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Khujand (or Khojent, former Leninabad, population 166,000) is the capital of northern Tajikistan's Sughd province and the second-largest city in the country. It's also one of Tajikistan's oldest towns, founded on the banks of the Syr-Darya by Alexander the Great as his easternmost outpost. One of Tajikistan's largest and wealthiest cities, Khujand has an almost cosmopolitan air and it bears the weight of its turbulent history well. Parks and monuments have all been sensitively restored, the bazaar is one of the liveliest in central Asia, and the mighty river, Syr Darya (Jaxartes), is a striking urban centrepiece.

Khujand was founded twice, each time by one of history's mightiest kings. First the city was Cyropolis, the City of Cyrus, as the Persian Cyrus the Great came here on his final expedition against the Saka tribe shortly before his death in 530BC. Two centuries later, Alexander the Great also determined it a fitting place for a city, and he named it Alexandria Eschate: Alexandria the Furthest since it is the furthest point he reached in Central Asia. For the Greeks the Syr Darya was an ideal natural defence against the Scythian tribes to the south. If you stand on the south bank of the Syr Darya (ancient Jaxartes), just to the west of the main bridge and look across to the north bank, you are standing near where Alexander stood watching his troops attacking the Scythians in 329 BC.

The Scythians were redoubtable warriors and formidable mounted archers. Alexander ordered an initial bombardment using catapults mounted on boats. His troops then crossed the river on inflatable ox skins stuffed with straw. His cavalry, supported by infantry and archers engaged the enemy and routed them. His scouts pursued the Scythians, but reported there was nothing beyond the river except desert hills. Alexander decided that was far enough.

Khujand became part of the Abassid Caliphate in the 9th century AD as a result of the Arab invasion of central Asia. The city became one of the most important places in Central Asia. It was a key junction on the Silk Road. Maintaining control of such a distant territory was nigh on impossible, however, and so the city fell in quick succession first to the Samanids and then to the Karakahanid Khanate. It flourished as a centre of Silk Road trade and culture, and gave birth to a number of notable writers and intellectuals, including the 10th-century astronomer and mathematician Abu Mahmud Khujandi, and the 14th-century Sufi poet Kamal Khujandi.

Commanding (and taxing) the entrance to the Fergana Valley, Khojand built palaces, grand mosques and a huge citadel. Unsurprisingly, Khujand attracted the attentions of Genghis Khan and was laid to waste in 1220 having initially resisted his forces. Through history it remained a centre of considerable power. The city was occupied in turn by the Timurids, Shaybanids, the Kokand Khanate and then the Russian Empire, who held it as part of the Governorate of Turkestan. Prior to the Russian invasion in the nineteenth century it was one of the main emirates in Central Asia.

With the arrival of the Soviets, Khujand was initially incorporated into the Uzbek SSR, but then reassigned to the Tajik SSR in 1929. It was rechristened Leninabad in 1939 in light of its new-found importance as Tajikistan's second city, a name which it held until 1992.

Today the economically booming town is of marginal interest to visitors, useful mainly as a spring board to the spectacular overland route south to Dushanbe.

The modern city, the largest in the north, stretches along both banks of the Syr Darya. It has pleasant tree lined boulevards, and a number of impressive government and municipal buildings with carefully tended flowerbeds. There is a greater sense of prosperity than in the rest of Tajikistan.

Khojand, made up mostly of Uzbeks, has more in common with the Uzbek Fergana Valley than Dushanbe, although it always provided Tajikistan's Soviet elite. When President Nabiev, a Khojand man, was unseated in 1992 and Tajikistan appeared to be becoming an Islamic republic, Khojand (Leninabad) province threatened to secede. Secure behind the Fan Mountains, it managed to escape the ravages of the civil war and remains the wealthiest part of the country, producing two-thirds of Tajikistan's GDP, with 75% of the country's arable land and only one-third of the population.

Sights - The majority of Khujand's tourist sites are concentrated around Registoni Panjshanbe and Victory Square at the junction of M Tamburi and Ferdowsi, with additional statues scattered on squares and intersections across the city.

Starting at the south end of Lenin, the Registoni Panjshanbe has attractions on three of its four sides. The fairly modern Shaikh Maslihaddin Mosque is the city's largest place of worship and cuts a striking figure on the skyline: the intricate portico, tiled minaret and turquoise domes would not look out of place in Bukhara or Samarkand. Shaikh Maslihaddin (1133-1223) is buried in the 13th-century gilded mausoleum on the same site, and there is an attractive 19th-century minaret made of baked-mud bricks. It stands 21m tall and is a particularly popular resting place for the local pigeon population.

The city's oldest remains next to Victory Park are the formless baked-earth walls of the 10th-century citadel, which once boasted seven gates and 6km of fortifications. This was also the site of Alexander's original settlement. The fort was the site of pitched battles in 1997 between rebel Uzbek warlords and government troops, during which 300 people were killed.

The remains of the old citadel rebuilt in the 13th century, and now being reconstructed. It is possible to see sections of the walls in the original brickwork. Excavations have revealed Greek and Bactrian coins, pottery shards and other items that date the earliest parts of the citadel to the 4th century BC. Inside the reconstructed main gate, with its impressive 19th century lamp, is a museum. There is a good range of exhibits of items found in the citadel, including a Colt pistol, apparently beloved of Russian officers. The buildings visible today follow the lines of the fort's 13th-century incarnation, albeit heavily renovated and, in the case of the attractive main gateway, completely reconstructed.

The reconstructed eastern gate houses the Museum of Archaeology and Fortifications (M Tanbyri 4; working hours 8am-noon, 1-5pm Mon-Fri, 9am-4pm Sat & Sun), which has some interesting 19th-century photos and plans of the original citadel. You can climb the ramparts but be careful when photographing, as the citadel behind is occupied by the military.

It is spacious, with exhibits shown imaginatively and explanations in Tajik, Russian and sometimes English. The museum is a celebration of Tajik history and culture, but suffers from a chronic lack of actual artefacts. There are halls with separate themes, e.g. the Hellenistic Age. Archaeological exhibits are set out imaginatively, and good sections on Tajik/Persian writers, poets and politicians. There are rooms devoted to the Russian era and modern Tajikistan.

The basement displays murals of inlaid stone, dioramas of Stone Age and Iron Age life, and archaeological finds including a three-legged iron pot and some stones informatively labelled as such.

Dominating the large foyer is a 4 meters statue of Timur Malik, another figure from the Tajik past, resurrected in the cause of encouraging a spirit of national identity. Timur was a local resistance leader against Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. He established a fortress on an island in the Syr Darya, from where his archers sallied forth against the Mongol positions, in boats covered in hides and dried clay soaked in vinegar, as a protection against fire arrows. The Mongols placed chains across the river, but Timur cut them with his sword. In the end Timur ran out of supplies and the Mongols cornered the Tajiks. The legend has it that Timur asked his troops to fight for their people, but any who wished could go now, as they faced certain death. None went and all were killed. In fact Timur escaped and fought one more successful battle against the Mongols.

Highlights include a wooden coffin from the 1st century bc, a 6th-century earthenware teapot, a dervish's dressing gown and some particularly fine gold coins. There are wall displays on Sarazm, the Kushans, the Middle Ages and the arrival of the Chingizids (Mongols), as well are more staid exhibits relating to the October Revolution and Soviet period. Taking advantage of the services of the English-speaking guide really brings the collection to life.

Pushkin Square has handsome neo-classical buildings: the attractive K Khujandi Theatre, a fountain and bronze sculpture and, atop the otherwise quite ordinary building to the left of the theatre, a long mosaic panel in coral-coloured stone. From the square, an attractive park, including a row of busts of the great men of Tajikistan, leads down to the banks of the Syr Darya. Along the riverbank is a tree-lined pathway, with a number of restaurants, cafes and choikhonas. Dominating Pushkin Square is the impressive Kamoli Khujandi Theatre (named after the great 14th century writer born in Khujand). It has an art nouveau feel about it, with an impressive vestibule and a large elegant auditorium. Definitely worth a look, though performances are limited.

A short walk from the square brings you to the Syr Darya and another line of bronze busts, this time of Khujand's historical leaders. There is a promenade much of the way along the riverbank, but the best views are to be had from one of the two bridges.

North of the river are three statues, two that are important and one that has novelty value. In pride of place on Kahrahmon (the northern part of Lenin) is a vast bronze statue of Ismoili Somoni crowned in gold and flanked by a pair of lions that would not look out of place on Trafalgar Square.The numerous choreographed fountains (lit at night in particularly special neon shades of red and green) make it a popular spot for wedding photographs.

There is a particularly good bazaar, with a range of vegetables and fruit reflecting the fertile soil of the area. Panchshanbe Bazaar, one of the best-stocked markets in Central Asia, especially on Thursday (panchshanbe in Tajik). The vast pink edifice with its attractive white plasterwork and central semi-dome looks as if it should be the set for a fairy-tale wedding or an 18th-century royal ball, but it in fact dates from 1964 and was always intended to house market traders and their wares. The core of the bazaar is an elegant, in high confectionary style purpose-built hall (1964) with arched entrance portals, with stalls spilling over to the surrounding streets and a pink-and-lime-green neoclassical facade – think Stalin meets 1001 Nights. Climbing the stairs to the right of the main entrance enables you to get a closer look at the beautifully painted ceiling, and also offers a good vantage point for photographs across the square. The market itself has a lively atmosphere, particularly in the morning, and you'll scarcely be able to set foot amongst the fruit stalls before someone will accost you with a slice of melon or handful of pomegranate seeds to try. Every kind of good is for sale here, and the hours fly by as you rummage around, engage in riotous charades and buy all sorts of things you never knew you needed.

The bus station is near the bazaar with minibuses going to local towns in the Ferghana valley and to Dushanbe.

As you leave the Registoni Panjshanbe square onto Lenin, the three-sided monument in front of you is Khujand's memorial to the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Two of the three carved panels remember the sacrifice of those who died; the third reminds onlookers of the importance of peace.

Opposite the bazaar is the mosque, medressa and mausoleum of Sheikh Massal ad-Din (1133–1223), a modest, relatively modern complex that is quietly busy with serious young men clutching Qurans. The craftsmen were the same Russians as those who gilded St Basil's cathedral in Moscow. There is a 21m minaret of baked brick built in 1865 and renovated in 1902-3. In the square outside the mosque are people selling books, and beggars outside. Take a look at the carved wooden pillars lining the side aivans (covered porticoes). The impressive khaki-coloured mausoleum was built in 1394. The stubby 21m-high minaret was added in 1865. The complex is currently under expansion, as clear a sign as any of Islam’s regional rebirth.

Since the removal of its giant rival in Tashkent, Khojand’s 22m-tall statue of Lenin is now the largest in Central Asia. It was moved here from Moscow in 1974. It’s on the north side of the river, 500m beyond the bridge. Central Asia's tallest remaining Lenin statue has been moved to a virtual wasteland next to the electricity substation and a carwash. In spite of his 22m height, here Lenin still appears lost and forlorn, a shadow of his former self. Given that Khojand was once Leninabad, it is a pity the city cannot embrace this part of its history and display this important statue somewhere people may actually be able to appreciate it. Other than an occasional tourist, the only visitors here are a few elderly ladies genuinely mourning the passing of the Soviet Union and the economic and political stability it afforded.

Last but certainly not least is the giant pigeon statue in Navruzgoh Park. You can see it from the eastern bridge. Quite what this pigeon is doing here no-one is sure, but he's certainly an entertaining addition to the shoreline.

Continuing north along Lenin brings you to the Abu Mahmud Hamid ibn Khidr Khujandi statue. Situated in a small park at the intersection of Lenin and K Khujandi, Khujandi himself sits looking pensive with a large book on his knee. Lines of trees carry the eye further down the road to another war memorial and then a line of bronze busts, each belonging to a Soviet-era luminary, that are surrounded by well-kept rose bushes.

Other eye-catching Soviet leftovers include the bright red hammer and sickle in the centre of Lenin kuchai, a bust of Marx and Lenin on the side of an apartment block on Kamoli Khojandi and the impressive WWII monument across from the Panchshanbe Bazaar.