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History of Dushanbe

Although the remains of a settlement here date to the 5th century BC, modern-day Dushanbe has little history beyond last century. Indeed, little is known about Dushanbe's ancient past. Archaeological finds, including coin boards, jewellery and a copper depiction of the Greek god Dionysus, confirm that the area came under the influence of the Graeco-Bactrian Empire and its successors, and that local inhabitants were both skilled craftsmen and well i onnected with the outside world.

The earliest written account of a settlement in the vicinity of Dushanbe does not date until the mid 17th century, and it refers only to a small community situated at the crossroads of trading routes between Bukhara and Samarkand in the west, the Pamirs in the east, and Afghanistan in the south. The town would have changed little by the time Alim Khan, Khanate of Bukhara, fled the Red Army and sought refuge in this mountainous outpost in 1920, though the fall of the Bukharan Emirate to the Russians would change the fate of Dushanbe forever. The fate of a small, poor village called Dushanbe known chiefly for its weekly bazaar (Dushanbe means ‘Monday’ in Tajik) dramatically changed as recently as 80 years ago. Before Soviets came it had been the eastern, mountainous edge of the state, run by lords or beks who answered to the Emir in Bukhara but governed with a large measure of autonomy.

When the imperial Russian army began its long march through central Asia in the 19th century, toppling local rulers and scattering their beks, Bukhara became a Russian protectorate, but nonetheless retained autonomy in its internal affairs. Yet, behind the ancient city walls, internal political collision split the Bukharans from one another. Some factions pressed for reform and others for the supreme rule of the Emir, Alim Khan, and the religious authorities of the madrassas, or universities. Caught in the cross currents, Alim Khan became more dependent on Russia, whose territories now surrounded the city-state. Isolated Bukhara grew weaker.

In 1920 the Red Army finally moved in. At dawn on the last day of August, aircraft began to bomb Bukhara. Residents rushed from their houses, amazed to see these flying machines for the first time, then horrified to see their dry, mud brick city burn. Troops moved in on the ground at the same time. It took three days for Bukhara to fall. By the time the old flag was struck, on September 2nd, Alim Khan was gone - fleeing though the mountains to the provincial outpost of Dushanbe. There the Emir held court until the spring of 1921 when he and his retainers floated across the Amu Darya on a raft into Afghanistan, where he lived for the rest of his days. Thus the Red Army added the Tajik settlement to the expanding Bolshevik empire.

The Russian hold was shaken off for a spell when in 1922 Enver Pasha and his basmachi fighters liberated Dushanbe as part of their crusade to carve out a pan-Islamic empire, but Bolshevik authority was quickly reasserted following his death in a gun battle in southern Tajikistan.

After the dissolution of Bukhara and the other old states of Central Asia, the new Soviet authorities set to drawing up a new map. The 'Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic', came into being in 1924, incorporating what we now call Uzbekistan with Tajikistan as an autonomous adjunct with its capital at Dushanbe.

A flurry of building began to turn a rural backwater, home to weavers, tanners and horse-traders, into a model Soviet city. Telegraph poles marched down the wide dirt road 'Prospekt Lenina' (now Rudaki) that formed the centre. The first electric lights blinked into action, powered by the new electricity plant. The effort and cost involved are hard to grasp nowadays. Local building materials (poplar wood, mud brick) did not fit the vision of the new Dushanbe, so each pane of glass, each timber, even each nail was procured elsewhere in the Union - mostly thousands of miles away in the forests of Siberia. Everything was then loaded into steam trains and freighted - a journey of weeks - down to the railhead at Termez, on the Afghan border. Then all was strapped to camels and hauled to Dushanbe along tracks so rough that each plank is said to have lost a metre in length and so dangerous that Red Army guards rode with each caravan to ward off bandit attacks. Food, tools and machine parts came the same way.

The coming of the new world swept away the old. The Arabic or Persian alphabet was banned, making outlaws of countless intellectuals, clerics, lawyers and other literate people. At a stroke, the Central Asians were severed from not only from the rest of the Muslim world but their entire literary canon. People who still used the 'old' script found themselves considered seditious. Some were sent to prison camps in the Russian Far East. Far more hid their literacy and their books. (When the Soviet Union eventually fell, thousands of Tajik families brought out treasured volumes of poetry and prayers they had kept secretly for seventy years.) In place of the Arabic script came the Latin alphabet, later replaced by Cyrillic - the Russian lettering that is still commonly in use in Tajikistan.

Dushanbe grew in leaps and bounds. In 1924 there were two cars in all Tajikistan - the year the first school primer in Tajik came out. In 1925 the first edition of the newspaper Eid-i Tajik (Tajik Holiday) rolled off the first printing press, and was delivered 011 horseback along Lenin Prospekt. Two years later the first documentary film was shot in Dushanbe. It records some interesting details of life at this important turn of the story. The shaky scene is of an ordinary bazaar - men are selling grapes and melons, a farrier is shoeing a horse and a darvish or pious indigent, begs for alms. But there is already one figure dressed in the European-style short shirt and narrow trousers that gradually became standard wear for the modern young man.

With the arrival of the railroad in 1929, Dushanbe was made capital of the new Soviet Tajik republic and renamed Stalinabad – a name it bore until the 1961 and the historical reinvention of the Khrushchev era. Khujand became Leninabad, the name older people still often use.

The region was developed as a cotton - and silk processing centre and tens of thousands of people were relocated here, turning the rural village into a large, urban administrative and industrial centre. The city’s numbers were further swollen by Tajik from Bukhara and Samarkand, which had been given over to Uzbek rule.

Dushanbe grew rapidly in the first half of the 20th century. Tajikistan's first hydro-electric power station, located at Varzob, provided the city with power, urban planning demanded modern amenities, and the population expanded fourfold with the arrival of economic migrants, prisoners of war and exiles from other parts of the Soviet Union. At the peak of this migration, ethnic Germans alone numbered 50,000 (nearly a quarter of Dushanbe's population). Dushanbe was becoming truly cosmopolitan - a poster-child for Soviet planning and centralised control - and it was rewarded for its success with universities, a zoo and botanical gardens, and numerous statues of communism's elite.

After almost 70 uneventful years of relative peace, if not prosperity, 1990 saw festering nationalistic sentiments explode into rioting, triggered by rumoured plans to house Armenian refugees in Dushanbe. Twenty-two people died in clashes with the militia. There were further demonstrations in the autumn of 1991, organised by opposition factions dissatisfied with the absence of political change in Tajikistan. The statue of Lenin that stood opposite the parliament building disappeared overnight, and young bearded men and veiled women took to the streets of Dushanbe, calling for an Islamic state.

In 1961, as part of his de-Stalinisation initiative, Khrushchev announced that Stalinabad would once again be known as Dushanbe, and in the following decades there was a slow revival of Tajik culture amongst urban intellectuals, centred on the capital. The renewed interest in the Tajik language in particular culminated in a peaceful demonstration in Dushanbe in February 1989, where students and intellectuals demanded that Tajik, not Russian, be considered the state language of Tajikistan. Protesters found their voice in the numerous independent papers that sprang up in the late 1980s, severe rioting rocked the city in 1990 , and thousands of people flocked to Dushanbe to see Tajikistan declare independence from the Soviet Union on 9 September 1991. The Lenin statue on Lenin Avenue (now Rudaki) was the first Lenin monument in central Asia to be pulled down.

Optimism turned to pain almost overnight. Tajikistan's economy crashed and the country's first president, Nabiev, had no real means of control. Mass demonstrations, some up to 15,000 people strong, took place on Rudaki; protesters from across Tajikistan camped outside the Presidential Palace and called for Nabiev's resignation. The government armed counter-demonstrators on Dusti Square, and people on both sides formed violent militias. The civil war had begun, and Dushanbe's population swelled with refugees.

Troops marched into Dushanbe in December 1992, seized the Presidential Palace and put Emomali Rahmon, a little-known economics graduate with a support base in agrarian Kulab, in the seat of power. He remains in power today, and the vast new Palace of Nations, home to the president himself and numerous government ministries, is undoubtedly his architectural legacy to the city.

During the civil war the city remained a capital of chaos. It was kept under a dusk-to-dawn curfew, with armed gangs controlling the roads in and out, and lawless brigands patrolling the streets. Shoot-outs between rival clans were common and most Russians fled the country. Random acts of violence continued through the 1990s but by 2002 the situation had stabilised enough to lift the citywide curfew. These days Dushanbe is savouring its peace.