SILK ROAD IN CENTRAL ASIA AND THE ROUTE TO KASHGAR
Most of the Silk Road routes through eastern Central Asia from Kashgar and the western Chinese region of Xinjiang were north of Tajikistan in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan but some travelers and caravans made their way through the Pamirs area and the Wakhan Corridor in southern Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Marco Polo was among those that traveled this route.
The Silk Road routes in Central Asia were very complicated and usually defined by oases and passes which were open and accessible. Many goods carried across Central Asia were transported on the backs of shaggy, two-humped Bactrian camels or horses, or, in the high elevations, on yaks. The Himalayan caravan routes from India that passed through Karakoram Pass and Khunjerab Pass (on the modern Karakoram Highway) joined the Silk Road in Kashgar or Central Asia.
The two main routes that entered Central Asia from China were: 1) the northern route, which passed from western China into what is now Kazakhstan and went through or near what is now Alma Aty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Krygyzstan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan); and 2) the southern route which left Kashgar and passed from western China in Central Asia through passes of the Tien Shan and Pamirs mountains that are now on China's borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
The main route likely passed through Irkeshtam Pass between Kashgar and the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan. Many Silk Road tours go from Kashgar over Torugart pass to Bishkek and then Tashkent and Samarkand because modern roads traverse this route. This route however is much longer and out of the way than the direct route from Kashgar to the Fergana Valley, part of which is in Tajikistan. Marco Polo used a route through the Pamirs between China and Afghanistan.
Caravans Through the Pamirs
The Kyrgyz continue to operate a caravan that follows the same route that Marco Polo took through the Wakhan. The caravan is operated by Kyrgyz herdsmen who live in the high valleys. In the 1970s a winter caravan followed the frozen Wakhan River through the 220-kilometer-long Wakhan corridor from the Kyrgyz's home camp at MulkAli, about 20 miles from the Xinjiang (China) border, to Khanud to the west, where sheep are traded for salt, sugar, tea and other goods. Today, there is a shorter caravan from the Wakhan to the Afghanistan-Pakistan. Goods are carried on the backs of yaks. In the past they were carried on the backs of Bactrian camels. Men ride on horses. Some members of the caravan travel on foot. [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, April 1972 ***]
The caravan exists because the Kyrgyz herdsmen can rely on milk from their animals for sustenance in the summer but in the winter they survive on bread and tea and have to trade to obtain these goods. In the past the Kyrgyz traded with caravans that came up from Kashgar in China. But that route was closed down in the 1950s by the Chinese. After that the Kyrgyz started heading westward and later eastward to Pakistan. ***
Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic: “ Moving is what nomads do. For the Kyrgyz of Afghanistan, it’s from two to four times a year, depending on the weather and the availability of grass for the animals. They call their homeland Bam-e Dunya, which means “roof of the world.” This might sound poetic and beautiful—it is undeniably beautiful—but it’s also an environment at the very cusp of human survivability. Their land consists of two long, glacier-carved valleys, called pamirs, stashed deep within the great mountains of Central Asia. Much of it is above 14,000 feet. The wind is furious; crops are impossible to grow. The temperature can drop below freezing 340 days a year. Many Kyrgyz have never seen a tree. [Source: Michael Finkel, National Geographic, February 2013]
Traveling on Winter Caravan in the Pamirs in the 1970s
In 1971, the French explorers Sabrina and Roland Michaud accompanied a winter camel caravan through the Wakhan. The round trip of 390 kilometers took about a month and took place in the middle of winter. When the caravan was ready to go the ropes and felt padding of the camels were checked. A supply of bread was taken to supply food for the entire journey. The Kyrgyz caravaneers traded one sheep for 160 pounds of wheat with the Wakhis at their destination. The Kyrgyz need the Walkis for food supplies. The Walkis need the Kyrgyz for sheep, tallow, milk products, wool, felt and meat. Sheep are not brought with the caravan, They are delivered later. [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, April 1972 ***]
Temperatures in the Pamirs often drop below -12 degrees F. The cameelers wore hats with floppy earflaps and protected their hands with extra-long sleeves. On icy trails sand was often placed on the ice to help the animals get a better grip. At night the camels and cameleers slept in stone shelters, often infested with rats and full of smoke. When the caravan stopped the camels were prevented from lying down for two hours so they wouldn't get cold from snow melted by their hot bodies. ***
On frozen rivers it was possible to hear water rushing underneath ice that was three feet thick. Sometimes the caravans leaders placed their ears to the ice to listen for weak spots. If they could hear the loud sound of rushing water then they knew the ice was too thin. Sometimes animals broke through and drowned or froze to death. Special care was taken with the heavily loaded camels. When the ice was slippery they walked in mincing steps. ***
The Kyrgyz caravan traversed one high mountain pass. Describing a particularly treacherous stretch on the trail, Sabrina Michaud wrote, "On a narrow ledge over a dizzying precipice, my horse slipped and fell on its forelegs. I pull on the reins and the animals struggles to its feet. Fear dampens my body as we climb onwards.,.Ahead a camel slips and collapse on the path; it kneels and tries to crawl...Risking their own lives, men unload the animal so that it can stand up, then load it again, and move on." ***
Silk Roads Sites in Tajikistan
According to UNESCO there were three main Silk Road routes that passed through Tajikistan: The first route was the Sogdian, or North route between Samarkand and Kashgar; the second one was Karategin route between Termez and Kashgar and the third one was Pamir route linking Balkh and Tashkurgan...These ancient routes were mentioned in contemporary Persian, Greek, Chinese and Arabic sources which highlighted Tajik contributions to the commerce and culture of the time, especially between the 5th and 12th centuries.
Silk Roads Sites in Tajikistan include: 1) Ancient Panjakent near Samarkand, Uzbekistan; 2) Medieval Bunjikat not far from Panjakent; 3) Istaravshan in the Fergana Valley; 4) Khujand in the Ferhana Valley; 5). Hissar Castle, near Dushanbe; 6) Buddhist monastery Ajina-Tepe in southern Tajikistan; 7) Takhti Sangin in southern Tajikistan; 8) Madrasa Khoja Mashad in southern Tajikistan; 9) Ancient Town Khulbuk in southern Tajikistan; and 10) Yamchun Castle, near the Afghanistan border in southeast Tajikistan.
Tthe Silk Road routes through what is now Tajikistan linked Bactria, Tokharistan, Soghd, Istaravshan and Fergana with India, Afghanistan and China. 1) Soghd route went from Samarkand to Kokand through Pendzhikent and further on the road leading to Fergana valley through Varz, Ura-Tyube, Khujand, Konibodom, and Isfara. 2) The “Karotegin” route connected Termez and Kashgar (China) through Hissar and Dushanbe. 3) The Khatlon route branched from Karogetin to the south and led from Dushanbe to Balkh (Afghanistan) up to the southern Silk Road line. 4) The “Pamir” route led from Balkh (Afghanistan) to Khorog and was further split into other routes.
Despite the harsh conditions in the high mountains, the routes through the Pamirs were considered safer than routes further north in the steppes because the mountain routes were more off the beaten path and less likely to be used by robbers and brigands. Tadjik cities on the Silk Road include Pendzhikent, Ura-Tyube (Istaravshan), and Khujand. More the 20 centuries ago those cities were famous for their crafts, culture and well- developed trade. The ancient roads were traveled by numerous caravans, which stopped in caravanserais and exchanged the brought goods in Oriental markets. In this connection it is possible to find the elements of the most different legends, rituals, and religions in the culture and crafts of Tajikistan.
Ancient Panjakent (255 kilometers north of Dushanbe, 68 kilometers from Samarkand) is one of the best preserved Sogdian cities an done that has revealed the most information about the Sogdians. In the 5-8th centuries it was the easternmost town of Sogdia, Sogdia was a conglomerate of small town-states, and Panjakent (also spelled Penjikent and Panjikent) was the last of these on the way from Samarkand to the mountains to the east. The ruler of the town and the surrounding area was in a good position because neither caravans nor individuals with pack animals traveling between the mountains and Samarkand could bypass Panjakent.
Merchants who traded along the Silk Road, lived in Panjakent. One of the main routes of the Silk Road passed through the town. Sogdian merchants profited greatly from Silk Road trade and actedas intermediaries between the East and the West. Panjakent us a good picture not only of Sogdian city culture, but also of the whole Silk Road.
Ancient Panjakent is a monument to the pre-Islamic era. The Sogdians lived there in the 5th-8th century. They were the ancestors of the modern Tajiks living in the Zaravshan valley. Panjakent is mentioned many times since the Arab conquest of Central Asia in Arabic-speaking historical documents. Heading from the town to the mountains, Panjakent is connected with a leader named “Divashtic.” An important battle was fought with the Arabs near Mugh Hill castle. The Panjakentis were defeated and Divashtich was captured and later crucified. The town only outlived him by a short time.
Istaravshan (78 kilometers southwest of Khujand, 175 kilometers north of Dushanbe) is an ancient trade and craft center and one of the most ancient towns of Central Asia, celebrated its 2,500th anniversary in 2002. The Persians knew it as Kurukada while the Sogdians called Kurushkada. Contemporary scholars identify it with ancient Cyropol. The A.D. 1st century Greek geographer Ptolemy referred to it as Kireschata. Bordered by Uzbekistan in the north and west, and Kyrgyzstan in the east, the territorial area of Istaravshan covers 1,830 square kilometers, and is home to about 200,000 people, with the majority living in the outlying countryside.
Istravashan (formerly Uroteppa) is located in the northern foothills of the Turkestan mountain range and situated on the main road connecting Tajikistan's two largest cities, Khujand and Dushanbe. Before 2000, it was known as Ura-Tyube in Russian and Uroteppa in Tajik. Many locals have called the renaming to Istaravshan a process of forced "Tajikization" or "Persification",
According to Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “In the 6th century B.C. the town was fortified with three rows of walls, had a citadel surrounded by walls 6,000 meters in length and was famous for its skilful craftsmen and lucrative trading. Some scholars believe that in the 1st-2nd centuries B.C. and 1st-2nd centuries A.D. Istravashan was known as Ustrushana and was part of the independent region called Ustrushana with a capital in Bundjikat. It was an important commercial center, since roads from here lead towards Khujand, Bukhara, Samarqand and the Ferghana Valley. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]
Medieval Town of Bunjikat (in Istaravshan) is part of the Silk Roads Sites in Tajikistan that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013 According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Bunjikat City (remains of the ancient town Kalai Kahkaha I, II, 3rd), the capital of Ustrushana existed in the 7th-10th centuries AD. It consisted of an arch, shakhristan, rabad. The palace with an area of 38 x 47 meters included a stateroom with a throne sunroom (17, 65 x 11, 77 meters), a small reception room (9, 65 x 9, 50 meters), a temple, armory, a residential tower donjon, residential, utility rooms, whole system of connections with corridors. The arch with palace of the ruler was additionally strengthened with corner towers and gates. [Source: National Commission for UNESCO Republic of Tajikistan]
“The walls of the palace were covered with multicolored paintings (scenes of household, battles, etc.). The wooden architectural details of interior were decorated with carvings (geometric, floral ornaments, subject compositions, depicting people, animals, birds, etc.). The eastern half of shakhristan was a system of urban development (religious, craft-shopping, residential centers), and the western part was a military-defense complex. They are surrounded by strong walls with high towers, two gates, the northern as the main entrance and the western. The rabad included trade and craft centers. A necropolis was situated not far from the city.
“The total area of the site is 20 hectares. The formation of the early feudal city proceeded in the mainstream development of Central Asian urban planning and architecture. The individual features of the ancient town building art appeared in the proportions and the relative position of city parts and used the surrounding natural landscape for urban development, monumentality, as for the group of unique individual buildings. The palace stands with the lack of a vault cover; the roof is mainly in arch. The residential development of Bunjikat consisted of one-storied houses, while the majority of the urban body of Bunjikat was two-storied houses.”
Khujand (150 kilometers south of Tashkent amd 100 kilometers west of Kokand in Uzbekistan) is Tajikistan’s second largest city and one of the oldest cities in Central Asia. Located at opening of the Fergana Valley that is more convenient to get to to from Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan than Tajikistan, it is an ancient city, founded Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. , and was an important Silk Road trading center and place where caravans stopped for some rest and relaxation. The Mongols sacked the city. The Russians claimed it in 1876.
According to Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: Khujand was “ founded about 2,300 years ago during the time of Alexander the Great. According to Greek historians, in 329 B.C. Alexander the Great founded a fortress on the River Tanais or Yaksart (present-day Syr Darya River), which formed a natural border for his empire. He named it after himself and populated it with Greek warriors and local “barbarians” (i.e. the local population). [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]
“Of course, this fortress was not initially really a town. However, later, due to its strategic geographical location, it became densely populated and turned into a large town (by the standards of that time), known historically as Alexandria Eskhata (Outermost Alexandria). The issue of the exact location of this ancient town has interested scholars of various countries for many centuries. Only in the mid-20th century was it confirmed that 4th century B.C. Khujand and Alexandria Eskhata of 329 B.C were one and the same place. It was also assumed that Alexandria Eskhata was not just built on empty land but in the center of an ancient town known as Khujand, which was already in existence on the left bank of the Syr Darya River when Alexander the Great’s troops arrived.
Ajina-Teppe Buddhist Monastery
Ajina-Teppe Buddhist Monastery (125 kilometers south of Dushanbe and 12.5 kilometers east of Qurghonteppa) dates to the A.D. 7th-8th centuries amd was was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 and is part of the Silk Roads Sites in Tajikistan that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013 “The cloister has a right-angled form (100 x 50 meters), it consists of two parts, there is a square yard surrounded buildings, in the center of it. There is a room in the middle of every side of the yard. The room consists of two parts too. The first part is an ivan (summer-house). There is a passage to the square cell in the back side of the ivan. These twin rooms are simmetrically situated face to face. The ivons are connected with crank corridors. The exits led from the corridors to the yard, other buildings, small monk cells of one or two rooms, economic premises. There was the second floor where it could be gone with a pandus but it didn't remain. [Source: Off. of Preservation and Restoration of Monum. of History and Culture, Artistic Ex. Min. of Culture]
“An entrance to the cloister was done in the center of the east façade there was an entrance-hall with a pandus. There was a hall for meetings of the monk community in the west part of the yard. A temple territory is situated in the north part. Its planning is approximately analogous to the first part, they were connected with wide passage. The central part was occupied with the Big Stupa (an element of Buddhistic temple for keeping of relics). The Big Stupa had a form of terrace cross-star form in the plan. It was oriented with its angles on the sides of world. Every façade had a staircase. The maximum size of the foundation of the Stupa is 28 meters, the rest of the Stupa is six meters. high.
Takhti-Sangin: Ancient Greco-Bactrian Site
The ancient town of Takhti-Sangin (150 kilometers southwest of Dushanbe, near the Uzbekistan border, 34 kilometers from Qabodiyon settlement) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 and is part of the Silk Roads Sites in Tajikistan that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. It is near the confluence of the Vakhsh and Panj Rivers.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The site of ancient town consists of strongly fortified citadel (165 x 235 meters) and south and north parts stretched at the distance of 500 meters. The excavations carried out in the west and central parts of the citadel elicited many interesting facts. There it is found monumental building — "Temple of Oxes" (Greek geographical name of Amu-Daria river). In the temple the square four-columned White Hall (12x12 meters) was excavated completely. Walls are five meters. high. White Hall was encircled with two rows of corridors from south, west and north. It was oriented by the sides of the world. An entrance was situated from the east side, there was a portico with two rows of columns, four ones in the row, in front of the entrance. From the south and the north the portico was limited with blocks each of them consisted of two neighbouring rooms, one of them had an entrance to ivan (summer-house). [Source: National Commission for UNESCO Republic of Tajikistan]
The medieval town of Khulbuk (200 kilometers southeast of Dushanbe, 30 kilometers north of the Afghanistan border, 30 kilometers southwest of Kulab) is part of the Silk Roads Sites in Tajikistan that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The palace complex and the residence of the Khuttalya rulers existed in the 9th-12th centuries Its area is 300 x 50 — 650 x 10-15 meters and compositionally divided into three equal parts by 50 meters: the large central courtyard with the entrance on the west and the two separated by this court complex of buildings, which the southern is officially representative and the northern is residential. [Source: National Commission for UNESCO Republic of Tajikistan]
“The entrance structure is a traditional portal-peshtak with carved terracotta. The castle surrounded by fortress walls built of pakhsy and faced with baked bricks. Two-storied plinth was located along the foot of the wall, and the wall is strengthened with conical or rectangular retaining turrets. The round towers were built at the corners of the complex. The rooms of the palace is richly decorated with unique patterns carved ganch (mixture of gypsum and clay) and painting.
Madrasa Khoja Mashad
Madrasa Khoja Mashad (150 kilometers south of Dushanbe about 25 kilometers from the Uzbekistan and Afghanistan borders) was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 and is part of the Silk Roads Sites in Tajikistan that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Madrasa Khoja Mashad was built in 9th-12th centuries The layout composition consists of a rectangular courtyard of 40 x 31 meters size, with a number of rooms (hujras) in the east and west sides. There are two cupola hall and aivan with flanked flowers yard (guldasta) between them in the southern part. The northern part of the site is the same as the southern one, but in the smaller sizes. The vaulted aivans with the same 4-meter spans are placed on the axes. The south (main) facade was built of baked bricks, the others — three parts of the site are from the raw bricks and pakhsy. [Source: National Commission for UNESCO Republic of Tajikistan]
“Khoja Mashad is considered as one of the important tourist sites in the Republic of Tajikistan. The total area of the site is 1.5 hectares. Both sides of it are surrounded by tombs and dwellings of the population. It is one of the oldest madrasa, which included even more ancient mausoleum of 9th century The unique design of an arch of Khoja Mashad is the combination of wedge-edged laying and cut laying and the direct analogies of that is not found. The origin of the triple frieze crowning the eastern facade of the building is not clarified and this also has no analogy. This can be attributed to a wide circular aperture at the height of the cupolas of the eastern and western buildings, too.
Palace of the Governor of Khulbuk
Palace of the Governor of Khulbukwas nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The citadel is situated in the southwest part of the site of ancient town, now it's named Khisht-Tepa of the kishlak of Kurban Shaid of Vose Region. It has a territory of 600 x 200 meters and 15 meters. high. The citadel of the palace was destroyed and re-planned several times during 9th-12th centuries. Originally the palace had three part composition planning scheme. [Source: Off. of Preservation and Restoration of Monum. of History and Culture, Artistic Ex. Min. of Culture, UNESCO]
“ Lodgings was situated round the palace, entrances and exits were directed to the yard, a floor of which was paved by burnt brick. Walls of the lodgings were decorated by carved ganch (alabaster decorative material), in which combined geometrical and vegetables motives. It was cleared wall painting, picturing warrior and two musicians playing fiddlestick intruments- rubab and arch harp. After fire the planning of the building was changed, two long corridors formed a cross, lodgings were situated in its squares.
Yamchun Castle (178 kilometers from Khorog, 72 kilometers from Ishkashim, near the Afghanistan border) stands on a cliff near the Yamchun and Vikhut Rivers — tributaries of the Panj Rivers. The steep banks rising up from the rivers provide the fortress with a difficult-to- reach, easy-to-defend position. Originally used in the 2nd-1st centuries B.C.. and used again in A.D. 5th-7th centuries and 10th-11th centuries, the castle is part of the Silk Roads Sites in Tajikistan that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013.
According to the Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan: “At the end of the first millennium B.C. construction of strong fortresses began in the West Pamirs due to the threat of military attacks by neighbours. The first was the Yamchun fortress (near the present-day village of the same name, also known as Zamr-i-atashparast or Kafir-qala) built in the 3rd century B.C. on the right bank of the Panj River in the foothills of the Vakhan range. [Source: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan]
“It was built in a triangle shape with its base pointing into the valley, and consisted of three parts — a citadel, a bastion and the barracks surrounded with walls and strengthened by rectangular towers and two squares, each of which was also surrounded by high walls, fortified with 36 rectangular and oval towers with embrasures (portholes). In case of attack a huge number of people could hide inside the fortress. The walls have no foundations and they are made of machine-tiled stones on a solid clay base.
“The size of the fortress is striking. This powerful structure was of the greatest importance for the area. Defending against approaches from every side, it was a strategically placed and well-built complex that allowed the supervision of people and shipment flows from the Pamirs to ancient Bactria (Tahoriston), India and Iran and back. However, some aspects of the fortress are puzzling: the Panj valley, with a 2.5-3 kilometers wide river floodplain next to the fortress, is absolutely flat, and the Panj flows down not against the northern but the southern slope of the mountain.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Tourism Information Portal of Tajikistan (traveltajikistan.tj), Tajikistan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020