The National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan (www.afc.ryukoku.ac.jp/tj; Ak Rajabov 7; working hours 10am-5pm Tue-Fri, to 4pm Sat, to 2pm Sun) is the best in the country, focusing on the Graeco-Bactrian sites of Takht-i-Sangin (including a tiny 3000-year-old ivory image of Alexander the Great) and Kobadiyan, plus original Sogdian murals and burnt wooden pillars from Penjikent and a 6th-century scabbard and hilt in the shape of a griffin.
This museum is a must for visitors to Dushanbe. Recently renovated with French sponsorship, exhibits are well set out, and some of the descriptions are in English. Staff is helpful. Excellent shop selling books, jewellery, pottery and gifts. Visitors required to wear over slippers (provided).
The highlight is the 13m-long sleeping Buddha of Ajina Teppe, near Qurghan Tappa, about 100km south of Dushanbe, excavated in 1966 (and sliced into 92 pieces in the process and reassembled in the museum). It dates from the Kushan era, 1500 years ago, and is now considered the largest Buddha figure in Central Asia. Photos aren’t allowed.
The main entrance hall has two fine statues of mountain goats from the 5th-3rd century BC, and an altar from the Temple of Oxus, Takht-i Sangin, near the banks of the Amu Darya, in the far south of Tajikistan, from the 4th-3rd century BC. The coin collection features gold Alexander coins from Sughd region. According to the Greek historians, Alexander married a Sogdian princess, Roxanna.
Other highlights are frescoes from Penjikent and Bunjikat (Sogdian cities in the north of Tajikistan) and a miniature of Alexander the Great. There are artefacts from Hulbuk (now being rebuilt at Qurbonshahid in the east of the country), and from Murghab in the Pamirs.
Visitors intending to visit Penjikent and Bunjikat (now Shahristan), Hulbuk or travel in the Pamirs are advised that a visit to this museum will enhance their understanding of these places.
The attached Ethnographic Museum (Ak Rajabov 7; working hours 10am-5pm Tue-Fri, to 4pm Sat, to 2pm Sun) is poorer value, with a small collection of clothes, embroidery and the like.
The Bekhzod National Museum (Maydoni Ayni; working 9am-4pm Tue-Sat, to 3pm Sun), on a commanding site on Maydoni Ayni, includes standard exhibits on natural history, art, ethnography and archaeology, but little English text. Worth a visit still as it must have been in Soviet times. Descriptions in Russian and Tajik.
The highlight is a superb minbar (mosque pulpit) and mihrab (niche marking the direction of Mecca) from Istaravshan in the north. There are some heroic pictures of Lenin talking to Tajik women and of Tajik nomenclature. Plenty of natural history, agricultural artefacts and costumes. There is a good mock up of the interior of a Tajik house. There’s a chilling reconstruction of a zindan (jail with hostages, ) on the 2nd floor, illustrating the Soviet view of the horrors perpetrated by the previous regime. The top floor is given over to the achievements of the aluminium industry – look for the alabaster carvings in the stairwell.
The Gurminj Museum (www.gurminj.tj; Bokhtar 23; working hours 11am-6pm, though schedule is not strictly followed) is named after the owner, famous Badakhshani actor Gurminj Zavkybekov. The antique musical instruments from the Pamirs, Afghanistan, Turkey and China are the draw, including a gijak (fiddle), doira (tambourine/drum) and rabab (six-stringed mandolin). Some are extremely old, pre-Islamic. The museum is hidden in a family compound across from the mosaic of justice and next to a district court. Just go into the little courtyard, and somebody will come out. (Museum is near Argilys restaurant, and next to some law courts.) Admission 5 somoni.
Tajik instruments include the tablak, buf and boira (used only at weddings). The tutuk is played by shepherds to the sheep at lambing time, and to their lovers at any season. Iqbol does not speak English, but he can give a very knowledgable talk on the instruments and their history. He has an ensemble called 'Shams', with four instrumentalists and a singer.
Museum of Ethnography - 14 Ismoil Somoni Street (opposite Barakat market). Tel: +992 372 245759 Open: Tues-Fri 10:00-17:00 Sat-Sun 10:00-14:00. Admission 15 somoni. Contains exhibits of traditional objects, ceramics, embroidery, woodwork, musical instruments and jewellery.
Ziyadullo Shahidi Museum of Musical Culture - 108 Shahidi Street. Open: Mon-Fri 09:00-17:00. Admission 3 somoni.
The former home of Ziyadullo Shahidi, a celebrated Tajik musician of the Soviet era who composed songs, operas and symphonies.
Tursunzoda Museum - 59 Loik Sherali Street Open: Mon-Fri 10:00-16:00. Admission 3 somoni. The museum is a celebration of the modern Tajik poet Tursunzoda, who is remembered for writing fine poetry celebrating the optimism of the Soviet era.
Aini Museum - 27 Sayid Nosir Street. Open: Mon-Fri 10:00-15:00 A museum devoted to the renowned Tajik poet and writer, Sadriddin Aini.
Mosques, Monuments & Markets
With its crescent-topped minaret and burnished golden dome, the Haji Yakoub mosque and medressa, just west of the Hotel Avesto, is one of the few visible manifestations of Islam in Dushanbe. Hundreds of skullcapped worshippers file into the mosque for Friday lunchtime prayers, closely watched by Tajik police. Women are allowed in the courtyard only. Tajikistan’s Persian past is invoked in the facade of the Writers’ Union Building (Ismoili Somoni). It’s adorned like a medieval cathedral with saintly, sculpted-stone figures of Sadruddin Ayni, Omar Khayam, Firdausi and other writers from the Persian pantheon.
Dushanbe’s most visible monument to nation-building is the surprisingly clean-shaven sorcerer-like statue of Ismail Samani (Ismoili Somoni), the 10th-century founder of the Samanid dynasty, occupying prime place on Maydoni Dusti. His statue ousted Lenin’s from the top spot in 1999 on the 1100th anniversary of the Samanid dynasty. Look behind the statue for a map of the Samanid empire at its height.
A large statue of Rudaki now dominates the rather soulless remodelled Bag-i Rudaki, just to the north. Just behind the park is the Palace of Nations, an opulent new presidential palace whose construction allegedly cost more than the country’s annual health budget.
The bustling and colourful Shah Mansur (Green) Bazaar (cnr Lokhuti & Nissor Muhammed) is the heartbeat of Dushanbe trade and the best place to stock up on travel snacks from dried fruit to Korean kimchi.
Less exotic is the large, covered Barakat Bazaar (Ismoili Somoni), northwest of the Hotel Tajikistan, where you might pick up an embroidered tupi (skullcap) or stripy chapan (cloak). The market will eventually be replaced by a new national museum and theatre complex.
Other notable buildings include the Ayni Opera & Ballet Theatre and the Vakhsh Hotel (Rudaki 24) on its south side. During the civil war the hotel was occupied by bands of bearded mujaheddin rebels and peppered with bullet holes. Now it’s one of the city’s nicest places to grab an open-air beer.
Parks - Several places in town offer green space for some down time, including the peaceful Botanical Gardens (8am-7pm), which is a favourite of canoodling couples. The north end spotlights some finely carved examples of Tajik architecture. For the best views over the city, take the creaking Soviet-era cable car up to Victory Park (until 8pm) and watch the sun set over a draft Simsim Beer. The impressive WWII monument here is worth a look.
Liveliest of the parks on weekends and holidays is family-friendly Komsomol Lake (Ismoili Somoni), offering outdoor shashlyk, draft beer, a Ferris wheel and pedalos on the water. It’s one bus stop east of Rudaki, opposite the zoo. A huge new chaikhana is under construction next door.