Tajikistan is a small jewel of a country, perched between Afghanistan and China. Few people from the west have visited because it was part of the closed world of the Soviet Union. Even after the fall of the USSR in 1991 there was a civil war, which lasted until 1996, and parts of the country remained insecure into the late 90s.
Now Tajikistan is independent and peace has returned, there is a chance for travellers to visit this beautiful, mountainous country, with a people whose hospitality is an integral and natural part of their way of life. One of the many attractions of visiting Tajikistan are the museums.
The country is still very poor and heavily reliant on the remittances of young Tajik men working in Russia. However, there is also a renewed pride in their ancient civilization stretching back 2000 years and a rich cultural history intertwined with a Persian inheritance. The Tajiks are closely related to the Iranians, and are a distinct ethnic group from their Turkic neighbors. The new found confidence in their identity has lead to a celebration of great figures from the Tajik past: Rudaki – the great Persian poet, Avicenna [Ibn Sina] – the famous physician and polymath, and above all, King Ismoil of the Samanid dynasty from the “Golden Age” of the Tajiks in the tenth century, now often referred to as “Somoni”. His golden statue towers over Dusti Square in Dushanbe and the national currency is in somonis.
Juxtaposed with this new found sense of identity is a pride in a Soviet past. See how the war veterans wear their medals with pride. Statues of Lenin continue to gaze severely into the distance in most towns. The Soviet regime had its dark side, particularly the Stalinist purges and the forced movement of people from the mountains to the baking hot plains to grow cotton. However, many Tajiks consider there were many beneficial elements in the Soviet legacy. One of these is the fine museums.
THE SOUTH OF TAJIKISTAN
The capital, Dushanbe, a city of 600,000 people, is full of space, light and colour, and has much old world charm.
The Museum of National Antiquities in Rajabov Street is one of the great museums of Central Asia. It was, and continues to be, a centre for scholars, both Tajik and Russian. It is housed in an impressive neo-classical building, recently renovated. The exhibits are well set out with descriptions in Tajik, Russian and some in English. Staff are helpful. There is an excellent guidebook and also a shop selling books, jewelry, pottery and gifts.
The highlight is the Sleeping Buddha in Nirvana, at 16 metres long, the largest such figure in Central Asia. It dates from the Kushan period, around AD 500. It was excavated from Ajina-Teppa, near Qurghan Tappa, about 100 kms south of Dushanbe in I960. Made of clay, it had to be removed in pieces, and reassembled in the museum.
The main entrance hall has two fine statues of mountain goats from the 5th 3rd century ВС, and an altar from the Temple of Oxus, Takht-I Sangin, near the banks of the Amu Darya in the far south of Tajikistan, from the 4th 3rd century ВС. The coin collection features gold Alexander coins from the Sughd region. According to Greek historians Alexander married a Sogdian [Tajik] princess, Roxanne.
Other highlights are frescoes from Penjikent and Bunjikat [Sogdian cities in the north of Tajikistan] and a minature of Alexander the Great. There are artifacts from Hulbuk, the fourth largest city in Central Asia in the tenth century. [Now a replica is being built on the original site of the citadel at Kurbonshaid, near Kulob].
The museum has an excellent website: www.afc.ryukoku.ac.jp/tj
At the south end of Rudaki Avenue is the Tajik State Regional Museum. It is much as it must have been in Soviet times, with many natural history exhibits, agricultural implements and costumes. There are heroic pictures of Lenin talking to Tajik women, and of the Tajik nomenclatura. The highlight is a superb minbar [pulpit] from Istaravashan in the north. There is a good mock up of the interior of a Tajik house. Another exhibit is a model of a cell with prisoners, illustrating the Soviet view of the horrors perpetrated by the previous regime. The top floor is given over to the achievements of the aluminum industry.
There are four delightful small specialist museums, whose attraction is enhanced by all being in normal houses, closely associated with the subject.
– Gurminj Museum of Musical Instruments, in Bokhtar Street. A collection of musical instruments acquired by a famous Tajik actor and displayed in his former house. Some of the instruments are extremely old, pre-Islamic
– Ziyadullo Shahidi Museum of Musical Culture, in Shahidi Street. The former home of Ziyadullo Shahidi, a celebrated Tajik musician of the Soviet era, who composed songs, operas and symphonies
– Tursunzoda Museum, Loik Sherali Street. In the former house, with much of the original furniture and library, of the modern Tajik poet Tursunzoda, who is remembered for writing fine poetry celebrating the optimism of the Soviet era.
– Aini Museum, Sayid Nosir Street. In the former house of Sadriddin Aini, the renowned Tajik poet and writer
23kms from Dushanbe is the ancient fortress of Hissar, standing on a hill commanding a key route between two mountain ranges. The lines of the fortifications can be clearly seen. Due to its strategic position, it had a violent history, being destroyed twenty one times by invaders including the Arabs, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and finally the Red Army. It was an important staging point on the Silk Route. The gatehouse has been reconstructed.
Outside the fortress gates are two medrassas, the lower walls of a caravanserai and a sixteenth century shrine. The excellent museum is housed in the old medrassa, with magnificent carved doors. Each of the original hujras, small rooms used by students for study and prayer, have been used imaginatively to house artifacts illustrating different topics of the history of the area. In the former mosque are the main exhibits, including a Bactrian column, catapult stones used by the Arabs, vast Ali Baba storage jars and a great range of pottery. There is a short guidebook in English.
There are regular minibus services from Dushanbe, and a daily rail service. A visit to this historic place, combining both outdoor and indoor museums makes a very worthwhile day trip from Dushanbe.
Central Asia Discovery # 25