An ancient Buddhist temple dating from the 2nd or 3rd century BCE has been uncovered during an Italian-led archaeological excavation in the city of Barikot, in the Swat region of northern Pakistan.
The 2,000-year-old religious monument was built on an apsidal podium host to a cylindrical base that supports a stupa, or a dome-shaped structure typical of Buddhist shrines. A staircase and series of vestibule rooms which lead to a public courtyard that overlooks a road were also found.
In October 2021, as fieldwork on the Barikot grounds was nearing an end, the team of Italian and Pakistani archeologists overseeing the mission discovered a series of empty trenches. Those trenches indicated that looters had recently attempted to plunder it.
According to the archaeologists who found the site, the structure could shed light on the spread of Buddhism in Gandhara, an ancient region which spans modern-day Kabul, Peshawar, Swat, and Taxila.
“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,” said Luca Maria Olivieri, a professor at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University, who oversaw the most recent phase of the excavation. “At that time, Swat already was a sacred land for Buddhism.”
Under Olivieri’s direction, the university partnered with the International Association for Mediterranean and Oriental Studies (ISMEO), an Italian organization that funds academic research related to the Middle East, to complete the final leg of the excavation in 2021. Initiated in 1955, the Barikot dig is the the largest mission of its kind in Asia.
The mission was jointly funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the International Cooperation and the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums KP Province and the Swat Museum. The dual-country initiative is supported under the Italy-Pakistan “debt-swap“ program, which funds the joint Italian-Pakistani project “Archaeology, Community, Tourism – Field School.” The agreement between the two governments supports development projects related to agriculture, education, infrastructure and rural development.