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In 1929, during Soviet times, the Sughd Region, of which Khujand is the principal town and Istaravshan the second, was more or less shoehorned into the modern state of Tajikistan to make the small republic more economically viable. Although it produced about two thirds of the country's GDP it’s physically separated from the rest of Tajikistan by the Gissar Range and the ‘tunnel of death’.  It's near the start of the steppes and visually the geography the landforms and agriculture have more in common with the planes of Uzbekistan than with the mountains.  But recent movements of Tajik people (and Uzbeks) particularly during the Civil War, together with rapid population growth, have resulted in Uzbek people becoming a minority.

Today it’s a modern city, like Dushanbe, with high-rise buildings and dual carriageways and a population of around 700,000.  It could be somewhere in Europe, except for the climate.  Yet like Istaravshan its history goes all the way back to Alexander the Great and beyond.

In 1999, part of the eastern wall of Khujand citadel, dating from the 15th century, was reconstructed to house the Museum of Local History, Archaeology and Fortification. This museum has a collection of household items, pottery and implements found in the archaeological digs. A glass floor allows visitors to see part of the actual foundations. It also describes the extent of the Mongol and Timurid Empires  – I think – as unfortunately there was no English translation.


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Museum of Local History, Archaeology and Fortification


Khujand's historians are very proud of the city's association with Alexander the Great. So the Historical Museum of Sughd Region has a brief summary of prehistory with dioramas and some Palaeolithic artefacts, including the skull of a mastodon (prehistoric elephant), but gives a great deal, of otherwise empty space, to a series of mosaics around the walls depicting scenes from the life of Alexander the Great.

Like many children my age I first learned of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian/Greek conqueror, as a hero. He was famed for having been taught by Aristotle and having tamed his otherwise untameable horse Bucephalus when twelve years old. He was also famed for never losing a battle - even against overwhelming odds. He conquered the Persian empire of Cyrus and then Egypt: founding the city of Alexandria; and establishing the first Greek Pharaonic (Ptolemaic) Dynasty, of which Cleopatra was the last. In his final campaign he pushed down into India as far as the Ganges River, where twice wounded and faced with crossing the wide river to meet an opposing army headed by a reputed six thousand war elephants, he made a strategic retreat (perhaps this was a defeat). He admired the Persian culture and returned to Babylon to head his Empire that in his absence had fallen into disrepair. Two years later, in 323 BCE, he fell ill and died at the age of 32, probably by poison.

We were encouraged, particularly when learning Latin, to regard the Ancient Greeks as the inventors of democracy and as the precursors of the Romans and thus, together with King John and the Magna Carta, our legal system.  So Alexander was a progenitor of our culture; exceptional institutions; and enviable way of life.


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Historical Museum of Sughd Region


In Khujand he is remembered fondly because he bore a son by a local girl, one of several wives, only for them both to be murdered by Greeks when he died, thus denying his heir the potential succession. Yet elsewhere we've learned that Alexander put entire cities to the sword and is not so warmly regarded everywhere we've travelled.

As one Empire replaced another in Europe and trade with China grew, the Neo-Persian (Sasanian) Principality of Bukhara, including Khujand and Istaravshan, became known for its own skills such as carpets and bronze work, where local crafts-people added value to less processed goods traded along the Silk Road.

In 710 CE the Principality of Bukhara fell to the Arabs. It then changed hands several more times in conflicts between different warlords, each from the Muslim world, eventually becoming part of the Khwarezm Empire, comprising present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran before falling to a new force.

Around the turn of the 13th century, a young brigand, Temüjin Borjigin, successfully united the waring nomadic tribes of Mongolia. As a result Temüjin gained the title ‘Universal Ruler’ – Genghis Khan. His mounted warriors moved swiftly on horseback and waged war in lightening attacks often against the enemies’ lines of supply. He preferred to starve out well defended cities by laying waste to their hinterland rather than spend resources against their defences. Thus he was renowned for tactical brilliance, against which traditional armies were ill-equipped. His first conquests beyond Mongolia were in China but soon the ‘Mongol Horde’ would sweep east to the Black Sea, north to the Baltic and South into Persia to establish the largest contiguous land empire in history.

Early-on Genghis Khan had negotiated a trade agreement with the Khwarazm Emperor but when the first caravan arrived its goods were stolen and its merchants were killed. The Sultan then murdered some of Genghis Khan’s ambassadors. So Genghis Khan went to war against the Khwarezm Empire. To put this in historical context, it was around the same time King John was signing the Magna Carta, constraining the excesses of absolute monarchy, at Runnymede in England.

Genghis Khan the most absolute of absolute monarchs arrived at Khujand in 1219.  The ancient city was protected by a mud-brick city wall dating from the fourth or fifth century BCE.

Medieval cities in this region were usually composed of three parts: the citadel, the fortress or keep, the administrative centre of the city; Shahristan, home to affluent residents; and Rabad, inhabited by the poorer mass of the population. The remnants of the citadel are downtown where archaeologists have also traced the path of the ancient walls. The fortifications took advantage of a loop in the river, reinforced by an embankment of natural clay and complemented by a moat on the inland side.

A local guide book asserts that Genghis Khan’s army besieged Khujand from 1219 to 1220 with 25,000,000 invaders, excluding 50,000 captives intended for work, so that local hero Timurmalik, who led the defence of the fortress, could no longer resist and the city surrendered.  This vast exaggeration of Genghis Khan’s army is indicative of the success of his tactics and the fear he engendered.

The fortress was completely destroyed and the population put to the sword but the siege of Khujand became legend, one of the most remembered events in the long history of Tajikistan.

Once he had ‘pacified’ a region Genghis Khan was something of an improvement on previous tyrants: establishing a meritocracy; introducing a common writing system; conducting regular censuses; prohibiting the kidnapping, enslavement or selling of women (but not men); supporting freedom of religion; and providing diplomatic immunity to foreign ambassadors.

Genghis Khan died in 1227 and was succeeded by his son Ogodei Khan who further expanded the Empire so that it reached its greatest extent in 1279. But the establishment of the Yuan dynasty in 1271 by Kublai Khan soon led to the fragmentation of the Empire into four khanates: Yuan dynasty in China; the Golden Horde (Kipchak Khanate) in Eastern Europe; the Ilkhanate, to the south - in present-day Iran, Azerbaijan and the central and eastern parts of Turkey; and the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia.


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The Mongol Empire and the four khanates:
Yuan dynasty (purple); The Golden Horde / Kipchak Khanate (gold);
Ilkhanate (light green); and the Chagatai Khanate (dark green) - source: Wikipedia


Khujand together with modern Uzbekistan fell within the Chagatai Khanate that retained strong Persian cultural sensibilities and language influences and progressively adopted Islam as the dominant religion, while the huge Yuan dynasty, to the east, allowed Confucianism, and virtually every other religion, while endorsing Tibetan Buddhism as the official religion.

Thus Buddhism continued to flourish and is widely found in archaeological sites along the Silk Road.

In the 15th century the Chagatai Khanate fell to Tamerlane (more of that later) and new defences were constructed, mainly against banditry and to define the ruler's powerbase, confirming that Khujand remained an important trading hub on the Silk Road.

The main trade route skirted the high mountains of Tajikistan and both Istaravshan and Khujand are in the northern foothills, blending into the great wind-swept steppes to the north.

All this dwelling on the past might give the impression that Khujand retains many of its ancient attributes.  Instead, there is very little of the old, pre-Soviet, city remaining. For example the green domed mosque in the pictures below is quite new.


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Around the Main Square in  Khujand
There are more images in the Tajikistan Album - Click Here...


We spent the night in the pleasant, well-appointed Hotel Firuz in Lenin Street and after breakfast took in the Sheikh Muslihiddin mausoleum across the main square from the Panjshanbe (Thursday’s) Market, one of the largest covered markets in Central Asia, where snacks for lunch and hats were purchased. Yes, hats – for bread – you know - for holding chopped-up baguettes when entertaining.  

After the markets we took a last drive in the trusty vans to the border, where after a long walk across no-man’s-land and several waits for passport stamps and visa checks we finally made it to the coach (large tour bus) that was to carry us across Uzbekistan.




# 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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