Around 210,000 people live in the Gorno-Badakhshan region in Tajikistan. About 95 percent of them are Pamiri Tajiks (also known as Pamiris, or Pamirians, or Pamirian Tajiks). There are a few Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Russians. There are also some Pamiri Tajiks in Afghanistan, western China and Pakistan. The Gorno-Badakhshan region embraces most of the Pamirs. It accounts for 45 percent of Tajikistan’s territory but is home to only three percent of its people. The largely Shiite inhabitants of the Pamir mountains speak a number of mutually unintelligible eastern Iranian dialects quite distinct from the Tajik spoken in the rest of the country. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]
Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote:“The Pamiris have always differed from other Tajiks in important cultural characteristics, such as language, religion and stronger familial affiliation. Their languages and dialects belong to the Eastern Iranian language group as opposed to the Western Iranian Tajik. The majority of Pamiris adhere to the Ismaili sect of Shiism whilst the bulk of valley and mountain Tajiks are Sunnis. All eight Pamiri sub-ethnic groups retain potent self-consciousness and can identify themselves on at least three levels: by their primary cultural name—for example, rykhen, zgamik, khik and so on—when dealing with one another; by their collective name, pomiri (Pamiri), when interacting with other groups in Tajikistan; and, finally, as Tajiks when outside the republic. In the 1980s, the official line of the Tajik leadership denied the Pamiris their cultural uniqueness: ‘the Pamiris are Tajiks by descent and their languages are nothing more than dialects of Tajik.’ [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]
The Pamiri Tajiks have developed a distinct culture due to their isolation in the mountains. The dialects they speak vary greatly from valley to valley and are often as different from one another as Spanish is from French. Although related to Tajik the Pamari languages often have more in common with ancient Iranian languages like Sogdian, Bactrian and Saka than they do mordern Tajik. Because the languages and dialects are so different from one another and from Tajik, the Dari language of Afghanistan and the Western Iranian Farsi of India often serve as lingua francas. The Pamiris are united most by belief in the Ismaili sect of Islam — a branch of Shiite Islam — and their hospitality.
Among the Pamiri groups that live in the Gorno-Badakshan groups are Shugnans, Rushans, Bartangs, Orshors, Yazgulems, Ishkashims and Vakhans. The main Pamiri Tajiks groups are 1) the Rushan-Shugnan (numbering around 50,000), who live mainly on the tributaries eat of the Pyandj River and includes the Bartangs near the Bartang River; 2) the Rushans or Rukni (15,000); and 3) Wakhan (9,000), who live in the highest pasture of the Pamirs. Yaghnobis which populate Yagnob and Varzob river valleys live separately.
History of the Pamiri Tajiks
Little is known about the origins and the history of the Pamiri Tajiks because they did not have a written language until relatively recently and there are few mentions of them in the historical records. The first references linked them are mentions of the ancient Saka in Classical Greek and Old Persian sources from the 1st millennia B.C. In the 5th century B.C. Herodotus refer to the existence of Sakas (Scythians). Tombs from the eastern Pamirs show that Saka-Usun tribes were grazing their flocks there from the 5th century B.C., when the climate was considerably lusher than today. The Saka are believed to be related to the Dari-speaking Tajiks in Afghanistan and Tajiks in Tajikistan. They probably came under Kushan rule but are not thought to have embraced Buddhism as other groups in the region did.
Arabic sources from the 11th century describe a number of small kingdoms in the Pamiris and mention their conversion to Ismaili Islam in the 11th century by the great mystic poet Nasir-I Khosrow (1004-1072). The kingdoms were so remote and had so little to offer outsiders they were generally left alone. In the 17th century the Pamir region came under control of a state with its center in Afghan Badakhshan.
The Pamirs region was one of the last areas to be incorporated into Russia and the Soviet Union. Again the region was so remote the Pamiri Tajiks were largely left to go about their life as they always had. If anything exposure to the outside world intensified their ethnic identity and unified them. The various Pamir groups became the “Pamari Tajiks” as a means of comparing them with others.
Although ethnically linked with the Tajiks in the Soviet era, the seven Pamiri Tajik groups and the Yaghnobs are better perceived as distinct groups of people. These Eastern Iranian peoples were not assimilated over the centuries by their Persian- or Turkic-speaking neighbors and preserved their distinct identities. At the end of the Soviet era, the Dushanbe government allowed some leeway for education, broadcasting, and publication in the Pamiri languages. However, these limited reforms were more than outweighed by the repression that the victors in the civil war directed against the Pamiris in 1992 on the grounds that they tended to support political reform. [Source: New York Times, Library of Congress, 1996]
Pamiri Tajiks in the Soviet Era
Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “There used to be a joke in Tajikistan to the effect that if communism were ever to be built in the USSR, it would happen in Badakhshan as commodity-market relations were virtually unknown there. Trade was a rather disfavoured occupation there, and when in the 1970s a market was finally opened in Khorog, there was not a single local amongst the vendors. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]
“Family solidarity amongst Pamiris, and the stereotype it spawned, is exceptional even in the context of Tajikistan; for them, there is nothing inherently bad in nepotism. As an example, there was a case in 1975 when a certain Mahmadakov had managed to plant all 16 of his children in various scientific institutions throughout the republic. ><
“Although the republican authorities paid lip-service to the necessity of the accelerated development of the GBAO, in reality nothing was being done and the region, with 0.03 per cent of Tajikistan’s total material production, was constantly on the brink of survival. Since the early 1970s, the Pamiri elite strove to upgrade the region to the status of an autonomous republic in an attempt to change the situation, but to no avail. Even worse, by 1980 all leading positions in the region had been occupied by people from the north—a situation that made an important visitor from Moscow exclaim: ‘What is this invasion of Leninobodis during the Tenth five-year plan all about?’” ><
Ismailis in Tajikistan
Most of the of the people in the Gorno-Badakhshan and Khorog region of the Pamirs belong to an Islamaili sect of Shiite Islam led by the Aga Khan. In the Pamirs, people set up small roadside shrines in which people stop and ask for blessings and leave offerings of money or bread. Ismaili Shiites in Badakhshan recite religious poetry called madah; these poems are sung in Persian.
Tajiks were originally Sunnis. In the beginning of the 18th century, some changed to Nizari Ismaili sect of Shia (Shiite) Islam. The followers of Shia Islam — Shiites recognize the fourth caliph Ali — son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad — and his descendants as the lawful heir of Prophet Muhammad. In their turn Shiites are subdivided into several branches. For example, Ismailis, who live mainly in the territory of Gorno-Badakshan. The name originated from Ismail, the son of Jafar as-Sadik, the sixth imam, and the head of Shiite community. The present head of Ismaili community is Prince Karim Aga-khan IV (born in 1936 in Geneva). Unlike Shiites, Sunnis do not recognize intermediation between God and people after the death of Prophet Mohammed and deny the idea of special origin of Ali and his and his descendants' rights to be religious authorities.
Under the Soviets, the predominantly Ismaili population of the Pamirs was prohibited from sending annual tribute to their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan in India, and his representative in Tajikistan, ishon Seid Yusofalisho, was arrested in 1931. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]
The Ismailis are a Shiite sect also named the "Seveners" There are around 16 million Ismailis worldwide, mostly in pockets in 25 countries in East Africa, Western and Central Asia, North America, Western Europe, and the Middle East. Most regard the Aga Khan as their leader. The present Aga Khan is regarded as the 49th iman.
The Ismaili sect began in the 9th century as a secret society in east Iraq and west Iran. Its followers believed that Ismail, the eldest son of Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shiite imam, was the seventh imam and that his son Mohammed became an imam after him and would one day return as a messiah-like prophet.
The Ismailis split into Egyptian, Syrian and Persian branches. The original Assassins, the brilliant Fatamids (who ruled in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries in Egypt), the Druze and followers of Aga Khan have all been Ismailis.
The Ismailis took the Gnostic theory of emanations and sparks and combined it with esoteric interpretations of the Koran to bring Imam in direct combination with the Active Intellect. Ismailis have no mosques, clerics or holy days and regard prayer as a personal matter, with are no fixed times or prostrations. Instead of mosques, Ismailis use community centers with a prayer room. Women are less excluded than in other Muslim sects. Ismailis have traditionally taken a cyclical view of history and incorporated mathematics and philosophy into their theological views.
Pamiri Tajik Villages and Homes
The Pamiri Tajiks live mostly in permanent settlements in the valleys of the Pyanj River and it tributaries. The villages are usually built on river or stream deltas or less frequently on riverine terraces. Houses were traditionally built facing inward towards courtyards and were surrounded by fields and orchards in turn surrounded by walls built of stones uncovered while plowing fields and building irrigation ditches.
There were no bazaars or mosques (Ismailis do not have mosques) in Pamiri Tajik villages. Instead there was a public house that served as a club house for men and a place where communal feasts, weddings and other events were held.
Pamiri Tajik houses are made of unworked stone cemented with clay. Where loess is available the soil is made into bricks used in making walls. The houses usually have one central room with alcoves where people sleep, eat and receive guests in the winter The hearth is to the left of the entrance. The main furnishings are felt rugs and quilted blankets.
The roof is made of boards and beams supported by wooden pillars at the corners of the house and a main pillar, often elaborately carved, at the center of the house. The pillars have a spiritual significance. When entering a house when nobody is home people often greet the pillars of the house. On the holiday of Navrus large paintings of mountain goats and tree branches are placed around the pillars as a kind of offering.
A traditional Pamir home has one large room with raised areas around a central pit. There are few if any windows. Light comes from a skylight in the roof. People sit on the floor. Carpets and cushions serve as both furniture and decorations. Many homes home have hand-colored photographs and a large picture of the Aga Khan.
Pamiri Tajik Life
The Pamirs are too high and cold to accommodate very many people, other than a handful of herders that live in river valleys and graze their animals in the high pastures in the summer. Cattle, sheep and goats are the main livestock animals. Camels, yaks and horses are also raised. Dogs were kept to protect herds from wolves and snow leopards. For many Pamiri Tajik groups life revolves around milking the animals and preparing various dairy products such as butter and sour cream. Women often have traditionally been the ones who took the animals to summer pastures.
In the valleys people grow wheat, buckwheat, millet, beans, gourds and melons. Agriculture methods are oriented towards protecting the productive humus, or top layer of soil, and utilizing water supplies. The traditional oxen-pulled plow loosens the soil without turning it over. Fields are irrigated with canals that carry water downhill from mountain streams. The canals are designed to carry away water as well as bring it in so that water is drained away and the soil does not erode.
Goods are carried in shoulder baskets by women and similar baskets on yaks, donkeys and camels. The main craft activities are making rugs and textiles with wool and felt and yak and goat hair. Many everyday items are made of pottery without a potter’s wheel, woods and metal they worked themselves.
Pamiri Tajik Customs
Pamiri Tajik live in extended family groups. These groups join with other extended family groups for social occasions and performs tasks that need labor from many people. There has traditionally been a strong emphasis, both within the family and within the village, of helping each other out. Children have traditionally been raised by the greater group with relatively little concerns about which child belongs to which parent. Orphans were well looked after.
The ancient consanguinal commune with its patrilineal and patrilocal characteristics—natural economy, cult of ancestors, even blood feuds—has survived in the Pamirs. Pamiri Tajik women enjoy relatively high status and for the most part have the same rights as men. They never cover their faces and never live in houses segregated by sex. There are no rituals for the public proof that a girl is a virgin when she is married.
The Pamiri Tajiks have traditionally not consumed alcohol but they smoked opium and chewed a local type of tobacco which was ground into a powder and mixed with a substance that gave it a burning aftertaste. Religious activities were traditionally practiced quietly, even secretly, at home. Many rituals had magical overtones. Traditional holidays include Navrus (Persian New Year on the spring equinox), the “First Furrow” (celebrated with a feast and a ritual honoring the patron of farming) and the first trip to the summer pastures by women.
Pamiri Tajik Marriage
The Pamiri Tajiks traditionally married their first or second cousins. Girls especially tended to marry young, sometimes at 11 or 12, but more generally when they were in their teens. A mother’s brother was considered more closely related to a child than the father and he often played a role in setting up marriages. Marriage customs are in line with those of Islam. Traditionally no bride prices were paid but money and property was provided to make sure a new family was well provided for.
There is a big feast to celebrate the wedding. The Batangs conduct a ritual called “uncovering of the face.” The groom shoots three times with a bow and arrow into an opening in the ceiling of a house. On the first two times he hits his target he goes up to the bride twice with his bow and lifts up the handkerchief that covers her face. On the third time he goes up to her and throws the handkerchief off and then picks it up and keeps it and gives the bride a gift in return. The Rushans have a similar ritual using the branch of a fruit tree.
Poverty and Development Among the Pamiri Tajiks
There is very little arable land in the Pamirs. Most people rely on their animals and hand outs from the government and aid organizations. During the civil war the Pamiris fought on the side of the rebels and as a result saw their aid from the government dramatically reduced. If it wasn’t for food donations from the Aga Khan Foundations, hundreds might have starved to death.
Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in the Pamirs occupies almost half of Tajikistan’s territory but accounts for only 2.5 per cent of the country’s population. It is the least-developed part of the country, totally dependent on external supplies delivered via two seasonal roads. Badakhshan is characterised by appalling unemployment rates and the lowest standard of living. Amazingly, such basic foods as potato and cabbage were only introduced to the Pamirs in 1938, and 10 years later people still wore homespun clothes. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]
“On the other hand, the ratio of people with a college education amongst the Pamiris was the highest in Tajikistan at the end of the Soviet era: 124 per 1000 employed, compared with 100 in Leninobod and 66 in Qurghonteppa. In the postwar period these graduates could not find jobs according to their specialisation in their place of birth and moved to major urban centres of the republic. Progressively, the Pamiris formed a sizeable stratum of Tajikistan’s ‘prestige elite’—that is, writers, artists, scholars, and so on. By 1991, 180 000 Pamiris lived and worked outside the GBAO—more than that oblast’s actual population. ><
The Aga Khan Foundation is currently trying to help the Pamiris become more self-sufficient by developing irrigation and hydroelectric dam projects. Much of the region is watched over by Russian border guards, whose job it is to keep on the look out for drug smugglers and Muslim extremists.
Pamiri Tajiks in China
Tashiku'rgan, the main settlement region of the Tajiks in China, is located in the eastern part of the Pamirs and the northern part of the Karakorums, two of the highest mountain ranges in the world. Not far away is 8,611-meter-high K2 (Qiaogeli Mountain), the second highest mountain in the world. To the north is "father of iceberg"— 7,456-meter-high Mushitage Mountain. The snow and glaciers are provide water for pastures and farms worked for centuries by the Tajik. Tajik herdsmen enjoy butter, sour milk, and other dairy products, and regard meat as a delicacy. It is a taboo to eat pork and the flesh of animals which died of natural causes.
The Tajiks in what is now Xinjiang (western China) have been associated with the Pamirs since the pre-Qin days before the Christian era. In the Silk Road era they controlled important passes in the region. They have engaged in animal husbandry and farming in the area, taking advantage of the ample pasturage and abundant water resources. Every spring, they sow highland barley, peas, wheat and other cold-resistant crops. They drive their herds to highland grazing grounds in early summer, return to harvest the crops in autumn and then spend winter at home, leading a semi-nomadic life. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]
Over the centuries, the Tajiks have adapted their dressing, eating and living habits to the highland conditions. Most Tajik houses are square and flat-roofed structures of wood and stone with solid and thick walls of rock and sod. Ceilings, with skylights in the center for light and ventilation, are built with twigs on which clay mixed with straw is plastered. Doors, usually at corners, face east. Since the high plateau is often assailed by snowstorms, the rooms are spacious but low. Adobe beds that can be heated are built along the walls and covered with felt. Senior family members, guests and juniors sleep on different sides of the same room. When herdsmen graze their herds in the mountains, they usually live in felt tents or mud huts.
Yaghnobi People: Descendants of the Sogdians?
The Yaghnobi (Yagnob, Yaghnabi, Jagnobi) live in the Zeravshan Valley, a valley in northern Tajikistan that lies between lies between the Gisar, Zeravshan and Turkistan ranges in the Fan Mountains, which extend into Uzbekistan. The Yaghnobis, a sub group of Tajiks, trace their lineage to the ancient Sogdians. Some still speak the 8th century Sogdian language — Yanob. 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. <*>
Tajiks in China
The Tajiks in China live mainly in the Tajik autonomous county, Tashiku'rgan (Taxkorgan) in the southwestern part of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This is near the borders of Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. A small number of them are scattered in Shache, Zepu, Yecheng, Pishan and other border regions in the western part of the Tarim Basin. Millions of Tajiks live in Afghanistan, Taijikistan and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. The Tajiks in Taxkorgan live alongside Uygurs, Kirgizs, Xibes and Hans.[Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]
The Tajiks in China fit mainly into the Pamiri Tajik category (See Separate Article). They are regarded by Chinese as firm, persistent, bold and unconstrained. In their legends, the hawk is the symbol of hero. The favorite instrument of Tajik herdsmen is a short flute called a "nayi" that is made of hawk's wing bones. In some of the dances the Tajik imitate the graceful movements of flying male hawks. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Tajik ethnic people mainly engaged in animal husbandry, supplements by agriculture, living a half-nomadic, half settled life. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, agriculture and animal husbandry developed quickly, and industry was developed from scratch. \=/
Tajik population in China: 0.0038 percent of the total population; 51,069 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 41,056 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 33,538 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]
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.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2016