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Kurbon Shahid

Today Kurbon Shahid is a small and underwhelming town, but its impressive fortress (albeit a reconstruction of its historic self) makes it a must-see destination in Khatlon. As part of the 2,700th anniversary of the supposed founding of Kulob, a full-scale reconstruction of the citadel of the ancient city of Hulbuk is being built.

Archaeologists and cartographers first began to study southern Tajikistan seriously in the 1870s, and they started to link physical territories and historical sites with ancient Buddhist texts.

The 4th century AD Bactrian kingdom of Khuttal (also known as Takhristan) was mentioned in the writings of Chinese traveller Sjuan-Tszjan when he visited central Asia in 630. Its boundaries were initially determined by the Amu Darya and Vakhsh rivers, but by the 10th century rulers were seeking alliances as far south as Balkh in Afghanistan. A number of prominent cities within the kingdom have been identified, but the centre of regional power was Hulbek or Khulbuk.

Khuttal reached the peak of its power between the 9th and 11th centuries when it was the fourth largest city in Central Asia. It flourished under the Samanid dynasty. Hulbek was strategically important and grew wealthy on the back of trade; both of these things necessitated the construction of strong defences to protect the town against invasion from the south.

Hulbek's fortunes changed in the 11th century with the fall of the Samanids. Khuttal became a buffer state and was pillaged from both sides but particularly by the Karakhanids. Hulbek was ravaged and never recovered.

The modern town of Kurbon Shahid exists because of the ruins, and the need to house archaeologists and labourers working on the site.

In the past Soviet archaeologists undertook extensive excavations on the site, and there are many exhibits in the Museum of National Antiquities in Dushanbe. So far the main gates and walls with 19m watch towers on two sides have been completed. Archaeologists might wince, but the architect in charge of the site claims every effort is being made to undertake a thorough archaeological excavation before each stage of the building. The design has been submitted to international experts, but nobody can be quite sure how Hulbuk looked.

Hulbuk flourished because of its strategic position, the fertile land surrounding it, and deposits of gold, copper and salt. The citadel of 2 square hectares is only the centre of a city, which had an inner wall and an outer one of 10km. It was attacked and burned down by the Arabs in 726, then by the Ghaznavid Turks in 1038, and finally by the Seljuk Turks in 1064. It was then abandoned, mainly it is thought because the waterways from the mountains became blocked.

The Hulbek fortress is Kurbon Shahid's indisputable highlight. You round a bend in the road, your jaw drops, you slam on the brakes and squeal to a stop on the gravel in front of the gates. Approximately half of the site has already been reconstructed and, though purists may baulk, it really helps you to see how impressive a structure of this size and strength must have been. The curator, who appears from nowhere in great excitement at the sight of a tourist, assured us that full excavations were undertaken before the builders were allowed to start.

The Hulbek fortress was built twice: the initial structure was destroyed by fire in the late 10th century but it became the foundation for the subsequent building in the following century. The brick walls were originally coated with adobe plaster, and in the room that later became the palace mosque, this plaster was highly decorated with an ornate mihrab. In places it is still possible to see the Kufic script and original paving slabs.

The Hulbek museum is immediately opposite the fortress. A new building is under construction to house both finds from the site and the accompanying information boards. It is hoped that the museum will reopen towards the end of 2013.

The project staff are very helpful, and will show you around the site, and what remains of a very sophisticated city. The original ceramic brick streets survive in places. There is a stage, with a place for a prompter. The city had under floor heating systems, and an effective supply of clean water. Glass has been discovered, contemporaneously with the introduction in Europe. There is an unusual sundial and plenty of Aryan swastikas. Recent excavations exposed paintings of dancing girls, musicians and magic creatures. Such images would have been forbidden by Islam, but archaeologists consider Hulbuk shows a transition from Zoroastrianism to Islam, with the new religion adopting facets of the old one.

The museum next to the site is worth visiting, with many artefacts excavated from the site.

Getting there Kurbon Shahid is situated on the main road midway between Dangara and Kulob, so it makes a good picnic stop when driving between Dushanbe and Kulob or between Kulob and Kurgan Teppa. If you are travelling by minibus, take one of the main intercity routes and make sure the driver understands you want to alight partway and that he adjusts the fare accordingly.