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Penjikent by Colin Thubron

It was up this causeway that the Tajik ancestors, the Sogdians, had fled from Arab invaders in the eighth century. For more than fifteen hundred years they had lived along the Zerafshan in a loose-linked galaxy of oasis princedoms. These, with Bactria to the south, were the cradle of the Iranian race. But Turkic and Arab incursions at last confined them to the great cities, where their Tajik descendants survive, or drove them deep into the mountains, and the valley which we followed still seemed to echo their desolate migration.

Near modern Penzhikent, one of their last towns stood in ruin above the river. Rain and wind had compacted its clay brick to yellow bones, so that houses, streets, gates, temples all traced themselves over the earth in a sleek cipher. The modest compass of its ramparts, half sucked back into the ground, exuded domestic peace. Its people had been craftsmen and Silk Road merchants, above all, and ingenious farmers. It was the Sogdians who gave wine to China, and apricots to the world.

I left Oman brooding in the car, and entered the city. A sea of wild flowers overswept the battlements - purple heliotrope, pink vetch - and through the roofless passages and breached rooms spread a lake of poppies. I blundered between enigmatic doorways and culs-de-sac, then out along avenues to where the ruler's citadel crested its mound in a cluster of chambers and towers. Even in ruin, a feel of private opulence survived. The mansions, many free-standing, had crashed in two storeys about their pillared reception-halls, but here and there an early iwan -the vaulted porch of a later Persia - showed in some facade a little grander than the rest.

Among the debris of roof-beams, stairs and carbonised wooden statues cluttering the courts, archaeologists had uncovered fragments of fresco: pigments faded to damson, maroon and a backdrop of smoky blue. They portray a rich, ceremonious people at banqueting and war. In their idealised faces the features show delicate and small. An unearthly luxury pervades the nobles seated cross-legged as they feast. They converse unsmiling in a flutter of thin white hands. Their embroidered tunics are caught in at the waist, and beneath their tiaras the hair is immaculately trimmed, or falls in black sidelocks. Swords and daggers droop ornamentally across their laps. They carry wands of almond blossom. It is hard to know who is a god and who is a mortal. The warriors who gallop or saunter to battle on magenta chargers are the stuff of Persian epic. But the bangled beauty who plucks at her harp might be a human or a celestial. For the city, it seems, was home to many gods and heresies, infused by Buddhism and a host of Iranian deities and resurrection cults.

The long, crestfallen faces of the Sogdians' frescoes survive in their Tajik descendants. But as the Sogdians fled east, pushing into gorges now choked with their wrecked castles, their language and their blood became mixed with others'. The Sogdian tongue seems to have lain close to the Persian of the great Achaemenian kings, and to the sacred language of Zoroastrian scripture. But it was already dying out among the Zerafshan oasis peasantry a thousand years ago, and the ancient idiom of Persia - the language of Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, Xerxes - had vanished long before.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron