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Tajikistan Impressions

TAJIKISTAN | Monday, 26 August 2013 | Views [2144]

Tajikistan Impressions:


The border crossing was a better experience than the one from Turkmenistan into Uzbekistan.  The Uzbeks had a few people in line, so they didn’t need to single us out, just check to make sure all the paperwork was in order and scan the bags.  This naturally takes place over three different offices, but nonetheless it all went smoothly. The Tajiks were less concerned with things, and after handing over the appropriate papers we were allowed to walk out of the no man’s land between the two countries and enter Tajikistan.  On the way to the last gate there is a green shack that says “Duty Free Shop” and the sign said “open.” The painting on the side wall was of various kinds of vodka, so while we didn’t stop in, we got a sense of what their duty free shop consisted of.  When we got through the gate we were immediately met by Sino, who owns the tour company that the folks in UZ subcontracted with, Vahob the driver, and Ruhmatullo, our new translator.  Sino handed me a bouquet of red, white and pink roses as a welcome present.  It was so unexpected and so nice!  Sino speaks some French, Russian and Tajik, none of which I do, so we had to communicate through Ruhmatullo. 

From the border we went straight to the main square of the major city in the region, Khujand with its mosque and Thursday Market – which used to be on just Thursdays but now is everyday.  We started with the mosque, or at least Paul did. Women, including me, are not allowed in the mosque.  I was told, “Women pray in the homes; men pray in mosques.”  Hmmm; this is the first major difference with Uzbekistan, where I had no trouble entering as long as I wore a scarf and most of the mosques we visited were museums anyway.

From the outside, I learned that the Shaikhmusliddin Mosque was built in the 13th C and reconstructed after independence.  It is a fairly bland building in comparison to those we have seen in Uzbekistan. During the Soviet period, the mosque housed the local museum, which moved to its own site in 2006.


The Sogdian History Museum’s new home is located below Alexander’s Fortress.  The museum guide was so proud of the new ways to exhibit the few artifacts they have.  Local artists made models for the center of the display and painted backgrounds.  Further along in the museum they have the glass plates to walk on while looking at the exhibit pieces below.  While these are common practices in Europe and the U.S., from her pride in the displays, they must be fairly unique in Central Asia.

There were only two halls downstairs & only one of them had artifacts of display, and the center hall on the ground floor.  The one room with artifacts downstairs was the “Hall of the Arians” which covered the period from the Neolithic to the Arab Conquest. The other room had nine marble mosaic illustrations of the life of Alexander starting with his birth.  What was so spectacular about these was the local artist used only local Tajikistan marble in their original colors. The images were beautifully crafted. Upstairs the exhibit covered the period from the Arab invasion to independence.  The museum guide ended her tour by explaining the Tajik flag to us.  It has three stripes, a red one – representing the indigenous traditions, a white one – for happiness, and a green one – for Islam and the development of the country.  The emblem in the middle has cotton and wheat –indicating the richness of the land, a book – Tajikstan is a country of culture and one that honors its poets, mountains and the sun – which define the landscape, a crown – which is the kingdom surrounded by 7 stars, the 7 days of the week, the divine 3 + the earthy 4, which comes from Zoroastriansim.  Zoroastrianism was the major religion before the coming of the Arabs. It seems that all three Central Asian countries we have so far have tried to create separate identities based on a common past in their flags.


Khujand was the furthest East Alexander made it in his quest to conquer increasingly more terrain, and his fort is in ruins. The fort does show, however, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is in the middle of the army barracks (they grow their own food too), so we couldn’t climb around on it. Alexander’s soldiers have been replaced by Tajik ones.


The main periods of Tajik history are mixed with those of Uzbek, with the exception that Hellenism was never really successful here. Instead, the Bactrians ruled in the 3rd -2nd C BCE are one of the first known major groups, although Sarazm (today and archeological site near Penjikent) is supposed to be contemporary with the Maltese Megaliths through to the time of Stonehenge.  The Bactrians were overrun and incorporated into the Sassanid Empire in the 3rd C. and the Tajik language is a Farsi language. In the 5-8th C the Sogdians were coming into their own and their culture flourished until the Arab invasion destroyed both Khujand and Ancient Penjikent.  The Samanids, Persians who had converted to Islam then took over with their leader Ismoil Samaniy, who is considered the founder of the Tajik state. We saw his wonderfully inclusive of differing religious traditions mausoleum in Bukhara. The Samanids were followed by the Karakhanids also based in Bukhara..  The Mongols invaded in 1220 and the Timurids, with Timur’s removal of the Mongols, came to power from the 14th -16th C.  They were followed by the various Khanates, with Bukhara at first over both Khujand and Penjikent, but late in the 17th C, the Khanate of Khujand rested control of that city and the Fergana valley, which is now part of Uzbekistan.  Tsarist Russia tried to take over in the 19th C and were partially successful, but the Soviets were more so.  They have been independent since 1991 as with the other Central Asian countries. And following the pattern in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, they have the same leader they had before the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Pictures of President Rakhmon are everywhere, and there is little expectation of change in the upcoming election.


The Soviet gulags that were active in Khujand until independence have been torn down.  The new stadium sits on the spot where one of them was.  The former prisoners all returned home after independence.  They were mostly Tartars and Russian political prisoners.  They were sent to work in the cotton factories and on building roads.

The political prisoners from Central Asia weren’t kept here, but were sent to Siberia instead.  In order not to have any religious interference, in 1936 Stalin ordered all the Tajik religious leaders to be killed.  Some of them are now national heroes.


Our host, Hussein, at the guesthouse in Khujand inherited the place from his father who bought it in the 50s or 60s.  Hussein added the side buildings and repaired/reconstructed some of the other parts of the property to make it into a guesthouse for tourists, mostly trekkers, from June to September.  Those are the only months when trekking and tourism takes place.  The rest of the year he works as a driver for various NGOs.  He worked for Mercy Corp from the U.S. until their contract ran out and now works with a U.N. delegation working on providing clean drinking water to the world’s populations.  From his work with the NGOs he learned English and spoke it quite well, which we are finding is a rare occurance. He lives in the guesthouse, it is his home, which he shares with his wife and two children, a 16 yr. old girl and 11 yr. old boy, who we never saw.  The breakfast was quite substantial and he picked absolutely delicious purple grapes directly from the vines above us for the meal. As it turned out, we lucked out with him.  The next place we stayed wasn’t nearly as well attuned to Western “needs.”

 On our drive from Khujand to Penjikent, we stopped in Istaravshan (formerly Cyropolis of Cyrus the Great fame), a town of about 100,000 people to see the 15th C Abdullatif Sultan Madrasah, that still teaches students in the side buildings. It is locally known as the “Blue Dome” for the bright turquoise cupola. Getting to the madrasah was a real thrill as this was through the backroads with the water canal as an open ditch in the middle, so that when a car was parked on the side, it was tricky to not have the wheels fall into the ca. 18 inch deep hole. When we arrived, we found the mosque is pretty much a shell, but the madrasah was interesting and in the fyi tidbits at the end of this journal is the curriculum for the first and fourth year students, which some of you may find fascinating. There were a couple of kids playing in the courtyard and on the wheel for the holy well. They were laughing and having a good time playing.  Next to the mosque was the major water supply to that part of town.  It was a knob on a pipe and young girls from the neighborhood were filling up their yellow plastic jugs with “fresh” water to take home.

 From the “Blue Dome” we drove to the Friday Mosque, which is on the main street.  It is a large complex, consisting of a beautifully reconstructed 17th C Minaret, the 17th C Kyuyodori Valami Mosque and Mausoleum (he was the imam when the mosque was built) and the Mausoleum of Hazrat –i-Shah ibn Abbas under a bright green dome.  The first sura is inscribed above the tomb.  Next to the mosque and mausoleum complex is a park with reliefs of leading Islamic leaders, scientists and thinkers (incl. one woman poet, Dilsadr Barno) on one wall and busts of Tajik Soviet leaders lining another side of the park.  In the center is a statue of Rudaki, the poet who founded the city. They have done a wonderful job with the neatly kept rose garden, which is in stark contrast to the chaos of the market down the street.


Istaravshan is a main market town on the Silk Road and traders from all over the region, from Iran to Afghanistan still come to exchange goods.  As the market is on the main street we drove straight through it.  People, donkeys, sacks of grain, boxes of stuff, and crates of food were everywhere. When we walked by from the park, we came across a butcher’s shop with a skinned lamb hanging outside the shop for all the flies to feast on, while a man in a traditional tan coat with skull cap bargained for a piece of meat that was on the scale.


From there our driver, Vahob, navigated backroads and no roads, meaning we drove down a dry river bed to get to the ruins of Bunjikath. The main road from the border to Ayni has been reconstructed and newly paved by the Chinese and it is in very good conditions.  Off to the side of this one road, however, they are at their best simply littered with pot-holes. The drivers aren’t crazy like they are in Naples, but they are aggressive, and I guess they have to be to navigate these conditions.  Vahob did a remarkable job.  As none of our group knew where the ancient site was located, we had to stop and repeatedly ask the locals.  We finally saw it on this hill above the riverbed and turned in.  Paul, Ruhmatullo and I scrambled up the hill, looking for petroglyphs – but not finding any – on the way.  In it’s heyday, probably around the 3-5th C CE, there were three fortresses in the region as the Ushrashana government was here, which was part of the Sogdian Empire  The fortress has not been excavated, and there would be a wealth of material here if a sophisticated archeological team would come and dig. Just walking along we came across a number of painted shards from sometime in early in this era. After rescuing a few nicely painted pieces, and one rock that may have had writing on it,  (I couldn’t be sure in the natural light), Ruhmatullo put them in a bag he found lying on the ground so we could bring them in to the museum in Penjikent.


The Zerafshan River runs along the canyon from Ayni to Panjikent. Gold mining operations are active throughout the region.  Only 10% of this river’s water can be used for irrigation as it fluctuates too much and is too turbulent.  The river used to flow all the way into the Amu Darya, but with irrigation it doesn’t anymore. And of course, they are building more dams….


Ancient Sarazm lies on what should be the road to Samarkand, but the border is closed due to political tensions about the dam the Tajiks intend to build, which will cut off one of the major water supplies to Uzbekistan. The Tajiks want their own hydro-electrical power and the dam, which was started by the Soviets, then abandoned and restarted in 2011, with a tentative completion date of 4-5 years from now, to provide energy to not only Tajikistan, but to Afghanistan and Pakistan as well.  The Uzbeks are furious and political tension between the two countries is high. The border closure has caused an economic downturn on both sides as people used to regularly go from Penjikent to Samarkand to sell their wares.  There wasn’t even a border until 1997.  The current borders are not necessarily based on any geographic or ethnic division, but on political compromise at the end of the Soviet era.  Tajikistan wanted Bukhara and Samarkand, but were given Khujand and what is now northeast Tajikistan instead.  This creates very strange lines between the countries and naturally creates tensions as it splits ethnic groups.  This wasn’t the case in earlier times when the rivers flowed freely and people traded from India to Iran.


Sarazm is perhaps the oldest civilization in Central Asia.  It is supposed to be from 3,500 – 2,500, which would make it contemporary with the oldest of the megalithic civilizations on Malta and with Newgrange in Ireland.  Stonehenge was probably built around 2,700, and the pyramids didn’t start until 2,500.  The site was well excavated in the Soviet period by Russian archeologists, and as with the early sites in Uzbekistan, the literature is all in Russian.  Currently there are five major sections that have UENSCO funded awnings over them and at least four that are more recently excavated by a French-Tajik team that don’t.  We were very fortunate to run into the groundskeeper of the site (there didn’t appear to be anyone else around) and I asked him about whether he or anyone else had found any votive figurines.  He hadn’t, but then took us to the small museum, which he unlocked just for us.  The museum had some pottery shards and Bronze Age tools, but no goddess.  They did have wonderful charts, some of which I included in the gallery, showing the differences in style of pottery painting among the four major epochs of the city.  Most of the artifacts from the site are either in Dunshabe, the capital, or the really important ones are in Leningrad, like the major finds from the gravesite of what was called “the Princess.”  From the images, she was probably a priestess rather than a “princess,” but Soviet scholars would likely not have named her so.  Included in that gravesite were a number of white bead necklaces, of varying lengths but each with 410 beads, which we saw in the museum in Penjikent.  This may be the first known prayer beads! I have no clue what significance 410 has, but will continue to hunt for clues.  Also included in the gravesite were necklaces of various stones which come from India, Afghanistan and Iran, indicating that there were active trade routes. Seashells from the Indian Ocean were also found in the grave & I found a number just walking along in Bunjikath.

The Sarazm caretaker told us that a French archeologist was working in a separate section behind a large fence enclosing the site and led us to their dig.  The young scholar, Benjamin Mutin, was measuring an indent in the ground when we came up. It turns out he is doing a post-doc at Harvard, Paul has an MBA from Harvard, and I did a Summer Leadership in Higher Education there, so we had a mini-Harvard reunion in the middle of nowhere in Tajikstan.  He said they hadn’t come across any goddess figurines, or any others, so far, but they were planning to open up a new level, which might produce some of them, next year.  He also promised to send me the only two articles about the site that are in English. It was simply wonderful to meet him and see his team working on this very ancient complex. 

 From there we went to the Penjikent museum, which has some of the artifacts from Sarazm as well as from Ancient Penjikent, which we went to after the museum.  (The museum staff was very happy to have our gift from Bunjikath and will investigate the rock inscriptions.) Ancient Penjikent is simply huge, and as barren as Sarazm or Bunjikath, yet it lies directly on the hill behind the modern town.  Ancient Penjikent was active early in our era until the 8th C Arab Invasion, when they burnt and destroyed the city.  The most famous findings in Ancient Penjikent are the wall paintings, and a burnt wooden figurine of a dancing girl.  A couple of the wall paintings relate the story of the “Sogdian Princess,” and in others she is associated with the moon, so she may be a remnant from the ancient goddess, but until I can study the images in depth, and read what I can about her, won’t know.  What is striking about her, though, is that she looks oriental, not at all like the people do today, which is much more Turkic, Persian or European.

As we’ve been going through these sites and the museums, I can’t help but think of all the scholarship that needs to be done to begin to get a picture of these ancient cultures. There is so much that is still not known or understood about the people who lived in these cities, but we can get a sense of their daily lives from the people today, who love music, laugh easily, and enjoy a good meal.


General Impressions:

The people are very friendly and yet they not nearly as well off as in UZ. There seems to be less of a difference between city and village life.  There is also much less English spoken and our English teacher translator tries to do a good job, but isn’t as fluent as Kamola so I’m not sure what I transmitting is actually correct. I have no way of checking, though, There is no wifi at all in Penjikent and while there are internet cafes the keyboards and sites are all in Russian Cyrillic and I can’t understand them.  This, I know, is my fault not anyone else’s, but it limits my ability – and that of most foreigners – to function on more than a superficial level about anything dealing with history or culture. There is a general lack of knowledge about anything prior to the Arabs and the coming of Islam, so my questions with regard to the earlier cultures often results in the recitation of school book learned phrases & I don’t trust their schoolbooks for currency or for accuracy.  On the other hand, Sino, the owner of the company, Vahob, our driver and Rahmatullo, our translator, have been wonderfully helpful with everything.


There is something to be said for being as self-reliant as these people are. Perhaps it comes from a history of invasions where everything changes within a day. One day you are working your land, feeding your family, and having your social life revolve around the temple or mosque and the next there are Arabs, Mongols, Russians or Soviets on your doorstep destroying everything and regulating your life and that of your descendants.  In order to survive, one learns to go with the flow, not make waves, keep the close social contacts within the family unit and grow enough to provide enough food to sustain the family.  In both Hussein’s guesthouse and this one in Penjikent, the owners have a courtyard, which has been designed as a fruit and vegetable garden.  The gardens are wonderful and clearly produce enough to keep the family and then some.  Both places luckily did have electricity and Hussein’s had a decent bathroom, the same cannot be said of the guesthouse in Penjikent. The toilet is a frame with a toilet seat over a hole in the ground – basically an outhouse & a very smelly one.  The shower has no pressure, but does have some dribbling hot water if one waits long enough, which is difficult as that means wasting water in the desert.  I’m not at all convinced that the outhouse and the dribbling water is any less ecologically sound than a solid quick hot shower and flush toilet connected to a decent sanitary system and I know it’s not as sanitary.  As much as I would like to spend much more time here, I will be glad to get to Tashkent with a good shower and bathroom tomorrow. Ahh, the simple comforts of life….

 & just fyi, some miscellaneous tidbits from various conversations with people:

 Tajik Notes:


Like the other Central Asian countries, Tajikistan is moving from a Soviet system to a more European one.  Currently children start at 7, but next year they will start at 6, similar to what is happening in the other two Central Asian countries.  Kindergarten – 17 yrs. = 10 years of schooling, but after next year it will11 years.  The school day goes from 8-12 6 days a week. The country moved this year from a 3+2 Baccalaureate- Masters to a 4+2 model.  Teachers in the school system just have a baccalaureate.  If they have a Masters they teach at University.  There are also post-bacc programs which are 5 years and that is the one Rahmatullo, our translator, completed.  He now teaches English at Khujand State University.  60% of secondary school graduates go on to university, about 50% of them receive some sort of scholarship.  The other’s have their parents pay.  The parents will often work in Russia to support their children’s university education; primary and secondary schools are free.  The primary country for study and work abroad is Russia.  The main agreements with foreign companies are with Russian and recently Chinese firms.  There are over 20 universities in the country; four of which are in Khujand: Khujand State University which is a teacher’s college and covers all subjects; Tajikistan Polytechnical University; Tajikistan University of Law and Tajikistan University of Business.  In the last three foreign languages and history are



There are also many (ca 50) madrasahs in the country.  One that we stopped by in Istaravshan had the same four-year curriculum for boys and girls, (though there are very few girls attending).  The madrasah was for those who had finished the 9th grade. The students only study religious subjects in these madrasahs. They cannot go on to university from the madrasahs, but are in training to be imams and religious leaders. If they go on to post-secondary education it would be to the religious institution in Dunshabe. Each of the five daily periods is 45 minutes long. The first year curriculum starts off on Monday with Arabic Phonetics, The Rules of Reading the Koran, Shairia Law, Hadiths, & the Koran. Tuesday is Koran, Islamic Prophets, Arabic Grammar, Russian Reading and Writing.

Wednesday is Koran, Grammar, Tajik Grammar, Rules of Reading the Koran, and Phonetics Thursday is Hadiths, Shariat, Russian, Russian Writing, and Tajik. Friday is Arabic Grammar, History, Koran, Grammar, &?  Saturday is Hadiths, Grammar, Ecology, Informatics, and P.E.

The fourth year curriculum consists of:

Monday – Rules of Family Life, Rules for Reading the Koran, Translating and Commenting on the Koran, Tajik Literature and Grammar.

Tuesday – History of Islam, Grammar and Syntax, History of Shariat, Shariat

Wednesday – the Koran and its meaning, Arabic morphology, Tajik Literature, Hadiths

Thursday – Hadiths 2x, first general then specific texts, Dauat – Calling people to Islam/ Prostelatizing , Modern Law, Family Rules

Friday – The meaning of the Koran 2x, general and then specific verses, History of Sharia Law, Hadiths, Arabic Syntax, Shariat.

Saturday – General Meaning of the Koran 2x, History of Islam, Verses in Tajik.

Clearly they are well prepared for understanding their religion, but not well prepared for a secular society.



Prior to the Soviets there was no industry in Tajikistan.  They started the cotton and aluminum production. The Chinese are now building the roads, bridges and tunnels in Tajikistan as a joint partnership. There used to be a joint partnership with a Canadian firm for gold mining, but that has since gone over to the Chinese as well..  There are numerous Russian partnerships. The new Chinese roads are now toll roads & it costs Samaney 50 (ca. $10) for the tolls from Khujand to Penjikent.

They will be constructing a new tunnel between Ayni and Dunshabe, which will make it possible to drive from Penjikent or Khujand to the capital as the current tunnel is often closed as it is unsafe and fills with water.


The automobile industry is much more diverse than it was in UZ.  The sales tax on cars is 8-10% and there is no import tax.  Very few women drive, and we didn’t see any.


Most of the land is in Tajik private lands; people own their land and pay a tax on it.




City Planning:

Khujand is divided by the Syrdara River. The right side is filled with new construction from the 80s during the Soviet time.  The left side is the ancient part of town stretching back 2,500 years.



The President, Rakhmon,  has been re-elected in each of the 7 year elections since 1991.  An election is scheduled for this year and everyone expects he will continue.  About 20 years ago, he started a tree planting project (probably following Turkmenbashi’s lead). There are officially 8 parties who are able to compete in the election: the President’s Democratic National Party, plus the Democratic Party, the Socialists, the Social Democrats, the Communists, the Agricultural Party, the Economic Party and the Islamic Party.


General History:

Tajiks have an Arian heritage stemming from the Achaemedian Empire in the 6th C BCE, and probably well before that. Khujand and Penjikent were major Sogdian cities from a very early period.  In 1986 the country celebrated its 2500 year anniversary, making it contemporary with Rome. The money is called Samanie after the founder of the Tajik state, and dirhams for coinage.


The generic historical outline is:

Cyrus the Great – Achaemedians

Alexander – Hellenistic


Arab Conquest

Tajik – Ismoil Samaniy founded the Tajik nation


Turk - Khorasam Shah

Mongol Invasion


Iranian Safafies

Mangits  - Khanate of Khokand


Independent Secular country w. 98+% Muslim citizens.  Churches, protestant and Russian Orthodox are in each of the major cities.


The country is divided into three provinces, two of which are primarily Sunni, in the Pamirs they are Shiites.


Family Life:

Girls get married between 17-22, boys between 17-36 in the rural areas, somewhat later in the city. Boys can marry who they choose to, although it is often in consultation with their parents; girls, however, marry who their parents tell them to.


Children from the villages give their money to their parents, but those who have moved to the city keep some for their living expenses while still sending money to their family. Different from UZ, Young men can buy cars without parental approval.  Those who go to Russia to work send the money home to either their parents or their wife, although the wife is probably living with his parents.  Only the men go to Russia, the women stay home. There are about 1 million Tajiks living in Russia at the moment, and 8 million in Tajikistan. Traditional families are large, generally 6 children, although this may be changing as well. It is a young country age-wise, though with a growing population.


While it is a secular country, Islam is more strictly and prominently observed than in either Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan.  The women are primarily in traditional dress, and most wear scarves; there are also far more men in traditional clothing as well. While in UZ there are three madrasahs, and one of those is a museum, there are over 50 in Tajikistan and new ones being built all over.

Many, if not most, Tajik women and many men have gold teeth.  This is still a sign of beauty and wealth, even though during the Soviet times, the gold was a copper alloy rather than the real thing.  When I asked whether they waited until they had problems with their teeth to put the new ones in I was told that some do, but some young women actually have their real good teeth pulled in order to put the fake glittery ones in.  I also heard that in the Soviet time, there was a campaign promoting Tajiks to get their teeth replaced with the gold/copper ones so that when they went to Russia their ethnicity could be identified. Somewhat like wearing the Star of David….


In addition to Ismoil Samaniy, the founder of the Tajik nation, Tajikistan is a country that honors its writers and poets.  Rudaki, the father of Tajik literature has his own festival, multiple museums and his statue is all over the place.  It’s nice to see a country honor its writers rather than sports heroes. (But of course the Pres. is also made out to be a hero…)



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