Istaravshan (formerly Ora-tappa, population 55,000) is one of the most interesting towns in the whole of Tajikistan, and is well worth a visit. Bukhara it's not, but then there aren't any tourists either. You can easily visit Istaravshan as either a day trip from Khojand or as an overnight stop en route to Dushanbe.
Called Kir by the Parthians, Cyropol by Alexander the Great and Ura-Tyube by the Russians and Soviets, this small historic town has one of the best preserved old towns in Tajikistan, punctuated with some lovely traditional architecture. It is claimed it was founded 2,500 years ago. In the first two centuries AD it was an important city with walls 6km long. Later it became a staging point on the Silk Road.
Istaravshan has archaeological and architectural gems to rival those anywhere in Tajikistan. The mosques and madrasahs of the old town would not be out of place in Bukhara or Samarkand, and the imposing position of the Sogdian citadel is the perfect place from which to watch the sun go down.
Istaravshan was founded as a Silk Road trading post sometime in the 6th century BC. It grew quickly, and merchants and travellers passed through on the east-west axis of the Silk Road and also when journeying south to Afghanistan and the Pamirs.
The city's wealth and strategic location made it an attractive target for its invaders, and three times Istaravshan was destroyed almost to the point of no return. In 329 BC a sentry might have heard some muffled footsteps below him in the gap between the next hill to the west, now occupied by the main road and a canal. These sounds would have been the commandos of Alexander the Great. He had failed to take the city by storm, but an informer had told him the water gate was left open. The commandos entered the city and opened the main gates. Because the population had resisted, all the males were executed and the women and children taken as slaves. Mongol forces wreaked havoc and an equivalent level of bloodshed in the early 13th century (1220), and tsarist artillery shelled the city into submission most recently in 1866.
The best place to start is the Mugh Tappa, the old citadel that dominates the town. Wherever you are in Istaravshan, it's impossible to miss the imposing mud-brick gateway atop the hill overlooking the city. A succession of sentries would have surveyed the countryside to the north. This site of the Sogdian fortress was stormed by Alexander the Great in 329 BC (there are faint remains in the northwest corner). The imposing entry gate was actually built in 2002 during Istaravshan's 2500th anniversary celebrations. To get to the hill, take the road just north of the Istaravshan Hotel.
A modern reconstruction of one of the citadel's medieval gateways dominates the site and, though it's unlikely to be historically accurate in its design, it nonetheless gives an indication of the fort's original scale. Less dramatic, but historically more significant, are the mounds of earth in the corner of the site. Though they bear more than a passing resemblance to builders' rubble, they are in fact all that remains of the Sogdian fortress attacked by Alexander. There is, unfortunately, neither information boards nor anyone to ask, but you can nonetheless appreciate the defensive advantage that this position would have given the fort's earliest residents. Like Bunjikat, this was a very large city, when some of the biggest in the world were in Central Asia. Now it is a modern bustling town.
The old town, Shahr-i Kohna, retains much of its character, with narrow streets between mud brick houses. Shahr-i Kohna is an interesting maze of alleys west of the main drag, Lenin, which connects the bus station and bazaar. To find it, locate the Timurid minaret (the tallest structure in the area), then simply dive into the streets behind and start exploring. Alleys disappear into the old town from the Hazrat-i-Shah Mosque and Mausoleum (Lenin 98), the town's main Friday mosque.
The minaret is situated within the Sar-i Mazor complex, which includes two mausolea and a beautiful wooden mosque. The older mausoleum is known as the Ajina Khona (the 'house of demons'), but this seems to be a relatively recent name and no-one is entirely sure of its origin. The mausoleum of Hazrati Mekhdoni Azam is rather more intricate. The exterior displays some fine 16th-century tile work and the interior, though simple, was once decorated with calligraphy, of which a few traces remain. The wooden mosque, begun in the 1500s but with later additions and significant 20th-century renovations, is fabulously carved and with a ceiling painted in riotous colours. The pillars are reminiscent of the hall of Solomon and taper elegantly as fresh air breezes between them. Though the complex is free to enter, it is respectful to make a small donation to the elderly watchman to assist in its upkeep.
The drive from Dushanbe to Istaravshan, a total of 268km, has been immeasurably improved with the opening of the Shahristan Tunnel in the autumn of 2012. It cuts off a backbreaking stretch through the mountains where lorries all too often jackknifed or skidded on the gravel, usually with dire consequences. There are two road tolls between Aini and Istaravshan, one by the tunnel (TJS23) and the other just before Istaravshan (TJS6). Minibuses and shared taxis take seven hours and cost TJS120.
There is an excellent road between Istaravshan and Khujand, and consequently the 70km journey takes just an hour by car. It passes a reservoir, with one of the ubiquitous busts of Lenin, and through a fertile area of fields of wheat, vegetables, vineyards and cotton. The produce from here is exported as far as Russia in refrigerated trucks. It is well worth a short detour to view Lenin. The head is enormous, reached by 100 steps. It is a potent reminder of the Soviet past. That said, it may not stay long as these reminders are slowly being removed.
Much of the land is planted with cotton. In the autumn large gangs of students are forced to spend a semester picking cotton, without pay, receiving just their very basic board and lodging. Small boys stand by the roadside holding up dead snakes, alleged to cure TB, and skins of hedgehogs, reputedly a cure for piles.
There are two road tolls, one at Dehmoy (TJS2) and the other at Chorukh (TJS4). The journey by shared taxi costs just TJS10.
Istaravshan's main bus stand is on Lenin at the outskirts of the town as you head towards Khujand or Dushanbe. The intercity minibuses stop here, as do the numerous local minibuses that whizz up and down to the bazaar.
KOK GUMBAZ (BLUE DOME)
The old town's most photogenic sight is the Kok Gumbaz ('blue dome', after its eye-catching turquoise Timurid dome), an intricately tiled mosque and the nearby 19th-century Hauz-i-Sangin Mosque, with its fine ceiling paintings, dried hauz (pool) and tomb of Shah Fuzail ibn-Abbas. The mosque dates from the 1600s and was built by Abdul Latif Sultan, son of Ulugh Bek, the architect of Samarkand's exceptional medieval observatory. Ulugh Bek was a 'Renaissance' humanist, who has been compared to Galileo. His son was more conservative, and so enraged by his illustrious father's radical views is thought to have thrown him from the roof of the Observatory. Whether or not he did commit patricide, Abdul Latif certainly left a beautiful memorial to himself in the Kuk Gumbaz. The building has turquoise tile work, and stands in an enclosed courtyard with the classrooms. The madrassa was closed in Soviet times but is now flourishing with 100 students undertaking a religious education, although not all go on to become mullahs. In addition to theology, the students study Arabic, Russian, English and computer studies. The teachers and students are welcoming and visitors are welcome to come inside. English is on the curriculum and the students are keen to practise.
Sar-i Mazor has a special combination of a very peaceful setting, with three attractive buildings. There are two mausoleums from the 15th and 16th centuries. One is the Ajina Khona, which means the house of demons, which is an unusual name for a holy building. The mullah told us it was a Soviet era name, coined to scare away children from playing there. It is austere within, but the exterior has some intricate brickwork.
The other mausoleum is that of Hazraji Mekhdoni Azam and his family. He was a nephew of Mir Saheed Hamadoni, whose mausoleum is in Kulob. Again it is plain within, although there are traces of Arabic and Farsi script on the walls. The exterior is ornate with fine stonework and tiling. His tomb is there, with those of his wife, son and a nephew. He was born in Khorezm, in modern Uzbekistan. He is reputed to have died while preaching, proving his closeness to God.
The third old building is the Sar-i Mazor mosque, built in the 16th and 17th century, and has had some recent renovations. The four tin cupolas of the Mazar-i-Chor Gumbaz conceal Tajikistan's most impressive painted ceilings. To get here, walk west from the Abdullatif Sultan Medressa for five minutes to the main road and then take marshrutka 3 north to the tomb. Sar-i Mazor mosque is built in the Central Asian style of intricately carved wooden ceilings and pillars, with brightly painted woodwork. A feature is the 18 chehelkhona (cells used by people who wish to withdraw from the world for 40 days; often they were studying to be mullahs). The room would be in darkness, apart from a small lamp, to enable the person to study the Quran, read and meditate. Bodily needs were met by the person only leaving the cell at night, when they would not meet with anyone. In Soviet times the mosque was used as a wheat store.
There is also a modern mosque, which can accommodate over a thousand worshippers. The money for the construction was all raised locally. The whole complex is set in beautifully maintained grounds, with some ancient trees considered to be 800 years old. This tranquil place, with courteous guardians, is a special place to visit. It is customary when visiting a mosque or madrassa to make a small donation in the box provided.
There are other mosques worth visiting:
- Chahor Gumbaz or Four Domes, a small 19th century mosque set in a back street, with four domes and a central pillar. It is next to a holy pool, shaded by an ancient tree.
- Havzi Sangin, a beautifully constructed modern mosque, has a shrine with a holy pool. Near the Kuk Gumbaz.
- The main mosque, Hazrat-i Shoh is on the main road below Mugh Tappa. Great craftsmanship has gone into the impressive carving and painted ceilings. In the gardens are the likenesses of great Tajik figures on a wall, poets on the left, writers on the right.
Please note that Tajik women cannot usually enter mosques, though foreign women are generally welcomed, if suitably attired, including head scarf.
19TH CENTURY HOUSE
In the old town, with a prior appointment, it is possible to visit a rare example of a 19th century town house of Mirzo Bobojonov, 18 Rahmatov Street, Ghaffur district. In the guest room is a magnificent painted ceiling, and intricately designed wall cupboards. The house, built by Usto Karimfon, is in a courtyard. The lady of the house prefers her husband to be present, so it is better to arrange your visit in the late afternoon, when he has returned from work.
Istaravshan has always been famous for its craftsmen. This is demonstrated in the exhibits in the museum, which is situated on the right of the main road leading up from the market. It may not be easy to find the curator, but it is worth the effort. Entrance 60 dirihms. The are sections for the various crafts, including leatherwork, wood carving, printing, copper work and knife manufacture. 10th and 11th century pottery is next to ancient ossuaries (where bones were kept of dead human bodies whose flesh had been eaten by birds, in the Zoroastrian tradition). There is a section on traditional dress and bridal wear, armour and a Russian canon ball from the siege of 1866.
Where the old town meets the Soviet-era Lenin, there is a pleasant square planted with roses and, at its centre, the seemingly necessary statue of Rudaki (98 Lenin). The back wall of the square also displays a number of plaques, each commemorating the life of a different writer or artist with links to Istaravshan.
The colourful central bazaar is one of the biggest in the region and well worth a visit, especially on Tuesday. Across the river, the four-storey yellow building marks the centre of the bazaar. Amongst the shashlik stands and fruit stalls are a few interesting buildings, including the crumbling remains of what was once a domed, tiled chaikhana and, on the opposite side of the street, a newer building designed in a traditional style and complete with ornately carved pillars and fascia boards. It houses the Eshata Bank. The most interesting sight, however, is the row of tiny workshops where metalworkers, carpenters and other artisans are still producing traditional goods, predominantly for the local market rather than for tourists. Many of the craftsmen are happy for you to enter their premises to watch them work and, of course, even happier if you see something you'd like to buy.
Opposite the excellent bazaar are to be found a line of blacksmiths in small workshops, with traditional bellows, making and repairing all sorts of metal items. Some of them maintain the famous local tradition of knife making, which goes back 2,000 years. They will make presentational knives from a wide variety of designs to your choice.
The great wood carving tradition is maintained by Mira Hakim, with his father Miro Ali, and brother Histo Ali, at their workshop, Korkhoni Ustoi Ali Kandakori, at Stanzia Unitechnia. This is to the left, over rhe bridge from the bazaar. Hakim is a superb woodcarver, who creates ornate doors and screens in the traditional style for mosques and special events. He also makes beautifully crafted items such as backgammon sets, which make distinctive presents. There is also a typical busy bazaar selling wonderful fruit and vegetables and lots of everything else.
On the road to Khujand is a Soviet-era reservoir (still in use), which is decorated with a vast concrete bust of Lenin. The site has definitely seen better days, but you can still scramble up the hill and have your picture taken with the glorious dictator himself.