Some 15km west of Penjikent, just before the Uzbek border, are the impressive ruins of one of Tajikistan's other great archaeological sites: Sarazm, reputed at 5,500 years to be one of the earliest settlements in Central Asia. Discovered in 1976 by the Soviet archaeologist Abdullojon Isakov, it is remarkable for both its size and its antiquity.
The Sarazm settlement originally spread across 130ha, and carbon dating confirms it was already inhabited by 3500bc, peaking at the start of the Bronze Age when it was likely the largest metallurgical centre in central Asia. It thrived until the third millennium bc and was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 2010 in recognition of its historical significance. It was the first UNESCO site in Tajikistan.
Sarazm is divided into three main areas, each covered by a corrugated roof to protect it from the elements. The excavations show the layout of a sophisticated settlement. The walls of the different buildings are superbly preserved: you can easily still walk through their doorways and follow the grids of streets.
As with ancient Penjikent, Sarazm's most important archaeological finds have been removed to major museums in Dushanbe and abroad, but a small collection is still housed in the Sarazm Museum. The artefacts demonstrate this was a well-developed city with sophisticated agriculture, metallurgy (bronze, copper and precious metals) and craftsmanship, and that it had trading partners as far afield as Iran and India.
The most famous find is from about 3,000 BC, 'The Princess of Sarazm', a woman buried in clothes richly embroidered with turquoise, lapis lazuli, jasper and limestone beads. The beads and a bronze mirror are in the Museum of National Antiquities in Dushanbe. Archaeologists have estimated that the woman died around 3000bc; the dry, sandy ground of Sarazm has left her grave goods unusually well preserved. Her beads are made from lapis lazuli, jet and turquoise, confirming that even 5,000 years ago Sarazm was already trading with Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent. The beads are on display in the National Museum in Dushanbe along with her bronze mirror: then as now, a girl had to make sure she looked her best.