I travelled back from Khorog to Dushanbe by the southern route, following the Panj river along the border with Afghanistan before turning north through the Kulyabi region, home region of Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon. The Kulyabis had emerged victorious in the civil war of the 1990s, which was more than anything a war among regional clans for power. How often did I hear from Pamiris, who were on the losing side, the resentment of the power of the Kulyabis, who had taken the fruits of their victory in jobs and opportunities? It was a long, but pleasant journey. Among the six other passengers were two English-speaking Pamiris, one of whom turned out to be the nephew of a Pamiri friend in London. We stopped, for lunch in Kala-i-Kum, a quite palatable plov (pilaf), known here as osh, and then again in the afternoon, when we gorged ourselves on juicy melons.
Istaravshan old town
After a day in Dushanbe, doing laundry, eating Indian food and drinking cappuccinos, I set off to northern Tajikistan, from where I would cross into Uzbekistan. The journey took me over mountains and then down into the Fergana Valley, where Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan meet. My first stop was a night in Istaravshan. I stopped there because it is said to have the best preserved old town in Tajikistan, a taste of what was to come during my travels in Uzbekistan, but without tourists. First of all I looked for a hotel. What I found was pretty awful; a basic room with no running water. The owner brought me a bowl of hot water to wash. Istaravshan has a vibrant market, as well as some fine historic buildings. The sprawling old town is much like so many in the Muslim world, dusty streets with blank windowless walls, hiding the life within, the courtyards, gardens, families. For the outsider strolling along these streets, there is little to see.
Abdullatif Sultan Medressa, Istaravshan
At the Hazrat-i-Shah mosque I saw for the first time the wooden pillars and bright, intricately painted ceilings that I would see in mosques around the region, in Khujand, Khiva, Kokand and Andijan. The beautiful designs appear to represent Islam as a joyful religion, so different from the harsh austerity that often appears to epitomise Islam in much of today’s world. As worshippers poured out of the mosque after prayers, one of them stopped to talk to me. He told me how Istaravshan was the most historical town in Tajikistan, with more important monuments than nearby, larger Khujand. He pointed out the monumental gate on the nearby hill, overlooking and dominating the town. The gate had only been built a decade before, to mark two and a half millennia since the town’s founding. The hill is the site of an ancient Sogdian fortress, which was stormed by Alexander the Great. Alexander named the city Cyropol. In the midst of the old town is the 15th century Abdullatif Sultan Medressa. Well restored, the high blue-domed building, covered with intricate mosaics, is typical of the region. Still a working medressa, there was no one about as I wandered around.
From Istaravshan, I headed north on the short journey to Khujand. This is Tajikistan’s second city, and its most developed and most prosperous. My hotel had a good bathroom and internet access. Known as Leninabad during the Soviet period, much of Tajikistan’s Soviet-era elite came from here, although the city has an Uzbek majority. It also has a reputation as a centre of intellectual life.
Sheikh Massal as-Din Mosque, Khujand
During my stay, Khujand was impossibly hot, in the mid-40s. Walking outside in the heat of the afternoon was almost unbearable. Khujand is an old city. It is the site of Cyropolis, founded by Cyrus the Great of Persia, and of Alexandria Eschate, the easternmost outpost of Alexander the Great’s empire. At the heart of the city are the remains of the earthen walls of the tenth-century citadel. At the other end of the town centre is an impressive bazaar, with a vast 1950s hall fronted by an ornate arch whose style echoes that of numerous medressas in the region, an apparent attempt to adapt the religious architectural heritage to the secular communist state. Across a wide open, sun-drenched piazza is a mosque, mausoleum and medressa complex, in the process of being expanded; the religious heritage is making a comeback. Again I was struck by the beautifully carved wooden pillars and the brightly painted ceilings.
As I struggled on through the fearsome heat, to my great surprise I came across a statue of a she-wolf suckling two little boys, Romulus and Remus surely. But what could they be doing in Khujand. I later read that a painting of the wolf and children had been found at an archaeological site near Istaravshan, with a Latin inscription, apparently a link with the classical past going back to Alexander the Great’s conquest.
- Travels in northern Tajikistan