The Tajiks like to think of themselves as the most cultured of all Central Asians. They like to point out that many of great "Persian" poets and literary figures were in fact Tajiks. The Soviets tried to eliminate Persian, Arabic and Islamic influences from Tajik culture. After the break up of the Soviet Union, Tajiks have attempted to define themselves and revive their traditional culture by lionizing 10th century Samanid figures such as Avicenna and Omar Khayyan

Tajik culture has been described as a mix of Iranian and Mongol culture. Their culture is very similar to Uzbek culture except Tajiks speak a Persian language and Uzbeks speak a Turkic one.

As they did during the Soviet era, educated Tajiks define their cultural heritage broadly, laying claim to the rich legacy of the supraethnic culture of Central Asia and other parts of the Islamic world from the eastern Mediterranean to India. Soviet rule institutionalized Western art forms, publishing, and mass media, some elements of which subsequently attracted spontaneous support in the republic. However, since the beginning of Soviet rule in the 1920s, the media and the arts always have been subject to political constraints. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Soviet Union supported opera, symphony orchestras, literature, painting, and sculpture, all of which attracted support from the public. In 1990, the country had twenty-seven museums, fourteen theaters, and a film studio. By the mid-1980s, more than 1,600 libraries were operating in Tajikistan. Of particular importance is the Firdavsi State Library, which houses a significant collection of Oriental manuscripts. In 1990 Tajikistan had twenty-seven museums, the fewest of any Soviet republic. Among the most notable are the Behzed Museum of History, Regional Studies, and Art, and the Ethnographic Museum of the Academy of Sciences, both in Dushanbe. There are also significant museums of history and regional studies in several of the republic's other cities. The republic had fourteen theaters in 1990. Only the three Baltic republics, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan — all with smaller populations — had fewer.The republic's film studio, since 1958 called Tadzhikfil'm, opened in Dushanbe in 1930. By the mid-1980s, it was producing seven or eight feature films and thirty documentaries per year for cinemas and television.

Dushanbe is the cultural capital of Tajikistan. It hosts various international festivals of arts, music, dance, films and folklore. Important cultural institutions include the State Opera and Ballet Theatre, named after Sadriddin Aini Aini, the Tajik Drama Theatre, named after Abdulqosim Lakhuti, and the Russian Drama Theatre.

Hawks and Tajik Culture

The Tajiks have rich and colorful culture. In the past, there were no scripts, and all the arts were passed on orally. Tajik drama comes in two kinds: song and dance drama and stage plays. The dialog is often humorous and the movements are amusing, with symbolic meanings. The main Tajik handicrafts are embroidery, weaving and applique. [Source: \=/]

The Tajik have always had names that associated them with hawks (or eagles) such as the "hawk nationality", "people of hawk" and "Pamirs hawk". The hawk is a symbol of the Tajik people and various dances, legends and music linked to the birds are distinguishing characteristics of Tajjik culture. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

Legends with hawk as the source of Tajik creation account for a considerable proportion of Tajik folk legends. There are at least 10 such stories. A popular one goes: Once there was a pair of male and female youth servants who loved each very much but suffered in the home of an evil bayi (landlord). The jealous bayi murdered the girl servant who became a hawk and gets her revenge against the bayi. In the folk songs of The Tajik, hawks are depicted as the head of all birds, and are deeply praised by people. Some songs highly praise heros, patriots and fearless warriors by equating them with hawks. Other songs praise the pure love, justice and virtuous behavior and lash out against cruelty, oppression, greed and envy using hawk imagery. Famous Tajik long poems—The Male Hawk, The White Hawk and Taihong—all belong to this type. Many Tajik folk proverbs feature a hawk. For example, "Though the peacock is the most beautiful, it cannot fly as the hawk"; "The clever hawk does not deal with foxes"; "The crow who disguises itself as hawk fears the hawk most". ~

The Tajiks have a gift for music, singing and dancing. They have singing songs, dancing songs, lamb tussling songs, love songs, religious songs and other forms of songs. Their unique musical instruments are the, Balangzikuomu (a seven-stringed plucked musical instrument) and Repupu (a six-stringed plucked musical instrument). Among the instruments that accompany their dances and songs is the "nayi", a kind of flute made from wing bones of wild hawk. Its sound has been described as “sonorous, loud and clear, sweet and agreeable. On the birth of this hawk flute, there are many Tajik legends. One goes: long ago, foreign invaders invaded Tajik villages and Tajik herdsmen became isolated. At that time, the Tajik villagers killed a hawk very reluctantly according to its request, and used its wing bones to make a flute. The sound of flute was solemn, stirring and intense, able to split stones and penetrate clouds. Tajiks from afar rushed to help and save their besieged brothers one after another from all directions. Innumerable male hawks joined the fighting teams, and the invaders were driven away. ~

Tajik dances are usually performed by two people, featuring with the imitation of hawks or eagles. The Tajik hawk dance—regarded as the most important Tajik folk dance—expresses the Tajik’s love and yearning for good life by imitating the movements of a male hawks freely flying in the blue sky between the white clouds. When the men dance, one arm is at the front, and the other is at the back, the front arm is held up highly, and the back arm is lower, and the steps are quick. At the time of slow dancing, the two shoulders slightly shiver from up to down; at the time of rapid dancing, they rotate at a violent speed, just like a rising and falling hawk. When the women dance, they hold up the hands highly and sway unceasingly with the rhythms of music, rotating continuously, the whole set of movements are tender and steady and give people a sense of beauty. ~

Samanid Culture

The Tajiks regard the peak of their cultural development as occurring during the period of Samanids rule (A.D. 874-999), especially under Ismail Samani. Under his rule science, literature, astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences and philosophy prospered. Ismail Samanid valued education and created favorable conditions for cultural boom. His rule is considered the Golden Age of Tajik civilization. The court of Ismail Samani included some of the best scientists, writers, philosophers, poets, astronomers, painters and alchemists of that time. [Source:]

Names associated with the Samanid period include Ibn-Sino, Abu-Raikhan-Berunii, Al-Khorezmii, Imom Termezii, Farabi, Rudakii, Firdausi, Saadi and Omar Khayyam. In 1999 the 1,100th anniversary of the Samanid Dynasty was marked with a big celebration.

The most important contribution of the Samanid age to Islamic art is the pottery produced at Nishapur and Samarkand. The Samanids developed a technique known as slip painting: mixing semifluid clay (slip) with their colours to prevent the designs from running when fired with the thin fluid glazes used at that time. Bowls and simple plates were the most common forms made by Samanid potters. The potters employed stylized Sasanian motifs such as horsemen, birds, lions, and bulls' heads, as well as Arabic calligraphic design. Polychrome pieces usually had a buff or red body with designs of several colours, bright yellows, greens, black, purples, and reds being the most common. Many pottery pieces were produced at Nishapur, however, with only a single line on a white background. The art of bronze casting and other forms of metalwork also flourished at Nishapur throughout the Samanid period. [Source: Encyclopedia Britanica ~]

Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan was a major Samanid cultural center. When the Arabs arrived in A.D. 709 it was already a bustling Silk Road trading center. They managed to convert most of the local population to Islam but were replaced after a few decades by the Samanids, Sunni Muslims loyal the caliph in Baghdad and admirers of Persian Shiite culture. Under the Samanids Bukhara became a great city of trade and leaning in the 9th and 10th centuries. Described as a "Pillar of Islam” and a place where light “radiates upward to illuminate heaven," it was home to 240 mosques and 113 madrasahs (Islamic schools) and produced great scholars and intellectuals such as the mathematician Beruni, the poets Firdausi and Rudaki, and the physician Abu Ali ibn-Sina (Avicenna).

The celebrated scientist-physician-philosopher Abu Ali ibn-Sina (Avicenna), who died in Hamadan in 1037, and the Persian mystic-scientist-poet Omar Khayyam (died 1123) were born in Iran when it was part of the Samanid empire. They had a great impact on Abbasid culture.

Omar Khayyan made important contributions to astronomy and mathematics and wrote the “Rubaiyat”. The Persian physician Rhazes was the first man to recommended filling cavities, he used a glue-like pate made from ammonium, iron and mastic (a yellowish resin from a plant in the almond family).

Although few Samanid buildings have survived, a mausoleum of Ismail the Samanid (d. 907), still standing in Bukhara, shows the originality of the architecture of the era. The perfectly symmetrical mausoleum is constructed entirely of brick; brick is also used to form decorative patterns in relief, based on the position and direction of each architectural unit. Other monumnets from the Samanid era include the mausoleum of Arabato in Tim and the mosque Nuh Gunbad in Balkh, and so on. Along with Bukhara many other cities in the Samanid Empire began to develop such as Samarqand, Balkh, Usturusha, Panjacant, Shash, Marv, Nishapour, Herat. The cities in many respects were the signs of new Persian civilisation represented by the name of Islam, because mostly the development of literature, language, art, architecture, trade, took place in the cities. \^/ ~


Marika Sardar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Nishapur is a city in northeastern Iran that was founded around the third century A.D., grew to prominence in the eighth century, and was ruined by invasions and earthquakes in the thirteenth century. After that time, a much smaller settlement was established just north of the ancient town, and the once bustling metropolis lay underground. [Source: Marika Sardar, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

In the medieval period, Nishapur flourished as a regional capital and was home to many religious scholars. It was also known as an economic center—Nishapur was located on the trade route known as the Silk Road, which ran from China to the Mediterranean Sea, crossing Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey along the way. In addition, Nishapur was a source of turquoise and a center for growing cotton, producing cotton textiles as well as several types of fabric incorporating silk, called 'attabi, saqlatuni, and mulham. One of the most unusual products of Nishapur, however, was its edible earth, which was believed to have curative properties. At its peak between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, Nishapur had a population of approximately 100,000 to 200,000 people, and development covering an area of approximately six and a half square miles. \^/

The Metropolitan Museum of Art extensively excavated the ancient area of Nishapur in the 1930s and 40s.Two areas provided particularly rich finds. The first site to be excavated, called Sabz Pushan ("green mound" in Persian), had been a thriving residential neighborhood occupied between the ninth and twelfth centuries, with houses of three to four rooms connected by small alleys. Of the large area this neighborhood once occupied, approximately fifteen houses were eventually excavated. One of these houses had particularly well-preserved decoration, with carved stucco panels covering the lower part of the wall, the dado, in several rooms (Sabz Pushan Room). The panels were originally painted in bright yellows, reds, and blues, with equally colorful murals on the plaster walls above, but once the panels were exposed to the air, the colors that the excavators first saw quickly disappeared. \^/

At a part of the site the locals called Tepe Madrasa, the excavators had expected to find one of Nishapur's famed institutions of learning, or madrasa. Instead, they uncovered a large residential area with a mosque that had been developed and rebuilt in several phases between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Inside one of the residences, perhaps the palace of the city's ninth-century governors, they found a room with an extraordinary set of wall paintings whose iconography appears unique to the site (40.170.176). These objects were significant in providing information on several different artistic traditions. In terms of ceramics, they brought to light several types whose decoration was unique to this part of Iran. These were typically decorated with strong-colored slips, made of diluted clay, in bold patterns (38.40.137; 38.40.290; 40.170.15; 40.170.25; 38.40.247). The distinctive ceramics produced in Nishapur were traded around the region, and have been found at Herat, Merv, and Samarqand.

The evidence from the excavations also revealed much about the development of architectural decoration in northeastern Iran. Walls in residences and public buildings throughout Nishapur were decorated in many different ways, from frescoes to carved and painted stucco, terracotta panels to glazed ceramic tiles. The range of imagery was also wide, including geometric and vegetal patterns, calligraphy, figures, and animals. The refined tradition of wall painting shows links with the earlier history of the region, such as Buddhist paintings in Central Asia and Sasanian paintings in Iran, as well as with contemporary painting of Iraq. Carved stucco decoration, perennially important in Iranian architecture, was represented in examples found throughout the site. The exteriors of large public buildings were clad in baked bricks set in decorative patterns, large terracotta panels carved with multilayered ornament, or glazed tiles, often in shades of bright blue.

In addition, Nishapur was an important center for the manufacture of glass, metal, and stone vessels as well as textiles. None of the latter were found in the excavations, no doubt due to their highly perishable nature. However, beautifully decorated spindle whorls were excavated by the hundreds. Smaller items such as toys, game pieces, musical instruments, and beads throw light on everyday activities in Nishapur and give us a better understanding of daily life for its citizens .

Books: Kröger, Jens. Nishapur: Glass of the Early Islamic Period. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995. Wilkinson, Charles K. Nishapur: Pottery of the Early Islamic Period. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973. Wilkinson, Charles K. Nishapur: Some Early Islamic Buildings and Their Decoration. New York: Metropolitan Museum

Tajiks and Samanids

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “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]

“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.

“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.

Tajik Culture in the Soviet Era

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The advancement of a common Tajik culture was potentially another important factor for fostering a sense of national cohesion; however, the loss of the tremendous cultural and intellectual resources of Samarkand and Bukhara inhibited this process. The dialect of these two regions was supposed to form the basis of a contemporary literary Tajik language, but there were not enough qualified people in Tajikistan to promote it. Nor did the introduction of Latin (1928) and then Russian (1940) alphabets instead of the old Arabic script help to preserve the great medieval tradition. On the other hand, it was not until the advent of Soviet power that the rich cultural heritage and history of the Tajiks became subject to systematic research and popularisation. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]

In 1930, the special Committee of Tajik Studies was established in Dushanbe, and two years later it was transformed into the State Research Institute, dealing with an array of topics in Tajik history, language, literature and ethnography. The Soviet authorities also sponsored national cinematography, fine arts and other forms of intellectual activity that altogether constituted ‘the new motor of ethnic revival’. The unprecedented spread of education created an ever-growing social stratum receptive to the ethnic myths reconstructed and elaborated by the Tajik intelligentsia.

“Intellectuals have always been the bearers of national consciousness in developing societies. In Tajikistan ‘an impressive quota of Tajik novelists, essayists, historians, and poets from all classes and regions converged within the unerring guidelines of the writers’ unions in Moscow and Dushanbe to define the republic’s literary personality. As compensation for political subordination, the Tajiks … had developed a cultural superiority complex.’ The Tajik intelligentsia was characterised by spiritual dualism: its commitment to traditional cultural values and forms had to coexist with the aesthetic and ideological imperatives of the Soviet era. Beginning in the late 1960s, in the general context of Brezhnev’s politics of ‘normalcy’, the moral dilemma of intellectuals lost its acuteness to an extent; the new generation of poets, writers and artists was able to express a plurality of views, albeit in camouflaged form. Professor Rahimi Musulmoniyon, a renowned Tajik anti-communist, has written that it was a time when a lot of young, talented people not afraid of telling the truth came to the fore. Eventually a number of discursive fields emerged in Tajik culture where national and Soviet themes organically merged—the unprecedented heroism of Tajiks during the Great Patriotic War for one.

“Gradually the denigrating Khrushchev-era image of Tajiks as primitive Asians led out of a historical backwater by progressive forces from European Russia gave way to a much different appraisal of reality, based on praising the glorious past and creative present of the Tajik people. Publication in 1970 of Bobojon Ghafurov’s monumental work The Tajiks: Archaic, Ancient and Mediaeval History, which laid claim to most of the classical Persian canon, was a milestone in the process of reinventing Tajik history. It quickly became the bible of every Tajik intellectual: in 1989, 62 per cent of tertiary students of the titular nationality had this book in their possession. Ghafurov gave rise to a whole school of academics who propagated the notion of the uniqueness of the Tajiks and their mission to transmit knowledge of the past in Central Asia. The prominent Tajik historian Rahim Masov has insisted that ‘without the knowledge of the Tajik language, study of the cultural heritage of Turkic peoples is impossible … All pre-revolutionary spiritual culture of the peoples of Central Asia can be comprehended only with the assistance of the Tajik language.’”

Modern Culture in Tajikistan

Reporting from Dushanbe, Brad Gooch of Bloomberg wrote: “It was Nowruz, the Persian New Year, celebrated on the first day of spring, and all of Dushanbe’s more than 1 million residents seemed to be out on the streets in a display of the smash-cut of folksy-traditional and trendy-metro that is its bipolar mood this decade. Just as I was warming to mothers and daughters in brightly patterned village dresses and embroidered pillbox hats selling tandoor flatbread sprinkled with cardamom, I’d spy women sporting tiger-print wraps and black high heels on shopping sprees.[Source: Brad Gooch, Bloomberg, May 23, 2013 ***]

“As I lingered to watch teenage boys performing somersaults, I was jostled by others next to loudspeakers blaring Googoosh or Shabnam, Russian and Persian versions of pop. I balked at following this crowd on their way to a packed stadium for an afternoon of the national obsession: gushtingiri (freestyle wrestling)...The bullet holes at the Vakhsh Hotel, a former rebel headquarters, are now covered in thick pink paint. ***

“Tajikistan has been uniquely successful in its transition and has found an enviable equipoise — with hijab optional for women — akin to Turkey’s. A stroll along Dushanbe’s tree-lined main boulevard, Rudaki Avenue, feels like a lovely promenade in more cosmopolitan Prague or Vienna. The Writers Union reflects a more 1920s revolutionary-modern mode, its Bauhaus curves fronted by busts of regional culture heroes, like Persian polymath Omar Khayyam. Central to Tajik society are its choikhonas, or teahouses, and the grand example is Choikhona.” ***

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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