The Tajiks have been in the Pamir area for thousands of years and are regarded as the oldest people in Central Asia. Settled societies in the region date back at least to 3000 B.C. The Tajiks are believed to have descended from Aryans, an ancient Indo-European people that also gave birth to early Hindus, Iranians, Greeks and Europeans, and have links with the ancient Samanid, Sogdian and Bactrian empires.

Much of the history of Central Asia before the time of Alexander the Great is not clear and is based on speculation. Ancient people’s in Central Asia left behind petroglyphs, bas-reliefs and clay sculptures. It is believed that the Indian tribes that brought Indo-European languages to Europe passed through Central Asia around the 10th century B.C. on their way to Iran (which speaks an Indo-European language) and Europe. These people were related to the Aryans that conquered India. They used compound bows, fought in chariots and herded cattle. The Tajiks are related linguistically to these tribes. Remains of hunter-gatherers and early farmers show no signs of war but there were signs of conflict in Pakistan, where farmers began to put up walls 6,000 years ago.

The first people known to have occupied Central Asia were Iranian nomads who arrived from the northern grasslands of what is now Uzbekistan sometime in the first millennium B.C. These nomads, who spoke Iranian dialects, settled in Central Asia and began to build an extensive irrigation system along the rivers of the region. At this time, cities such as Bukhara (Bukhara) and Samarqand (Samarkand) began to appear as centers of government and culture. By the fifth century B.C., the Bactrian, Soghdian, and Tokharian states dominated the region. [Source: Library of Congress]

Prehistoric rock engravings have been found in more than fifty places in Tajikistan, many of which are in the Pamir mountain area. Some date from as far back as 1000 B.C. These engravings, either chipped out of the surface of granite rocks by means of a stone or scratched with a knife, depict hunting scenes, with mountain goats, yaks, deer, and the running hunters with bows and dogs. The Dara has famous collection of petroglyphs. The four groups of rock images that have been discovered there show humans and ornaments.

Ancient Sarazm

Sarazm, which means “where the land begins”, is an archaeological site in Tajikistan bearing testimony to the development of human settlements in Central Asia, from the 4th millennium B.C. to the end of the 3rd millennium B.C.. The ruins demonstrate the early development of proto-urbanization in this region. This centre of settlement, one of the oldest in Central Asia, is situated between a mountainous region suitable for cattle rearing by nomadic pastoralists, and a large valley conducive to the development of agriculture and irrigation by the first settled populations in the region. Sarazm also demonstrates the existence of commercial and cultural exchanges and trade relations with peoples over an extensive geographical area, extending from the steppes of Central Asia and Turkmenistan, to the Iranian plateau, the Indus valley and as far as the Indian Ocean. [Source: UNESCO ~]

Sarazm is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The proto-urban site of Sarazm illustrates the early rise of proto-urbanization in this region in the sophistication of the dwellings, infrastructures, and archaeological findings. It came into being as the result of the complementarity initially between pastoralism and early agrarianism, and subsequently between the exploitation of mineral resources in the Bronze Age and the development of handicrafts. Sarazm was a long-lasting and prosperous proto-urban metropolis, at the north-eastern extremity of a vast area stretching from Mesopotamia to the Indus and the Iranian plateau. ~

The ancient Sarazm settlement was discovered in autumn 1976 by the archaeologist Abdullojon Isakov. The monument is located 15 kilometers west of Panjikent and 45 kilometers east of Samarkand. The original area of the uncovered settlement spread over an area of 130 hectares. A city existed there more than five thousand years ago and had its highest level of development near the start of the bronze age. According to radio-carbon dating, the civilization existed in four separate periods: 3,500-3,200 B.C; 3,200-2,900 B.C.; 2,900-2,700 B.C.; and 2,700-2,000 B.C. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan, www.tdc.tj /*/]

The area had an agricultural economy centred around farming (irrigated and non-irrigated) cattle-breeding and craftwork. At the end of the 4th millenium B.C. Sarazm became one of largest centres for metallurgy in Central Asia. This came from the riches found near the top of Zarafshon’s mountains such as gold, silver, copper, lead and tin. Sarazm had a strong ecomony and a well-developed industrial culture by Central Asian standards of that period. By the middle of the 4th millemium B.C., the Sarazmians had improved their network of contacts, spreading their culture and trading with ancient settlements in Southern Turkmenistan, Iran, Baluchistan, India and Afghanistan. Sarazm city is a unique monument which shows the variety of cultural relationships and contacts of early bronze age people. /*/

The results of the excavations in Sarazm have been presented in many international symposia – in Tajikistan (1979 & 1994), Washington (1981 & 1986), Paris (1985), Germany (1992), Iran (3004), Italy (2007) and Africa (2008). According to the decision of the Republic of Tajikistan (#391, dated 21 September 2001) the 5,500-year old Sarazm site in Panjikent region was declared a historical-architectural treasure which forms part of the culture of the land, history and tradition of the Tajiks. /*/

Bactria and Early Persian Influence on Tajikistan

Iranian peoples such as the Soghdians and the Bactrians are the ethnic forbears of the modern Tajiks. They have inhabited parts of Central Asia for at least 2,500 years, assimilating with Turkic and Mongol groups. Between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C., present-day Tajikistan was part of the Persian Achaemenian Empire, which was conquered by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. After that conquest, Tajikistan was part of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, a successor state to Alexander’s empire. [Source: Library of Congress 2007 **]

The Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (or BMAC, also known as the Oxus civilization) is the name given to a Central Asian Bronze Age culture. Dated to ca. 2300–1700 B.C., and centered on the upper Amu Darya (Oxus River), it is located in present-day northern Afghanistan, eastern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan. Bactria is the old Greek name for northern Afghanistan and the northeast corner of Iran, while Margiana is further north, in what is today Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Through the region runs the Amu Dar'ya River, which was known in Greek history as the Oxus River. Much of archeological work was done in Soviet era by Soviet scientists.

Alexander the Great in Tajikistan

Much, if not all, of what is today Tajikistan was part of ancient Persia's Achaemenid Empire (sixth to fourth centuries B.C.), which was subdued by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. and then became part of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, one of the successor states to Alexander's empire. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Some Tajiks are regarded as descendants of subjects of Alexander the Great. Alexander spent some time in the area of the Tajiks and his soldiers took many took local brides. Alexander married Roxana (Roshanak), the daughter of the most powerful of the Bactrian chiefs (Oxyartes, who revolted in present-day Tajikistan), and in 324 B.C. commanded his officers and 10,000 of his soldiers to marry Iranian women. The mass wedding, held at Susa, was a model of Alexander's desire to consummate the union of the Greek and Iranian peoples.

Archeologists have excavated a road paved with alabaster that dates back the time of Alexander the Great. Located in southern Tajikistan near the Pyandzh River and the border with Afghanistan, the road led to a temple where both Greek gods and local gods were worshipped. The road was made of alabaster and crushed stone covered with clay. The site was excavated by a team led by archeologist Anzhelina Druzhinina.


The northern part of what is now Tajikistan was part of Soghdiana, a distinct region that intermittently existed as a combination of separate oasis states and sometimes was subject to other states. Two important cities in what is now northern Tajikistan, Khujand (formerly Leninobod; Russian spelling Leninabad) and Panjakent, as well as Bukhara (Bukhara) and Samarqand (Samarkand) in contemporary Uzbekistan, were Soghdian in antiquity. As intermediaries on the Silk Route between China and markets to the west and south, the Soghdians imparted religions such as Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism , and Manichaeism , as well as their own alphabet and other knowledge, to peoples along the trade routes. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Sogdians were centered in what is now northern Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan. They were the inhabitants of fertile valleys surrounded by deserts, the most important of which was the Zeravshan valley, in today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The French scholar Étienne de la Vaissière wrote: “This Iranian-speaking people had a fifteen-centuries-long historical identity between the sixth century B.C. and the A.D. tenth century when it vanished in the Muslim, Persian-speaking world. Although the Sogdians constructed such famous towns as Samarkand and Bukhara, they are quite unknown. Only specialists on the Silk Road know that they were among the main go-betweens of the exchanges in the steppe, in Central Asia, and in China during the first millennium CE, and especially between the fifth and the eighth centuries CE. During this period, the “inland silk road” and the “Sogdian trading network” are almost synonymous. [Source: Étienne de la Vaissière, École pratique des hautes, études Sciences historiques, et philologiques, Paris,Silk Road Foundation newsletter]

From the fifth to the eighth centuries, the Sogdians were the main caravan merchants of the Silk Road which passed through the Sogdian cities of Samarqand (their capital) and Bukhara (Vaissiere, 2004). The Sogdians also established extensive colonies in what is now western China. Their influence was so extensive that Sogdian, an east-Iranian language, was the lingua franca of Central Asia during the seventh century (Dien). The region to the south of Sogdiana, Ustashana (also called Sorushna) was also populated by Sogdian speaking people (Negmatov, 1999). Its capital, Bunjikat, was near present day Istravshan in northwest Tajikistan (Bosworth, 2005). The dialect of Sogdian spoken in Ustrashana in the eighth century has been identified through lexical and phonological similarities as the language from which modern Yaghnobi has descended (See Below).[Source: Bahrom in History, yaghnobi.wordpress.com. October 15, 2007]

Yaghnobi People: Descendants of the Sogdians?

Yanob was once the lingua franca of trade on the Silk Road. It is now only spoken by a small group of people: the Yaghnobi, who have inhabited the high mountain valley of Yaghnob in west-central Tajikistan. These people are regarded by some as the descendants of the Sogdians, who continued to thrive until the Arab conquests of Central Asia the A.D. eighth century. for centuries, have been identified as descendants of the ancient Sogdians.

After the Sogdians were defeated by Arab invaders at the battle of Mount Mugh in A.D. 722 many of them fled Arab domination to live in the high mountain valleys (Whitfeld, 2005). According to Belyakov (2003) the village of Pskon in the Yaghnob valley became a de facto capital for the Sogdian refugees. It appears that the Sogdian refugees remained fairly isolated from outside authority and influence, although significant numbers were subject to forced conversion to Islam. Eventually all of the Yaghnobi adopted Islam, but they also retained Zoroastrian beliefs which continue to be a part of their religious practice (Gunya, 2002). [Source: Bahrom in History, yaghnobi.wordpress.com. October 15, 2007 <*>]

In the 17th century a significant number of Yaghnobis migrated to the Varzob valley (Bielmeier, 2006) which is mainly populated by Tajiks and closer to the lowland population centers. A sizable Yaghnobi population remain there in half a dozen villages today. The Yaghnobis’ land came under control of the tsar in 1870, but Russian authority was mainly in name only. Aside from tax collection, from which the Yaghnobis were exempted in 1895, there was little control exercised by the Russians and the Yaghnobi remained isolated by the high mountains surrounding their homeland. The first scientific records of the Yaghnobi language were made in 1870 by the Russian scholar Alexander L. Kuhn and his Tajik companion and interpreter Mirza Mulla Abdurrakhman from Samarkand. <*>

In the 1920, the Bolsheviks took control of Russian Turkestan, but because of the rugged terrain surrounding the Yaghnob valley they exercised no real control until 1930 when the first soviet was established in the village of Naumetkan in Yaghnob. In 1929, the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was created. The Yaghnob valley was in the territory of the Tajik SSR and is about sixty miles from Dushanbe which was designated the capital of the Tajik SSR. With the Soviet political apparatus developing at closer proximity to the Yaghnob valley, further attempts were made to sovietize the Yaghnobi, including the establishment of two largely unsuccessful collective farms in the 1930s (Gunya, 2002). In spite of the increasing Soviet control over the Tajik SSR, the Yaghnobi continued to remain relatively isolated and autonomous because of the absence of roads through the high passes into the Yaghnob valley. <*>

During 1970 and 1971 the Soviet authorities forcibly deported the entire population of the Yaghnob valley to the cotton plantations in the area of Zafarbod on the northwest border between the Tajik and Uzbek SSRs. The deportation was both politically and economically motivated. The fact that the Yaghnobis’ remote location had allowed them to effectively resist Soviet authority, coupled with the pressing economic need for laborers in the cotton fields motivated the government to force the Yaghnobi people from their mountain homes at gunpoint and fly them by helicopter to grow cotton in irrigated desert land (Donovan, 2007). The population of the Yaghnob valley at that time numbered between three and four thousand. Due to the harsh desert climate with temperatures over 105 degrees Fahrenheit, inadequate housing, lack of sanitary drinking water, and exposure to tuberculosis, between 400 and 700 Yaghnobis died during their first year in Zafarabod (Loy, 2005). During the first few years some of the Yaghnobi fled back to the Yaghnob valley only to be deported again. <*>

In 1990, the Dushanbe based Council of Ministers passed a resolution to reestablish all villages from which people had been deported. Tajikistan became an independent country in 1991. Since independence, the government of Tajikistan has promoted national awareness of the country’s Sogdian heritage as part of an effort to construct a new national identity. Although the Yaghnobi are now permitted to return to live in the Yaghnob valley, only about three hundred have done so since all of the homes had been destroyed and the valley is completely lacking any kind of infrastructure or economic base. About 6,500 Yaghnobis remain in Zafarabod, the largest Yaghnobi population center. In spite of the suffering and hardship they have experienced they have retained much of their culture and continue to speak Yaghnobi as their first language. <*>

Kushans, Sassanians and Chinese Influence

Between the first and fourth centuries, the area that is now Tajikistan and adjoining territories were part of the Kushan realm, which had close cultural ties to India. The Kushans, whose exact identity is uncertain, played an important role in the expansion of Buddhism by spreading the faith to the Soghdians,who in turn brought it to China and the Turks.

The Chinese also were active in the region during this period. In the 2nd century B.C., Zhang Qian, an imperial envoy, explored to the Western Regions (including what is now Xinjiang and parts of Central Asia). The government of the Western Han Dynasty established an administration in the Western Regions. The Taxkorgan Region was the main transportation artery and strategic passage of the Silk Road. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

By the first century A.D., the Han dynasty of China had developed commercial and diplomatic relations with the Soghdians and their neighbors, the Bactrians. Military operations also extended Chinese influence westward into the region. During the first centuries A.D., Chinese involvement in this region waxed and waned, decreasing sharply after the Islamic conquest but not disappearing completely. As late as the nineteenth century, China attempted to press its claim to the Pamir region of what is now southeastern Tajikistan. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, China occasionally has revived its claim to part of this region. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the years before the eighth century, the Sassanids (Sassanians) exerted a strong Persian cultural and linguistic influence on the area. Iran's last pre-Islamic empire, the Sassanids (A.D. 226-651) ruled mainly over what is now Iran and Iraq. At its height it ruled over what is now the Caucasus, southwestern side of the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Under the Sassanids, the Persian language and culture as well as the Zoroastrian religion spread among the peoples of Central Asia, including the ancestors of the modern Tajiks.

Arab Conquest and Turkification of Tajikistan

In the A.D. eighth century, Arabs conquered modern-day Tajikistan and brought with them Islam, which within one century was the predominant religion of the region.

The Arab conquests of Central Asia began in the seventh century. In the eighth century Islamic Arabs reached what is now Tajikistan. Conversion to Islam occurred by means of incentives, gradual acceptance, and force of arms. Islam spread most rapidly in cities and along the main river valleys. By the ninth century, it was the prevalent religion in the entire region. In the early centuries of Islamic domination, Central Asia continued in its role as a commercial crossroads, linking China, the steppes to the north, and the Islamic heartland. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Between the Arab conquest and the year 999, the strongest influence was that of the Persian Samanid Dynasty. Beginning in the ninth century, Turkish penetration of the Persian cultural sphere increased in Central Asia. The conquest of the Samanids by the Qarakhanid Turks intensified the introduction of Turkic peoples and culture into the region. The influx of even greater numbers of Turkic peoples began in the eleventh century. [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007]

In the Turkic or Mongol states that controlled what is now Tajikistan, the Persian language remained in use in government, scholarship, and literature. Among the dynasties that ruled all or part of the future Tajikistan between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries were the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, and the Timurids (Timur, or Tamerlane, and his heirs and their subjects). Repeated power struggles among claimants to these realms took their toll on Central Asia. The Mongol conquest in particular dealt a serious blow to sedentary life and destroyed several important cities in the region. Although they had come in conquest, the Timurids also patronized scholarship, the arts, and letters. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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