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Penjikent

The valley widens and there are vineyards, fields and orchards, leading to Penjikent (pop. 50,000 people), an important town on the Silk Road. It is known as the "Pompeii of Central Asia", because of the wonderful frescoes from the 8th century, which have survived. For visitors to Samarqand, it is an attractive addition to cross the border, visit Penjikent, and go on a trek in the Fan mountains. The superb archaeological sites of ancient Penjikent and Sarazm are potent reminders of its historical importance and erstwhile wealth. For tourists they combined well with the architectural wonders of Samarkand. As late as the autumn of 2010, Penjikent was the gateway between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and indeed it should probably be part of Uzbekistan given that 70% of the population is ethnically Uzbek.

The modern town is on the banks of the Zarafshan River. It is a typical Soviet town with wide streets, some handsome civic buildings, and a dramatic statue of Dewashtich. There is a bustling bazaar and an 18th century madrassa. The old city, now abandoned, is on a hilltop to the east of the town. The excellent Rudaki museum in the town is a must for any visitor. Great pride is taken in the history of the town. There is a large bust to the great Tajik archaeologist Abdullo Isokov on the main road into the town.

The town grew up because it was strategically placed on trade routes. It is also the centre of a fertile agricultural area, and gold was panned here, using sheepskins. For the time being, however, modern Penjikent is a virtual ghost town, its lifeblood choked off by the closure of the border. The flow of tourists has slowed to a trickle, and businesses are only just clinging on. Only if this vital communication route reopens does Penjikent stand a chance of recovery.

On a terrace above the banks of the Zerafshan (Zeravshan) River, 1.5km southeast of the modern, town, are the ruins of ancient Penjikent, a major Sogdian town founded in the 5th century and abandoned in the 8th century. It is helpful to have a guide, as apart from a few examples of ancient brickwork, the site is a series of mounds of earth, and it is not easy to disentangle the layout of the city. There is a general plan at the entrance. It should be possible to arrange to hire an English-speaking guide at the Rudaki Museum in the town. Today the ruins are largely limited to sunbaked walls but they are worth a look, and the modern city is becoming increasingly popular as a springboard to visit the nearby Fan Mountains.

The banks of the Zarafshan River, at a significant Silk Road crossroad, were the ideal location for an ancient city to grow and flourish. At its height the settlement was a rich trading centre and one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the Silk Road. The city was built in the 5th century, covering an area of 20 hectares, with a population of 5,000. The Sogdians constructed an impregnable-looking fortress with walls 12m thick at the base and 5m high at the top (with battlements and a wide pathway to allow rapid deployment of troops) on a hill 4km east of the modern town. The fortress had watchtowers on three sides, and was protected by a steep slope on the northern side. At 1,000m it is cooler than the new town in the river valley. It was a melting pot of Silk Road cultures, with Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Manicheans and Nestorian Christians all making their unique contributions. It had two large Zoroastrian temples, with the holy fires burning continuously. There was a royal palace and a citadel. Perhaps the most impressive feature was the scale of the houses. These were 2 and 3 storey buildings of significant sophistication, with elaborate decoration.

The city was besieged by the Arabs for two years, but was eventually captured in AD 722. The Arabs set fire to the city, and this act meant that Penjikent became a repository for much of what is now known about the Sogdian civilisation. Many of the buildings were burnt to the ground. Rather than attempt to rebuild their magnificent palaces and temples, Penjikents inhabitants abandoned their city, inadvertently preserving it in time for archaeologists to uncover more than a millennium later. The last Sogdian ruler, Dewashtich, retreated into the mountains but was captured and, by one account, crucified. His followers, including women and children, were massacred as they fled Penjikent for Khujand. The few survivors of this bloodshed are the ancestors of the modern Yagnobis.

As at Pompeii, the sudden destruction lead to preservation of magnificent frescoes, because in the fire some of the wall collapsed inwards, preserving the paintings under rubble for twelve centuries. Russian and Tajik archaeologists have excavated about half of the site, and painstakingly restored the frescoes to some of their former glory. The fact of the town being completely and finally abandoned in 770 has also helped its preservation.

Some of the frescoes are in the Rudaki Museum in Penjikent, and some others are in the Museum of National Antiquities in Dushanbe. There are also burnt altars and statues that were preserved by the fire. However, the finest examples were taken to St Petersburg, and can now be viewed in the Central Asian Section of the Hermitage Museum. The frescoes give a picture of life in a Sogdian town, much about their legends, and also proof that the Sogdians had links, possibly through their trading, with cultures as far away as India and Western Europe.

After the defeat, the Sogdian leader Dewashtich retreated and was finally defeated at Mount Mugh. He is now given the status of a local hero and there is a defiant statue of him in the main street.

Ancient Penjikent is remarkable due to the state of its preservation. Having been abandoned suddenly and never built over, it is still possible to walk the streets laid out much the same way as they were the day the Arabs came. At its height, the city covered around 20ha, and about half of this area has been carefully excavated, with finds being removed to the National Museum in Dushanbe and the local Rudaki Museum. Most impressive amongst the buildings are the citadel on top of the hill overlooking the city, the necropolis, and the fine, once multi-storied buildings where the famous frescoes were discovered.

The Rudaki Museum in the centre of the modern town is an essential visit in Penjikent. This is the easiest place to see Penjikents remarkable frescoes. It helps to an understanding of the site of the fortress, and of the life of the people who lived there. The museum is an attractive, white building with well-laid-out displays, plenty of information and an enthusiastic curator. The Sogdian frescoes are undoubtedly the biggest draw and although the best and largest examples (one of which was 15m in length) have been spirited away to Dushanbe and the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, you can still admire murals depicting many-headed gods, ancient heroes and the Sogdian aristocracy. Other notable artefacts include ornaments carved from wood and clay, domestic and ritual pottery, ossuaries (vessels for the bones of the dead) and altarpieces, many of which show marks of the apocalyptic fire.

The highlight is the Sogdian frescoes, showing the hero Rustam fighting with devils, and also a three headed god, with similarities to the Indian god Shiva. There are other Sogdian relics such as statues, ossuaries (containers for bones from dead bodies after the birds had pecked away the flesh), jars and pipes. Other sections deal with local wildlife, the poet Rudaki, who was born near Penjikent, the Samanid dynasty, including Ismoil Somoni the national hero, and local costumes and furniture. There is also a section on the Russian legacy, with the first metal plough brought to the area, and the first diesel generator.

Sights - Most travellers make it to ancient Penjikent. You can make out the faint foundations of houses, two Zoroastrian temples and the shop-lined bazaar of the main shakhristan (town centre), as well as the obvious citadel to the west. The palace was originally decorated with ornate hunting scenes and pillars carved in the shape of dancing girls. Surrounding the site are scattered remains of a rabad (suburb) and necropolis. A small museum (working hours 10am-5pm) with an enthusiastic curator at the site chronicles the excavations but the best of the frescoes (some of them 15m long), sculptures, pottery and manuscripts were long ago carted off to Tashkent and St.Petersburg. There's a useful map at the site entrance. The ruins are a 15-minute walk from the bazaar, or you could take a taxi. Visit in the early morning or afternoon to avoid the heat. For a plan and archaeological details of the site see www.orientarch.uni-halle.de/ca/pandzh.htm.

Some more finds and reproduction frescoes are on display at the Rudaki Museum (Rudaki 67; working hours 8am-5pm), 1.5km west of the bazaar in modern Penjikent. There are also tools from the nearby Neolithic site of Sarazm and a copy of documents found at Mt Mug, where the Sogdians made their last stand against the Arab invaders. (A statue of Devastich, the last Sogdian leader, dominates the roundabout at the west end of town.) The museum's name arises from the claim that Penjikent was the birthplace of Abu Abdullah Rudaki (858-941), the Samanid court poet considered by many to be the father of Persian poetry. His modern mausoleum, a popular pilgrimage place, is located 58km east of Penjikent in the village of Panjrud, along with a small museum and guesthouse. The best local excursion is to the picturesque Marguzor Lakes, up in the Fan Mountains.

Penjikent's lively bazaar has a substantial, decorative gateway, and immediately opposite is the Olim Dodho Mosque, the multi-domed roof of which is reminiscent (albeit in miniature) of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

Getting there Currently the border crossing to Uzbekistan to the west of Penjikent is closed and shows no sign of reopening in the immediate future. If it does reopen, it will once again be possible to drive to or from Samarkand in under two hours, and border formalities here were always somewhat faster than at other crossing points.

The 90km of road between Penjikent and Aini have not been maintained for several years and hence are in very poor condition, often with no tarmac at all. You're in for a bumpy ride. If you are coming from the direction of Dushanbe, the turning to Penjikent is not signposted. Come through Aini, out the other side, then turn left at the crossroads-cum-roundabout. If you overshoot you will end up heading through the mountains to Khujand. The minibus takes around five hours (more if it is wet) and costs TJS60.

There are two bus stands in Penjikent. The eastbound intercity buses leave from the East Gate bus stand, and local buses also use the Bazaar bus stand. Minibus N1 goes from the bazaar to the airport, and N4 travels most of the length of Rudaki. Both cost less than TJS1.

Penjikent does have its own airport on 10 Let Nezavisimosti str. in the south of the town, but flights take place in winter only and do not conform to a regular itinerary. Departure details and tickets are all available from the airport's information office.


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