The archaeological site of Saidu Sharif Stupa also called as Saidu Sharif I in the Swat Valley (1st-4th century CE) was excavated in the 1970s and 1980s by the Italian Archaeological Mission of the former IsMEO under the leadership of Domenico Faccenna.
During the final phase of the excavations of the Saidu Sharif I monastery, several graves were found under the Buddhist structures. It was inferred that there was a direct physical overlap between the cemetery and the monastery and almost no chronological break between the two phenomena.
New fieldwork (2011-2015) and radiocarbon dating instead revealed a consistent chronological gap and that the physical overlap between the two was artificially caused by the extensive leveling work that was done to establish the sanctuary at the beginning of the current era.
Saidu Sharif Stupa Location
The Saidu Sharif Stupa, excavated as Saidu Sharif I, is a sacred area of Buddhism located near the town of Saidu Sharif, at the foot of the mountains that separate the Saidu River Valley from the Jambil River Valley, in Swat District from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.
The sacred territory consists of two terraces built on the slope of the hill, through a cut in the rock on the northern side. The artificial terraces include a single stupa surrounded by smaller monuments and a monastery.
Excavations of Saidu Sharif Stupa
Excavations of saidu sharif stupa were started by the Italian Archaeological Mission in 1963 and ended in 1982 with a break between 1966 and 1977. The first research campaign examined the lower terrace with the main stupa, while the upper terrace with the cloister was brought to light during the second campaign.
The lower terrace (called “Stupa Terrace”) has a larger stupa (main stupa) surrounded by other minor monuments: stūpa, viharas and pillars. From the main stupa, the building with a square plan is preserved up to the first cylindrical body with a staircase on the north side; of harmikā and umbrellas, some remains found near the stūpa are preserved.
One of the two cylindrical bodies of the monument was decorated with a green slate frieze, while at the four corners of the upper part of the rectangular body were four columns on a plinth with a crouching figure of a lion above.
The life phase of the Saidu Sharif I shrine has been divided by archaeologists into three periods, during which we move from a symmetrical arrangement of monuments (the first period, between 25 BC and the end of the 1st century) to a gradual clustering of monuments.
The terrace of the saidu sharif stupa, followed by the extension of the terrace itself (second and third periods, respectively II-III centuries AD and IV-V centuries AD). The three building periods were also highlighted on the upper terrace; in the third period, the monastery underwent an extension followed by a reduction to its original dimensions, which testifies to the decline of the entire sacred area.
Restoration & Preservation of Saidu Sharif Stupa in Swat Valley, Pakistan
The project to restore the 2000-year-old stupa to its original form is funded by the Pakistan Italy Debt Swap Agreement (PIDSA) and the project is implemented by the Italian archaeological mission ACT-Field School.
“The stupa at Saidu Sharif is of great importance to Buddhists,” Dr Luca Maria Olivieri, a prominent Italian archaeologist who is overseeing the restoration project, told Dawn. He said they are working on a large number of Gandhara sites in Swat district.
He said they are working on partial restoration of Buddhist historical sites in Gunbad Balokalai, Amlok dara and Bazeera Barikot areas.
Dr Luca said the Jahanabad Buddha, the most important Buddha statue in the area, would soon be restored. The ancient stupa at Saidu Sharif was excavated between 1970 and 1982 and was later handed over to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Archeology Department, he added.
“Her condition was very bad when we came here in 2011. The place was being used as a cricket pitch,” Dr Luca said. He added that they started a general cleaning of the site soon after their arrival, while its restoration work started in 2012.
He said saidu sharif stupa is one of the few important sites of Gandhara civilization. He said they are repairing the base of the stupa in a scientific way using local clay and water. He said that they have reconstructed the original number of steps and the place is protected by a fence.
To a question, Dr Luca said that the stupa was built during the first century and remained a place of worship until the fourth century. It was abandoned about 1,600 years ago, he added.
Usman Olasyar, president of the Swat Art and Culture Association, said Swat was the center of Buddhism and there were many Buddhist sites in the district.
He said that the Jahanabad Buddha was the second largest Buddha statue after the Bamyan statue. He said the stupa, located on the outskirts of Mingora town, has great significance for Buddhists.
Mr Olasyar said the stupa should be restored in its original form. “Due to the lack of coordination between ACT and the Department of Archaeology, the originality of the saidu sharif stupa has been damaged to some extent,” he added.