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Tajikistan's richest archaeological finds come from the area around Panjakent © Kalpak Travel, www.kalpak-travel.com
A bustling, prosperous city until recently, Panjakent was the gateway between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and indeed it should probably be part of Uzbekistan given that 70% of the population is ethnically Uzbek. The superb archaeological sites of ancient Panjakent and Sarazm have earned it the moniker ‘the Pompeii of central Asia’ and are potent reminders of its historical importance and erstwhile wealth.
Remarkable due to its state of preservation, this abandoned city is home to an impressive citadel.
For the time being, however, modern Panjakent is a virtual ghost town, its lifeblood choked off by the closure of the border in 2010. The flow of tourists has slowed to a trickle, and businesses are only just clinging on. Only if this vital communication route reopens will Panjakent stand a chance of recovery.
Ancient Panjakent is remarkable due to the state of its preservation. Having been abandoned suddenly and never built over, it is still possible to walk the streets laid out much the same way as they were the day the Arabs came. At its height in the 8th century, the city covered around 20ha, and about half of this area has been carefully excavated, with finds being removed to the National Museum in Dushanbe and the local Rudaki Museum. Most impressive among the buildings are the citadel on top of the hill overlooking the city, the necropolis, and the fine, once multistoried buildings where the famous frescoes were discovered. There is a small museum near the entrance to the ruins, featuring a handful of artefacts and detailed information about the life of Russian archaeologist Boris Marshak, who spent half a century excavating the site and lobbying for its preservation. As per his will, Marshak is buried on the grounds. Taxis can be hired to visit the ruins, which overlook the modern city a mere 2km south of Rudaki, adjacent the airport. The labyrinthine ruins are open around the clock, but it is advisable to visit only within the operating hours of the museum.
The easiest place to see Panjakent’s remarkable frescoes, however, is in the much larger Rudaki Museum (67 Rudaki; in the centre of the modern town. It’s an attractive, white building with well-laid-out displays, plenty of information and an enthusiastic curator. The Sogdian frescoes are undoubtedly the biggest draw, and although the best and largest examples (one of which was 15m in length) have been spirited away to Dushanbe and the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, you can still admire murals depicting many-headed gods, ancient heroes and the Sogdian aristocracy. Other notable artefacts include ornaments carved from wood and clay, domestic and ritual pottery, ossuaries (vessels for the bones of the dead) and altarpieces, many of which show marks of the apocalyptic fire.
Panjakent’s lively bazaar has a substantial, decorative gateway, and immediately opposite is the Olim Dodho Mosque, the multi-domed roof of which is reminiscent (albeit in miniature) of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.