists — in December 2021, a few days before the end of the mission, they noticed that some parts of the Indo-Greek monument had been built on an even older structure whose strata included pottery materials and terracotta figurines which are likely to have been used in Barikot during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. 

The chronology of the site will be confirmed by Carbon-14 analyses that will be very accurate, given that during the excavations over 10,000 litres of soil were moved and the team obtained 58 containers of semi-carboned samples. By the end of the excavation campaign in December 2021, 2109 objects were documented and inventoried — pottery, coins, inscriptions, cultures made of stone and stucco, terracotta objects, seals and jewels. The objects were entrusted to the new Swat Museum, in the capital city of Saidu Sharif, which was entirely rebuilt by the Italian Archaeological Mission after the terrorist attack of 2008. This excavation was conducted by Elisa Iori (Max-Weber Kolleg, Universität Erfurt) vice-director of the Mission, and Michele Minardi (Università ‘L’Orientale’ di Napoli).

The 2021 excavation site

Other discoveries

The excavation of the 2021 Mission has brought to light a Shahi Temple dedicated to Vishnu, which measures 21 x 14 metres. Carbon-14 dating indicates it was built around 700 BC and demolished at the time of the Ghaznavid dynasty, after the year 1000 AD.

In addition to the ancient acropolis, the archaeologists discovered a small necropolis which has been explored in collaboration with Massimo Vidale of the University of Padova.

Finally, another finding in Barikot involved the discovery of an ancient street axis of the city, which used to stretch from the ancient city gates to the city centre. The temple discovered in 2021 and another two Buddhist sanctuaries discovered in recent years stood on either side of the ancient road. The discovery of this road, then, seems to indicate that it may have been a “street of the temples” along the main road that connected the outskirts of the city with the acropolis. 



An aerial view of the acropolis

Barikot's future prospects 

The excavation campaign will begin again in February 2022 in the northern part of the monument, in an attempt to find the road that crossed the inhabited area, as well as a series of temple-like structures that were probably even more important than the ones which have already been discovered. 

Another important project related to the excavation and led by Luca Maria Olivieri and Dario Battistel (Ca’ Foscari Department of Environmental Science, Informatics and Statistics) is “Late Antique Swat Ecology and Resilience: Climate and Habitat in Interfacial periods”. The project focuses on Swat’s paleoclimate and on the so-called “Late Ancient Little Ice Age” (LALIA).

The two-year project was funded in the framework of the SPIN 2021 projects at Ca’ Foscari and involves the collaboration of Nicola Di Cosmo (Princeton University), Ulf Büntgen (Cambridge University), Federico Squarcini (Department of Asian and North African Studies) and Elisa Iori (Max-Weber Kolleg, Universität Erfurt). Among the Mission's projects already underway with Ca' Foscari there is "Hellenism and India. Technologies of stone and building sites in Gandhara: Saidu Sharif I" directed by Luca M. Olivieri, who has produced a monograph that is currently being printed by Edizioni Ca' Foscari in the new Marco Polo series directed by Sabrina Rastelli and Elisabetta Ragagnin (Department of Asian and North African Studies). Mention should also be made of the study group "Alexander's Swat: toponymy, archaeology and texts" with Claudia Antonetti (Department of Humanities) and scholars from various universities in Italy and abroad, as well as the SPIN project directed by Claudia Antonetti "Social, ritual and ceremonial use of wine in the Gandharan area, from the Achaemenids to the Kushans", which is being carried out in close collaboration with the Archaeological Mission in Swat.

Photo credits: Missione Archeologica italiana in Pakistan ISMEO/UNIVERSITA' CA' FOSCARI VENEZIA

Video credits: Missione Archeologica italiana in Pakistan ISMEO/UNIVERSITA' CA' FOSCARI VENEZIA, video by Malak Abrar Torwali and UmbrellaFilms