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Perhaps to give the conventionally religious among us an opportunity to give thanks for getting here alive, our first stop in Istaravshan was the Sar-i Mazor Mosque complex. It had some local historical significance as a place that fell under cloud in Soviet times when the Madrasah (Islamic School) here was shut down.  But it's now somewhat restored with a new larger Mosque complementing the old one and recently built minaret (from 2002). There are also a couple of mausoleums, one of which was said to be haunted.


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Sar-i Mazor Mosque complex
The women in our party quite liked wearing a scarf - it kept the sun off and could be wet against the heat.


The Soviet period apartments in front were interestingly decorated with a mural celebrating the socialist ideal but like a lot of the city the homes, at least externally, are now in need of some TLC. Yet with kitchens and bathrooms they stand in stark contrast to older mud brick hovels, we would see in places like Khiva, that had been home to the common folk under the earlier tyrants, right into the 20th century.


Unknown unknowns

When I studied history at school in the 50's we learned that civilisation began in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at the head of the Persian Gulf, 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, and spread out from there to Egypt, Greece and Rome. The Romans carried it to Britain and northern Europe. The British Empire brought it to Australia.  India and China barely got a mention and Central Asia was a blank page.  Later world events introduced us to South-east Asia but yet again Central Asia was seldom mentioned in our media - except for Afghanistan.

A Persian poet once said, there are four states of awareness:

One who knows and knows that he knows

One who knows, but doesn't know that he knows

One who doesn't know, but knows that he doesn't know

One who doesn't know and doesn't know that he doesn't know

13th century Persian poet: Ibn Yamin


Of course Ibn Yamin was alluding to Islam and his god, yet we might say this of any knowledge. The most difficult to overcome are the fourth kind, the unknown unknowns. They are only revealed when we stumble over them. 

Before this trip I was totally ignorant of Tajikistan. Thus at over 2,500 years old, Istaravshan (Ura-Tube), one of the oldest continuous settlements in Central Asia, might have been on the Moon.

I now discovered that together with nearby Khujand, it is the probable site of Cyropolis (The City of Cyrus) established Cyrus the Great in 554 BCE, at the dawn of civilisation here, to mark the furthest north-eastern border of his Achaemenid (Persian) empire. It may be even older. There is evidence of an earlier Neolithic settlement here but it first appeared to historians in ancient texts in the time of Cyrus.

To the northeast of the modern city is a hill called Mug Teppe that has been sculpted with a flat top and steep abutments on three sides, possibly dating all the way back to the Palaeolithic. This was the site of a mud brick Sogdian fortress that was stormed by Alexander the Great.

In 329 BCE Alexander the Great, of whom I was aware, emulated Cyrus (whom he admired) by founding Alexandria Eschate (Alexandria The Furthest) here. It was also known as Alexandria Ultima and remained an oasis of Greek culture until 30 BCE.  It's interesting to note that while Alexander conquered the Persians in bloody wars, when some of his troops desecrated Cyrus' grave Alexander was furious and put them to death with extreme prejudice. 

The Persian city it defended had resisted Alexander and it is recorded that Alexander’s ‘commandos’ infiltrated it by stealth to open its gates to his main force.

In reprisal for their resistance all the males were executed and the women and children taken as slaves. In due course it recovered under the Neo-Persian Sasanian Empire, that attributed its authority to rule to the ancient Zoroastrian religion.  In the first century CE conflicts with the Byzantine Empire, that attributed its authority to rule to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, had weakened both.  Onto this scene came Islam, that attributed its authority to rule to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the one God (of Abraham and thus of the Jews and Christians too).  Muhammad had united the warring Arab tribes under his 'new spin' on the old religions - mostly after his death in 632 CE.

So in 651 CE the weakened Sasanian Empire fell to the Arabs who imposed Islam then set about consolidating their power.  As a result, a fortress on this hill was stormed yet again, this time by jihadist Arabs in 772 CE. To say things then went smoothly for nearly 500 years would be to brush over continuous banditry, often relating to slave trading, and many petty struggles between kingdoms. But then came the Mongol Hordes.

In 1220 CE Genghis Khan - more of him later - took similar reprisals to Alexander 1,550 years earlier, when locals resisted.  His authority to rule came from his own dead ancestors.  Fast forward a century or so and a fort this site was said to have been repaired by Tamerlane the Great, The Sword of Islam - more of him later too.

Most of what remained was finally polished off by Russian artillery in 1866, with authority from the Trinity, leaving a few small ruins. 

So in 2002 an imaginative blue-domed gateway was built on the site to celebrate Istaravshan’s 2,500th anniversary.

In the Google Earth image taken in 2014 one can see both a small cluster of remaining ruins and the new gate in its isolated glory.  To our initial delight the walls around the top of the hill have just been completed with landscapers still on site.  So now the whole fortress stands, apparently complete, as an imposing replica, covering the hill yet again.


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Mug Teppe in Google Earth - 2014 and 2018


Yet up close it’s disappointing. It’s something of a Disney reimagining, complete with replica Sarasin soldiers along the approach road.

We were told that it's an historically accurate replica but in that case I was concerned that the main entrance (the previous road onto the site) is too wide and has no elephant trap or gate as do actual ancient forts in Asia. After sounding sceptical of its authenticity on this point I was told very severely by our guide that Elephants were not used in Central Asia.

Yet in India we'd actually stayed in a fort with protection against elephants and seen several others. Elephants were the tanks of the ancient world.  I remembered from school that Hannibal had used Elephants against Rome during the Punic wars.  Maybe, despite making it over the Alps to attack Rome in 218 BCE, elephants can't get through the Khyber Pass?  This seemed unlikely.  Later Wikipedia told me: "...the Mongols defeated the war elephants outside Samarkand by using catapults and mangonels... and... Genghis and Kublai both retained captured elephants as part of their entourage."  Samarkand, also on our itinerary, is just down the road.  No elephants indeed!


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The fake-fort at Mug Teppe
There are more images in the Tajikistan Album - Click Here...


Inside the fake-fort its modern purpose becomes obvious – it’s an entertainment venue. In its centre is a Greco-Roman style amphitheatre, similar in style to one in Dushanbe, with a poster proclaiming that it seats 5,100. True, the 2014 Google Earth image suggests a circular foundation, so there may have been a circular building here at some time in the past two millennia, but it was a lot smaller and now lost under the modern building.

Anyway I suppose that it will satisfy future tourists, particularly if the museum on the site provides a comprehensive history. The site itself is certainly old and important enough.

After Istaravshan we re-joined our cars for the 80k drive northeast to Khujand.




# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.

A very interesting part of the world.

Richard Walker
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