Iranian peoples, including ancestors of the modern Tajiks, have inhabited Central Asia since at least the earliest recorded history of the region, which began some 2,500 years ago. Contemporary Tajiks are the descendants of ancient Eastern Iranian inhabitants of Central Asia, in particular the Soghdians and the Bactrians, and possibly other groups, with an admixture of Western Iranian Persians and non-Iranian peoples. The ethnic contribution of various Turkic and Mongol peoples, who entered Central Asia at later times, has not been determined precisely. However, experts assume that some assimilation must have occurred in both directions. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The origin of the name Tajik has been embroiled in twentieth-century political disputes about whether Turkic or Iranian peoples were the original inhabitants of Central Asia. The explanation most favored by scholars is that the word evolved from the name of a pre-Islamic (before the seventh century A.D.) Arab tribe. *

Until the twentieth century, people in the region used two types of distinction to identify themselves: way of life — either nomadic or sedentary — and place of residence. By the late nineteenth century, the Tajik and Uzbek peoples, who had lived in proximity for centuries and often used each other's languages, did not perceive themselves as two distinct nationalities. Consequently, such labels were imposed artificially when Central Asia was divided into five Soviet republics in the 1920s. *

The origin of the Tajik ethnic group can be traced to tribes speaking eastern Iranian who had settled in the eastern part of the Pamirs more than twenty centuries ago. In the 11th century, the nomadic Turkic tribes called people "Tajiks" who lived in Central Asia, spoke Iranian and believed in Islam. Tajik people who had lived in various areas of Xinjiang and those who had moved from the western Pamirs to settle in Taxkorgan at different times are ancestors of the present-day Tajik ethnic group in China. The ancient tomb of Xiang Bao Bao, found through archaeological excavation in recent years in Taxkorgan, is the oldest cultural relic ever discovered in the westernmost part of China. Many burial objects were found in this 3,000-year-old tomb. [Source: China.org china.org |]

Crowns, Hats and Origin of the Tajik

The source and meaning of the Tajik name is still a matter of debate among scholars. According to some "Tajik" is the name of an ancient Arab tribe in the Iraq region. "Tayi" is an ancient term used in many Asian countries to describe Arabs. Around the 10th century, "Tayi" was a name used by Iranians (Persians) to describe Islamic believers. In the 11th century, "Taji" became a word used to categorize nomadic tribes that spoke Turkic language in Central Asia. Later, settled inhabitants of Central Asia who spoke Iranian and believed in Islam were called "Tajik". Afterwards, "Tajik" became the name of the nationality. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Tajik in the Pamirs region of China offer an different explanation. They say that the word "Tajik" originally meant "crown". The Chinese Tajik scholar Xiren Kurban wrote in the book on the Chinese Tajik Nationality that the word "Taji" evolved from the ancient words of "Taji'erda" (person that wears crown) and "Tajiyeke" (sole crown). According to an old folk legend: There was once a hero named Lusitamu who possessed incomparable strength and extraordinary braveness. He defeated all the brutal, dark and mean forces with the spirit of male lion to bring happiness to his people, the ancestors of the Tajik people. ~

Afterwards, the ancient proto-Tajiks were rued by a series of kings: Kaiyihuosilu, Kaiyikubate, Kaiyikawusi, Jiamixide and Nuxiliwang. All of them wore crowns on their heads, and governed a large piece of land from the east to the west. Their subjects manufactured all kinds of bright-colored "Taji" hats that imitated the crowns and wore these on heads to show they were the happy subjects of a just king. Since then, all the kingdoms far and near called them the "Tajikla" (Tajik people). The "tubake" (the Tajik-style man's high hat), known for its exquisite workmanship, and the "kuleta" (the Tajik-style women hat), known for its excellent embroidery, worn by Tajiks today date back to the first Tajik kings and their crowns.

Who Are the Tajiks? The Problem of Tajik Ethnogenesis

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: ““While the claims of some Tajik writers that their direct ancestors include Noah’s son Shem or Biblical Adam himself should be attributed more to poetic imagination than to plausible historical fact, Tajik society demonstrates a surprising continuity over centuries.Official Tajik histories trace the completion of the Tajik’s ‘ethnogenesis’ and the beginning of their ‘statehood’ to the era of the Samanid Empire (ninth–tenth centuries). Contemporary Tajik scholars claim that ‘the formation of the Tajik nation was completed during the rule of the Samanids’. Ghafurov, an influential historian who was the first secretary of the Communist Party of Tajikistan from 1946 to 1956 and thereafter the director of the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, writes of the Tajiks as a clearly defined group from the Samanid era.[Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“Ghafurov, commenting on the ‘process of consolidation of the Tajik people’, uses contradictory language: ‘Although the formation of the Tajik people had already been completed by the 9th–10th centuries, in the following centuries it [that is, Tajik identity] did not remain unchanged.’ This phrasing allows Tajik scholars to claim all populations that preceded this era be included as ancestors of Tajiks and all cultural, linguistic and population changes after this era as not lessening the importance of the final ‘consolidation’ of Tajik identity. The Tajik archaeologist and historian N. N. Negmatov makes a similar claim of Tajik antiquity, albeit in somewhat more neutral terms, when he identifies all the Iranian-speaking populations of Central Asia during and before the Samanid era and argues that ‘[a]ll these people were ethnically related and spoke languages and dialects of the Middle Iranian and New Persian language groups; they were the basis for the emergence and gradual consolidation of what became an Eastern Persian-Tajik ethnic identity’.

“The presence of a Tajik nation (or more precisely, a distinctive ethnicity, since the concept of ‘nation’ is a relatively recent phenomenon, which dates from the late eighteenth century) in the tenth century finds little corroborative evidence. It would be interesting, however, to speculate about the emergence of the primary form of ethnic community in Central Asia—the ethnie, in Anthony Smith’s parlance. An ethnie is a given population, a social group ‘whose members share a sense of common origins, claim a common and distinctive history and destiny, possess one or more distinctive characteristics, and feel a sense of collective uniqueness and solidarity’. In the case of Tajiks, the problem of collective cultural individuality put in historical perspective is twofold: a) their distinctness from non-Iranian peoples of Central Asia, and b) their dissociation from the populace of Iran proper. The question of association with a specific territory in the tenth century is an easy one. The indigenous Iranian population constituted an absolute majority throughout Mavarannahr (Central Asia), both in cities and in villages. More importantly, this association had commemorative overtones: Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shahnama includes Transoxiana (Central Asia) in Iranshahr, and stresses this region’s opposition to Turan (lands under the domain of Turkic peoples). On other counts, however, tracing a Tajik identity is much more complicated.

“Certain elements are indispensable for the formation of a viable ethnie. The use of a collective, identifying name is one of the most important. Usage of the word ‘Tajik’ as a mode of self-definition, however, was not registered before the second quarter of the eleventh century. Attempting to determine the origin of the term ‘Tajik’ and its social use throughout history is an exercise in speculation. Folk etymologies, single historical references, scholarly guessing, various shifting social usages and highly politicised attempts to find ancient origins all must be navigated when attempting to find the origin and historical usage of ‘Tajik’. It has been generally accepted amongst scholars that the term was initially used in Mavarannahr to refer to the Arabs (probably, it was derived from the Arab Tai tribal name). Afterwards it became a collective name for both Arabs and local converts to Islam (predominantly Iranians) and only much later was this term transformed into the ethnonym of an entity amongst Central Asian Iranians.


In the development of a modern Tajik national identity, the most important state in Central Asia after the Islamic conquest was the Persian-speaking Samanid principality (875-999), which came to rule most of what is now Tajikistan, as well as territory to the south and west. During their reign, the Samanids supported the revival of the written Persian language. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Samanids presided over a period of creative and artistic energy. Modern Tajiks look upon the Samanid dynasty as a kind of golden age. The Samanid empire was based in Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan, not far from Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It was one of the worlds’ great center of learning.

The Persian influence on Central Asia, already prominent before the Islamic conquest, grew even stronger afterward under the Samanids. In the wake of the Islamic conquest, Persian-speakers settled in Central Asia, where they played an active role in public affairs and furthered the spread of the Persian language and culture, their language displacing Eastern Iranian ones. By the twelfth century, Persian had also supplanted Arabic as the written language for most subjects. *

Early in the Samanid period, Bukhara became well-known as a center of learning and culture throughout the eastern part of the Persian-speaking world. Samanid literary patronage played an important role in preserving the culture of pre-Islamic Iran. Late in the tenth century, the Samanid state came under increasing pressure from Turkic powers to the north and south. After the Qarakhanid Turks overthrew the Samanids in 999, no major Persian state ever again existed in Central Asia.

Tajiks and Samanids

The Tajiks trace their cultural roots back to Persian-speaking Samanids. Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “It would not be correct to call the Samanid Empire [819-999] the first Tajik state. Rather, it was the last time the bulk of Iranian lands were under the domain of an Iranian ruler. Within the Samanid administration there was a discernible ethno-religious division: an Iranian chancery, staffed with recent converts, coexisted with the predominantly Arab ulama, while the core of the army consisted of Turkic slaves or mercenaries. Eventually, the attack of the Qarakhanid Turks ended its reign in 999, and dominance in Central Asia passed on to Turkic rulers. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“Language and religion are considered the most basic traits of an ethnie’s shared culture. Under the Samanids, ordinary people continued to speak local dialects (Soghdian, Khorezmian, and so on), while Dari was primarily the language of official documents and court life, only beginning to spread en masse in Bukhara, Samarkand and Ferghana. Literary modern Persian remained uniform in Western Iran and Central Asia until the fifteenth or even sixteenth century. Similarly, behavioural patterns, legal procedures and educational systems based on shari’a stayed almost identical in both regions. Under the Samanids, the bulk of Turkic tribes beyond the Syr-Darya converted to Islam; it was a severe blow to the image of the Turk as a perennial enemy of the Iranian. The Sunni–Shi’a dichotomy was yet to become a watershed among different ethnic communities.

“Anthony Smith argues that ‘a strong sense of belonging and an active solidarity, which in time of stress and danger can override class, factional or religious divisions within the community’, are the decisive factors for a durable ethnic community. This was not the case amongst Iranians in Mavarannahr before, during and after Samanid rule. Internal divisions in principalities, valley communities or other territorial subunits were more potent sources of identity than affiliation to an ethnie. Khuttal, Chaganian, Isfijab, Khorezm and princedoms of Badakhshan nominally acknowledged the supremacy of the Samanids, yet in practice they ‘were ruled by local dynasties according to their old traditions’. Four distinct regions had formed by the twelfth century on the present-day territory of Tajikistan that were characterised by political and cultural autonomy: 1) Northern Tokharistan and Khuttal (that is, southern Tajikistan); 2) the Zarafshon Valley; 3) the basin of Upper and Middle Syr-Darya, including Ustrushana, Khujand and Western Ferghana; and 4) the Pamirs. With some variations, these specific geographic-cultural areas have survived until today. Prior to the Mongol invasion, their populations never acted in unison to repel aggressors; moreover, cases of mass resistance to aggression were almost unheard of in Mavarannahr.

“In summary, it is impossible to single out a distinct Tajik ethnie in the tenth century. Central Asian Iranians remained an integral part of a wide Iranian ethnic community that came into being in the Achaemenid era, and from which they drew their name, history, inspiration and shared culture. The Samanid period, however, can be regarded as a landmark in the process of the ethnogenesis of the Tajiks. It produced an encoded fund of myths, memories, values and symbols—the core of the future ethnie in Tajikistan. Eventually, the Samanids themselves moved into the realm of the legendary tradition of contemporary Tajiks. As the future showed, the centuries-long absence of economic unity and a common polity did not lead to the dissolution of the Tajiks. The sense of shared origins and cultural markers allowed them to survive in the ocean of Turkic tribes, and later gave them a chance to reconstruct (or forge) their history, pedigree and ethnicity.

Silk Road and Marco Polo in the Pamirs and Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The caravan routes of what has come to be referred to as the ‘Silk Road’ crossed the territory of what now is Tajikistan. The road’s northern trail went through Khujand and the Zarafshon Valley and the southern one traversed the Pamir Mountains of Badakhshan. This land had become the meeting point of Mediterranean, Indian and Chinese civilisations; people who lived here used this opportunity to adopt technologies, state concepts and religious teachings and to develop them further using vast local resources. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

Marco Polo and his father and uncle passed through the Pamirs, a rugged mountain range with huge glaciers and many peaks over 20,000 feet, to reach Kashgar in China. Marco Polo was the first Westerner to mention the Pamirs, which he said "is the highest place in the world." Today the Pamirs are often called "The Roof of the World."

It is believed the Polos traveled through Wakhan — the long valley in present-day Afghanistan that divides the Pamirs from the Hindu Kush and reaches across to China — and may have entered present-day Tajikistan, where the bulk of the Pamirs are located. The journey through the Pamirs was the most difficult leg of the Polo's journey. It took them nearly two months to traverse 250 miles. On the 15,000 foot passes they traversed, Marco Polo wrote, "Fire is not so bright" and "things are not well cooked." The Polos may have been delayed by blizzards, avalanches and landslides.

"Wild game of every sort abounds" in the Pamirs, Polo wrote. "There are great quantities of wild sheep of huge size.".Their horns grow to as much as six palms in length and are never less than four. From these horns the shepherds make big bowls from which they feed, and also fences to keep in their flocks." The Marco Polo sheep is named after Marco Polo because he was the first to describe it. Known for its wide spreading horns, it and the argali of Mongolia are the largest members of the sheep family.

After passing through the Pamirs, Marco Polo entered western China near Tazkoragan, near where China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan meet, and traveled to Kashgar. At this point in their journey the Polos had been traveling for about two years and had covered around 5,000 miles and still had 2,600 miles to go before they reached their goal:Shangdu (Xanadu), not so far from Beijing. The Polos followed the Silk Road caravan route through China. They stopped in Kashgar and then crossed the Taklamakan Desert to the north-central Chinese towns of Dunhaung, Nanhu, Anxi, Yumen, Jiayuguan and Zhangye and finally Shangdu.

Tajiks, Turks and Uzbeks

In the 10th century Central Asia was ruled by a succession of Turkic invaders. The Persian-speaking Tajiks managed to retain their language while absorbing Turkish culture and having friendly relations with the Turkic peoples such as the Uzbeks. Up until the 20th century,”taj” was a term that meant Persian speaker and was used to distinguish Tajiks from the Turkish-speaking majority.

Between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries, modern-day Tajikistan was ruled successively by Turks, Mongols, and Uzbeks. The Turkic peoples who moved into southern Central Asia, including what later became Tajikistan, were influenced to varying degrees by Persian culture. Over the generations, some converted Turks changed from pastoral nomadism to a sedentary way of life, which brought them into closer contact with the sedentary Persian-speakers. Cultural influences flowed in both directions as Turks and Persians intermarried. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the early sixteenth century, Uzbeks from the northwest conquered large sections of Central Asia, but the unified Uzbek state began to break apart soon after the conquest. By the early nineteenth century, the lands of the future Tajikistan were divided among three states: the Uzbek-ruled Bukhara Khanate, the Quqon (Kokand) Khanate, centered on the Fergana Valley, and the kingdom of Afghanistan. These three principalities subsequently fought each other for control of key areas of the new territory. Although some regions were under the nominal control of Bukhara, or Quqon, local rulers were virtually independent. *

Most Tajik areas fell under the governorship of the Bukharan and Khokand khanates until the latter was destroyed by czarist forces in 1876. From the 15th century to the 19th century, the Tajiks were ruled by the emirate of Bukhara. In the mid 18th century the Afghans claimed all the lands south of Amu-Darya and its large Tajik population. Some Tajiks believe Samarkand and Bukhara — now in Uzbekistan — belong to them because of their longer association with Persian-Tajik cultures than with Turkic-Uzbek cultures.

Iranians Versus Turks

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: Tajiks have had a close historical and cultural relationship with the Turkic peoples. In Central Asia there is much shared culture and it is impossible to neatly divide two distinct Tajik or Uzbek cultures thanks to linguistic, cultural and genetic mixing that resulted from the massive in-migration of Turkic peoples into Iranian-populated lands; however, the process of Turkicisation was not accompanied by serious depredations or genocide. Statements to the effect that ‘from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries the Turks … advanced into Turkestan increasing the Turkic population there and destroying the Iranian culture should be treated with extreme caution. This period witnessed the further growth of cities and the important role of Persian language and culture. As John Armstrong has noted, before the rise of the Ottomans, ‘all Turkic regimes used Persian as their Court language’. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“In the tenth century the ethnic boundary between Iranians and Turks and the cultural boundary between sedentarism and nomadism were roughly the same. The whole medieval history of Mavarannahr can be written in terms of the relationship between steppe pastoralism and oasis agriculture. These contacts went far beyond warfare and the exchange of goods. Samuel Adshead, while describing the symbiosis between the two modes, applies the words ‘complementarity’ and ‘compenetration’, and gives a lucid picture of political interaction: On the one hand, the sedentarist found the best defence against one set of nomads was another set of nomads. On the other hand, if the nomad wanted to organise an empire out of his conquests, it was best done from an oasis with its granaries, money, literacy and unifying religion. The oasis needed government and protection: the steppe could provide both. The steppe lacked administration and education: the oasis could provide both.

“Prior to the tenth century, sedentarist Transoxiana had demonstrated an almost infinite ability to accommodate nomadic tribes invading its territory. Within two or three generations the steppe-dwellers usually gave up their habitual way of life and language. Some experts believe that only ‘the vast, sudden incursion by pagan Mongols in the mid-thirteenth century’ (and their Turkic allies) broke the routine; however, archaeological and anthropological data point to the fact that already in the eleventh century the situation in Mavarannahr was undergoing a radical transformation. There was a far greater influx of nomadic Turkic peoples during the earlier Qarakhanid era.

Mixing of Turkic and Persian People in Central Asia

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: ““The historically close relations between Turkic and Iranian-speakers did not have just political and socioeconomic consequences, but ethnic and linguistic ones as well. This time the newcomers settled in rural areas as well as in towns; they not only retained their tongue but also eventually gave it to lands with ancient Iranian traditions. In Richard Frye’s words, the spread of the Turkic languages in Transoxiana was ‘nothing short of amazing’. On top of the numerical strength of the Turks, the Qarakhanids’ conversion to Islam, which supposedly took place under Satuq Bughra-khan (died about 955), must have facilitated the infixion of the Turkic element in Mavarannahr enormously. Even before the Mongols, many Turkic toponyms had appeared in the Zarafshon Valley. The interaction among Tajiks, sedentarised Turks and nomadic Uzbeks remained a highly complex process. Culturally, only language clearly demarcates the Tajik and Uzbek categories, and the prevalence of bilingualism lessens the importance of this division. In Eastern Bukhara, where Tajiks constituted the majority of the population, large numbers of Uzbeks ultimately lost their native tongue and clan divisions, and adopted the way of life of the indigenous sedentary population. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ]

“The stereotypes of the ‘ideal’ appearance of Turkic peoples (including Uzbeks) and Iranian peoples (including Tajiks) are very different; however, the population of sedentary Central Asia has been intermixed for so long that it is impossible to accurately distinguish Tajiks from Uzbeks on physical appearance (phenotype) alone, particularly those who live on the plains and in the lower valleys. The lowland Tajiks share more physical characteristics that are stereotyped as Turkic while mountain-dwellers share fewer linguistic and physical features with Turkic peoples. A large number of the Uzbeks in Central Asia have Iranian ancestry while Tajiks who live outside the isolated mountain communities have some Turkic ancestry. In line with this description, it is noted that mixed marriages are common in Tajikistan, with the Ferghana Valley the area where mixed marriages are most common.

“On the whole, the ethnic composition of the inhabitants of Tajikistan in the nineteenth century was characterised by extraordinary heterogeneity: apart from Tajiks and Tajik-speaking Turks (called Chaghatai in southern vilayets), there were also various Uzbek tribes, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Jews, Iranians, Afghans, Arabs, Lesgins, Armenians and Indians. The Tajiks were subdivided according to their affiliation with ancient cultural and historical regions: Kulob (medieval Khuttal), Panjakent (in Zarafshon Valley), Asht (Upper Syr-Darya) and Qarotegin (foothills of the Pamirs); the Kulobis may have accounted for more than 60 per cent of the Tajik ethnie in Eastern Bukhara.

“In terms of genealogical memory, the oral tradition of the Asht Tajiks is illustrative of the tendencies in the Tajik ethnic community in the late nineteenth century. Asht was a locality in North-Western Ferghana that consisted of a number of qishloqs (villages)—with very different histories and ethnic composition—that could be divided into three groups. First, the titular qishloq of Asht allegedly had an uninterrupted cultural tradition since the Achaemenid period and its inhabitants readily referred to Shahnama’s Rustam, Alexander the Great and Qutaiba as contributors to their original Soghdian genealogy. Second, the citizens of Ponghoz claimed that their qishloq was established by migrants from the south, Darvoz in particular, whom they called ‘real Tajiks’, as opposed to the local mixture of Soghdians and Turks (‘also Tajiks’). Third, ‘real Tajiks’ and ‘also Tajiks’ were very persistent in stressing their dissimilarity with the predominantly Uzbek-dwellers of Kamysh-Qurghon in terms of ‘customs, outlook and especially consciousness’, though they admitted that Uzbeks had been living in the region ‘for a long time, too’.

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.

Last updated April 2016

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