Ideally located only a short drive from the Uzbek border, with its historical sites and bustling bazaar, Panjakent (often spelled Penjikent) strongly deserves to be more than just an overnight stop en route between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Long the gateway between the two countries, it should probably be part of Uzbekistan given that 70% of the population is ethnically Uzbek. The superb archaeological sites of ancient Panjakent and nearby Sarazm have earned it the moniker ‘the Pompeii of central Asia’ and are potent reminders of its historical importance and erstwhile wealth
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 multi-storied 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.
Some 15km west of Panjakent, just before the newly reopened Uzbek border, are the impressive ruins of one of Tajikistan’s other great archaeological sites: Sarazm. Discovered in 1976 by the Soviet archaeologist Abdullojon Isakov, it is remarkable for both its size and its antiquity.
Sarazm is an open-air site so there are no fixed opening times, and no entrance fee. Local people may appear to ‘guide’ you around the site, in which case give them a small donation for their time. There is very little information on the site itself aside from a few weathered information boards, so it’s a place you can let your imagination wander.
The earthen mounds and depressions on the site were once urban structures, burial sites and reservoirs, and a visit to Sarazm is a nod to the long human history of Tajikistan. Known by archaeologists as a ‘proto-urban site’ because of its status as one of the world’s oldest cities, the Sarazm settlement originally spread across 130ha.
It was the first settlement in central Asia to form such far-reaching trading connections and have such a vibrant cultural heritage. Carbon dating confirms it was already inhabited by 3500BC, peaking at the start of the Bronze Age when it was likely the largest metallurgical centre in central Asia. It thrived until the 3rd millennium BC and was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2010 (the first UNESCO site in Tajikistan) in recognition of its historical significance in being the physical and cultural meeting point of settled farming tribes and the nomads of the Eurasian steppe.
The name ‘Sarazm’ means ‘where the land begins’, and for several millennia the settlement served as a great centre of trade and industry, producing handicrafts, tools and other artefacts that were sold and utilised throughout the ancient world.