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Tajikistan - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Tajikistan: the Bradt Travel Guide
Tajikistan’s location at the crossroads of the Silk Road, its strategic importance as a buffer between mighty empires, and the omnipresent greed for its natural resources, have given it a past more turbulent than most. Time and again the population has bounced back from the brink of annihilation at the hands of history’s most barbaric invaders to rebuild their homes, their cities and families, to thrive for a brief period and then to start over again.
In pride of place on Rudaki is the statue of Ismoili Somoni, the 10th-century emir now considered the father of the Tajik nation © Kalpak Travel, www.kalpak-travel.com
Man has lived in Tajikistan since the Stone Age. A Neanderthal skull thought to be at least 120,000 years old was discovered in the Afghan part of Badakhshan, and excavations around Murghab in the early 1960s confirm there were already permanent settlements in the Pamirs in the 8th millennium BC.
The earliest written accounts of life in Tajikistan come from the Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC) and chroniclers of the Achaemenid Empire (559–330BC). They refer to the existence of Scythians (also known as Sakas or Sacae) who inhabited central Asia and southern Russia from the 2nd century BC. Early historians believed that the Scythians were the offspring of Hercules and a snake goddess, but subsequent studies by anthropologists and archaeologists have come to the far more banal conclusion that they were in fact Eurasians and speakers of a language from the Indo-European group. Later Chinese sources suggest these people were blue-eyed and fair. When combined with ethnographic data, it would appear therefore that, prior to the Mongol invasion, Tajikistan’s population was more Caucasian in appearance than it is today.
By 500BC much of Tajikistan was under Persian influence: Cyrus the Great had sent his forces to Bactria (what is now western Tajikistan, northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan) and lost his own life fighting the Massagtae (a Scythian tribe) on the banks of the Syr Darya in 530BC. Two hundred years later Darius III, the last Achaemenid king, would also lose his life in Tajikistan, this time fleeing from the seemingly undefeatable forces of Alexander the Great. Alexander subjugated Sogdiana and married Roxana, daughter of a Sogdian chief.
Alexander died in 323BC and his empire collapsed. The successor states that emerged were first Graeco-Bactrian, then Kushan, Sasanid and Turkic. Greek baths and theatres, Zoroastrian fire temples, Buddhist monasteries and coinage and artworks from as far afield as Egypt, Turkey and India all made their historical mark on Tajikistan for archaeologists centuries to find centuries later.
At the upper limits of vegetation in the Pamirs (4,400m), plants must battle against the extremes of cold and drought. They grow in sparse clumps to conserve warmth, have fleshy leaves to prevent desiccation and large roots to store energy during the winter (eg: Saxifraga, Rhodiola and Saussurea species). In the high valleys, by rivers such as the Murghab, alpine sedge meadows provide grazing for yak and grow a variety of montane flowers such as buttercup, gentian and primrose. Where there is little access to water, plant life is sparse and restricted to clumped prickly species (eg: Acantholimon, Artemisia and needle grass), which ward off hungry grazers and halophytic species such as the Saliconia that can grow in the high levels of salt left by evaporation.
The first trees appear at around 3,500m along the river valleys. Here stands of willow, birch, poplar and tamarisk add a splash of emerald to the ochre landscape. It is very noticeable that the tree growth follows close to riverbanks and manmade irrigation channels. Juniper forest can also be found at this altitude, particularly in the Hisor, Turkestan, and Zarafshan mountains. By around 2,500m broadleaved species appear, such as walnut, maple, plane (chenar), apple and rose.
Evidence from DNA analysis has revealed that wild apple found in the mountains of central Asia is the progenitor of the c7,500 apple varieties that we eat today. It is thought that the plant was carried out of central Asia in the Bronze Age to Mesopotamia where it underwent domestication before eventually being brought to western Europe by the Romans. Apart from walnuts and apples, apricots and cherries grow in abundance. Pistachio, almonds (with stunning pink blossom) and pomegranate are also found in the lower forests (600–1,700m) in southern parts of the country. Mulberry trees often grow in villages and courtyards. The berries, which are white and very sweet, fall in enormous numbers and can often be seen laid out to dry on porches. The leaves of the tree are used in the farming of silkworms.
The tugai forests (300–600m), situated on the banks of the Amu Darya and its tributaries, are some of Tajikistan’s most threatened habitats. Poplar, oleaster and tamarisk grow on these warm floodplains along with reed grass, bulrush and liana. The land is often used to grow cotton, because it is easy to irrigate and initially very fertile. Within a few years of conversion, however, it accumulates salt and becomes unusable. This results in more forest being cut down. A number of the tugai fragments have nature reserve status, for example the Tigrovaya Balka reserve on the Vakhsh River.
When you think of Tajikistan, you think of the mountains. But among those rugged peaks, grazing in flower-filled meadows alongside the fertile river valleys, is a wealth of wildlife. Everyone hopes to spot the endangered rare mammals such as snow leopard, Marco Polo sheep, ibex and brown bear, but even if these shy creatures remain elusive (or your trip is based on Tajikistan’s cities and towns) you can still expect to see birdlife, butterflies, hares, Bactrian camel and domesticated yak.
With its smoky-grey spotted coat, luminous eyes and wide paws for walking on snow, the snow leopard is the poster-child of Tajikistan’s fauna. Around 200 cats are thought to be resident in the high mountains, making up around 5% of the world population. They are endangered due to poaching and depletion of prey. Grey wolves and, more rarely, brown bear also roam the mountain sides.
Tajikistan is a hot spot for rare mountain ungulate species, namely the mighty Marco Polo sheep, the Central Asian ibex, the Tajik markhor, and the urial (a kind of wild sheep).
(Photo: Endangered snow leopards are a very rare but spectacular sight in the Pamir Mountains © Bernard Landgraf, Wikipedia)
Sentinel marmot are commonly heard whistling to warn their colonies of danger. These large golden rodents are eaten by land-dwelling carnivores and birds of prey alike, as are Tolai hares, grey hamsters and Pamiri voles.
Herds of the shaggy domestic yak are a common sight grazing the alpine sedge meadows. If you are lucky you may also encounter Bactrian camels along the Wakhan or the Pamir Highway.
The lower forested environments are home to brown bear, wolf, fox, wild boar, urial sheep and porcupine. The tugai forests are a key habitat for endangered Bukhara red deer, a relative of the European red deer. The tugai was once roamed by the now extinct Caspian tiger and is still home to the golden jackal and striped hyena more commonly found in the neighbouring steppe of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
A large number of the animals mentioned here are rare or elusive, and are unlikely to be spotted by the casual visitor (apart from marmots, ibex, yak and various birds. Binoculars, a large dose of patience and preferably the knowledge of a local guide are ingredients to successful wildlife watching.
Inhabited at least since the Neolithic period and situated at the meeting point of numerous Silk Roads, it should come as little surprise that Tajikistan is a melting pot of ethnicities and that even those who claim to belong to a single ethnic group may in fact have a diverse genetic heritage.
Tajikistan has a rich musical heritage and, for those who are so inclined, there are ample opportunities to experience traditional forms of music and dance. Classical music can loosely be divided into shashmaqam, the traditional Islamic style, and the Russian-influenced operas and symphonies produced during the Soviet period. Ziyadullo Shahidi (d1985) is probably the most significant Tajik composer in the latter style, and a visit to his house museum in Dushanbe is the best way to appreciate his music and the cultural context in which he worked.
The Gurminj Museum is Tajikistan’s de facto centre for ethnomusicology and houses an excellent collection of traditional instruments, including those used in Pamiri folk styles. Tajikistan’s pop stars tend to be on loan from Iran and Russia. There are a few home-grown talents, however, including songstress Manija Davlatova and Tajik migrant worker Tolibzhon Kurbankhanov, whose veritable love song to Putin became a controversial YouTube hit in the run-up to Russia’s 2012 elections.
Tajikistan has a rich musical heritage and ample opportunities to experience traditional forms of music and dance © Viktoria Gaman, Shutterstock
Given the close relationship between Tajik and Persian, it is perhaps unsurprising that their literatures have become entwined, with Tajiks absorbing many works from the Persian literary canon into their own. Tajiks have retained this sense of a united literary identity in spite of their community being split by the geographical borders of numerous nation states, and hence Bukhara and Samarkand (both now in Uzbekistan) are still seen as centres of Tajik literary culture.
The writer and philosopher Abu Abdullah Rudaki is considered to be the father of Tajik literature. Along with Ferdowsi (934–1020), author of the epic poem Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), and the scientist Hussayn ibn Abu Ali Ibn Sina (980–1037), known in the west as Avicenna, he is a pillar of classical Tajik literature, and rightly commemorated with street names and monuments across the country. The most visually appealing memorials to Rudaki are the mosaic arch and statue in Central Park, and the Writers’ Union Building (both in Dushanbe), which also commemorates Tajikistan’s other literary heavyweights.
Given the close relationship between Tajik and Persian, it is perhaps unsurprising that their literatures have become entwined, with Tajiks absorbing many works from the Persian literary canon into their own.
Moving forward to the immediate pre-Soviet and Soviet periods, three writers dominate. Sadriddin Aini (1878–1954) was a Jadidist writer, educator and poet. He became a communist and began writing prose in the Soviet era. His works include several novels (including his most famous works Slaves and Dokhunala), and also memoirs depicting life in the Bukhoran Khanate. Several of his works have been adapted for the screen. Aini was the first president of Tajikistan’s Academy of Sciences.
Abu’l-Qasem Lahuti (1887–1957) was born in Iran but was politically drawn to the Soviet Union and settled in Tajikistan in the 1920s, encouraged no doubt by the fact he had been sentenced to death by a court in Qom for his part in a failed coup against the Iranian government. He wrote both lyric poetry and ‘socialist realist’ verse, and was also the author of the official anthem of the Tajik SSR. His poetry was published in six volumes in 1960–63.
Arts and crafts
A visit to any of Tajikistan’s museums will demonstrate the skilled craftsmanship of ancient metalworkers, woodcarvers, potters, painters and weavers. Whilst many of these skills have been lost, in large part due to the industrialisation of the 20th century and ongoing reliance on the import of cheap consumer goods first from Russia and now from China, a few workshops do continue to produce beautiful handicrafts in traditional ways, and their methods are being recorded and their goods promoted with the assistance of various NGOs.
Tajik women are traditionally the creators of textiles, and their work includes everything from hand-rolled felt and woven yak-hair carpets, to colourful knitwear and fine embroidery.
Woodwork is probably the best preserved of Tajikistan’s ancient crafts, largely because it has a practical, domestic application. Th e roofs and interiors of Pamiri houses are often richly carved, as are the doors of mosques and many of Tajikistan’s other ancient buildings. There is a constant need for repairs and replacement timbers, and this has kept skilled carpenters in work. The best workshops are in Istaravshan and Isfara, though there are often individual craftsmen in smaller villages who are delighted to show off their skills.
Tajik women are traditionally the creators of textiles, and their work includes everything from hand-rolled felt and woven yak-hair carpets, to colourful knitwear and fine embroidery. The Murghab Eco Tourism Association (META)-sponsored Yak House and De Pamiri Handicrafts both support women in remote communities and encourage them to produce well-made pieces for the tourist market. The garishly striped Pamiri socks are a particular favourite among our friends.
Tajikistan is rich in minerals, including precious stones, and historically a huge amount of jewellery was produced. Though gold is still popular (you only have to look at the shiny gold teeth), it is prohibitively expensive for most people, and so the jewellery produced for sale locally now tends to be made from silver and/or brightly coloured beads. Big earrings and necklaces make popular souvenirs; rings are a little less common.
Tajikistan’s national sport is gushtigiri, a local form of wrestling, though it is the more exciting and impressive buz kashi (or dead goat polo) that typically captures the eye of visitors and photographers. Traditionally each community had its own alufta or strongman, on whose shoulders the reputation of the village rests: those who challenge his authority would wrestle in a bid to improve their social rank. As in the rest of central Asia, horse racing and horseback games remain a popular source of entertainment, particularly in rural areas.
Football is, unsurprisingly, the sport of choice amongst young Tajiks. The Tajik National Football Federation was admitted into FIFA in 1994, and they also play in the AFC league. As of January 2017, the Tajik team was officially ranked 132 out of 211 in the world, and plays its home matches at the Pamir Stadium in Dushanbe. Tajikistan’s top goal scorer is Manuchekhr Dzhalilov (b1990) who also plays for Tajikistan’s national champions, Istiklol Dushanbe.
In other sports, Tajikistan has competed in the Olympics since 1996, and the Winter Olympics since 2002. Rasul Boqiev won the country’s first-ever Olympic medal when he took bronze in men’s judo (73kg) in Beijing in 2008. Yusup Abdusalomov claimed silver in the men’s freestyle wrestling (84kg) at the same games, and then in 2012 Mavzuna Chorieva beat the odds to win bronze in the women’s boxing. Dilshod Nazarov brought home Tajikistan’s first gold medal, placing first in the hammer throw at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.