18 km south from Kabodian is the town of Shahr-i Tuz. Deep in the south of Tajikistan, not far from the Afghan border, Shahr-i Tuz is famous for its cotton production. It is a convenient base from which to explore some of the country's most important historical sites, as well as the 44 springs of Chasma Chehel Chahor.
Shahr-i Tuz is just another pleasant town on standard Soviet lines; wide tree-lined streets and pretty parks. The Hukumat office is in the centre of the town. The former Soviet hotel is being renovated. There is a delightful museum with enthusiastic staff. Alongside exhibits of artefacts excavated locally and agricultural implements are not only photos of local heroes of the Second World War, but also propaganda photographs of Russian heroes and heroines - the kind of exhibit that has been taken down in most Central Asian museums.
There are three places of special interest near the town: Utapur Fortress, Khoja Sarboz mausoleum and Aywaj with remains of Nestorian Church.
40km from Shahr-i Tuz, near to the confluence of the Vakhsh and Amu Darya (Oxus) rivers, is the Temple of the Oxus, one of the earliest and most important archaeological sites in Tajikistan. If intending to visit, it is well worth first going to the Museum of National Antiquities in Dushanbe. In the foyer is the altar from this site, and other artefacts excavated. The finest pieces now in the National Museum were excavated here by Soviet archaeologists in the 1970s and '80s, and it is likely that the remarkable Oxus Treasure was also discovered in the vicinity. Whereas elsewhere in the world a site as significant as Takht-i Sangin would be overrun with visitors, here one could hardly see any tourists at all.
Between 1976 and 1991 Russian archaeologists excavated a temple on a citadel set within an enclosure of about 75 hectares. It used to be devoted to the Divinity of the river whose cult had existed there since the old days. The central columned hall of the temple was surrounded by storerooms containing more than 5,000 objects, dating from between the sixth century BC and the third century AD. The temple was apparently built right at the end of the Achaemenid period, but some of the objects derive from an earlier date. The magnificent Oxus Treasure is thought to have been found nearby. Local legend has it that Alexander worshipped at this temple.
Founded in the 6th century BC at the end of the Achaemenid period, this ancient settlement was centred on a fortified citadel. Inside was a monumental temple - the Temple of Oxus - with a columned hall encircled by two rows of corridors and finished with a Classical portico. The walls of the inner sanctum were an impressive 5m high, and in places they were 3m thick. The pillars would have been topped with Ionian finials, and there were numerous statues atop pedestals.
Central to the temple was a magnificent carved altar at which worshippers made offerings of coins, precious metals, artworks and ritual weapons. Almost 5,000 artefacts have been excavated, and they clearly show Hellenistic influence. Most likely those were the gifts of church-goers to the temple: the image of Alexander the Great as Hercules, the sheath with the image of a lion holding a fallow deer, chests facings made of ivory and decorated with carved drawings, the biggest collection of arrow tips in the Central Asia (more than 5 thousands), arms of Greek-Macedonian warriors. The fragments of gilt bronze helmets which looked like if made of pure gold were also found there. Discoveries of gold and ivory goods, fine glassware and alabaster also affirm the importance of Takht-i Sangin as a Silk Road trading post.
After all this time the archeologists and the scientists agree that there is a direct connection between Amu Darya Treasure ("the Treasure of Oxus") in the British Museum and "the Temple of Oxus" in Takhti Sangin since the place of treasures discovery and the location of the temple are the same, and all treasure items are of ceremonial value. It might have happened that the treasures were moved from the temple in troubled times and hidden nearby in the riverbank. The ruins of Takhti Sangin today can be seen in the picturesque valley of the rivers Panj and Vakhsh, and "the Temple of Oxus" treasures - in metropolitan museums.
The site is impressive, even though the artefacts have been removed and it is seldom visited. There are the excavation pits, with some dressed stone walls exposed, plinths of columns and a pit with the bones of animals sacrificed on the altar. The ancient writing on one of the stones turns out to be graffiti scratched by Russian soldiers. There is a range of hills behind, and across the reed beds of the Amu Darya lies an abandoned Afghan fort. The river cannot be reached because of a frontier fence. Just by the site is a watchtower, and a ruined gun emplacement, a reminder of the political sensitivities of this volatile region.
Getting there Takht-i Sangin is 37km from Shahr-i Tuz. From the town re-cross the Kafirnihan River to the north, and take a right turn after 200m. It is 4km to a cross roads, take the road to Chirik (6km), bear right and at 7km a T junction is reached. Turn left and left again after 2km. The tarmac ends and there is a road leading over a pass in the hills, with fine views over the Amu Darya. On reaching the bank Takht-i Sangin is 2km to the left, but visitors should turn right first to register at the military post at Takht-i Kulwad (2km). From the military post, drive along the track to Takht-i Sangin.
- KHOJA MASHAD
The Khoja Mashad complex is composed of two medieval mausoleums (the earliest dating from the first half of the 10th century) connected by a vaulted passageway. Both mausoleums are constructed from baked bricks that have been arranged in an attractive fir-tree pattern. It is one of those places in Tajikistan that surprise and delight. It is can be seen from the road and looks unimpressive, but when seen close up, it is marvellous. A twin-domed structure, which is much bigger than when first seen from a distance, has superb brickwork, illuminated by the openings at the top of the two domes. The buildings are 30 m high, and would once have been adorned with writings from the Quran in gold. It is set in pleasant gardens, with some mature trees. The guardians are very welcoming and will show some of the objects excavated from the site, such as medieval oil lamps. You may be asked to join them in a short prayer. One of the buildings has been restored externally, the other still shows the damage supposedly done by the troops of Genghis Khan. Next to the buildings are the remains of a medrassa, where Nasir Khusraw is reputed to have studied from 1026-1033.
Khoja Mashad was an Islamic missionary who came to Tajikistan in the late 9th century, most likely from Iran. He was a wealthy man and funded the establishment of a madrasah, where he was later buried. Local legend has it that Mashad's mausoleum appeared overnight by the will of Allah, though archaeologists may view this assertion with a little scepticism.
Outside the mausoleums is a large courtyard filled with graves, and the ruins of two domed structures and a mud-brick portal. The style of domes is typical of central Asian architecture prior to the Mongol invasion. The rows of hujras (narrow cells) along the edges of the courtyard likely housed the madrasah's students. Other rooms would have served as classrooms, a refectory and a mosque.
To reach Khoja Mashad, leave Shahr-i Tuz by the main road south to Termez. After 5 km there is a school on the right with a bust of Lenin in front, on the left is a building that looks like a mosque, turn left here. Go past another school on the right. Take the second left which takes you to the gates to Khoja Mashad.
- CHASHMA CHEHEL O CHAHOR (44 SPRINGS)
Just 8km from Shahr-i Tuz on the road to Biskent, Chasma Chehel Chahor is a lush oasis fed by 44 mountain springs. In the baking summer heat, hundreds of local people come for relief to a remarkable oasis in the arid landscape. There is a bus service. The Chashma consists of 44 springs feeding running water to a number of pools. The water is a consistent 14 degrees throughout the year. Willow and mulberry trees shade the pools, each reputedly good for curing different ailments. Nearby is a wooded area with picnic tables.
There are a number of legends about the springs, but they all have a common theme. Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, was travelling through the desert with his army. They were very thirsty. Ali was particularly concerned about his wounded groom, Bobokamber. Ali prayed in the night, and the next day he bent down to touch the ground. He touched 44 times and everywhere his fingertips touched the ground a spring gushed forth. Bobokamber recovered.
The pools are full of harmless snakes and a type of fish, about trout size, which is reputed to be unique to the pools and poisonous to eat.
Local legend has it that Marco Pole visited in 1376 and noted that a large tree would still be there in 500 years time. It is still there.
The local mullah, who has helped to revive this chashma after the Soviet period, is pleased to recount the legends about Ali. He has built a comfortable guesthouse nearby with a number of rooms for two to four people sharing. He makes no charge, but welcomes donations. In the gardens are some rare deer from the mountains.
On a small hill by the chashma is a gumbaz and the mausoleum of Ali's groom Bobokamber. The tomb is very large, befitting a man reputed to have been 5m tall.
In the spirit of local enterprise, water from the springs is being bottled and marketed as "Spring 44".
Today Chasma Chehel Chahor is an important local pilgrimage site. Muslims, in particular women and the elderly, come to pray for healing and to bathe in the numerous warm-water pools, which are believed to have curative properties. The small eels might catch you by surprise as they slip and slide around your legs, but we're assured they're perfectly harmless. It is also a popular picnic spot: mulberry and other fruit trees offer shade, while small children splash and shriek in the water.
A minibus makes the half-hour drive between Shahr-i Tuz and Chasma Chehel Chahor several times a day, and more frequently on holidays and at weekends.
OTHER PLACES OF INTEREST
- Utapur Fortress 10km from Shahr-i Tuz on the road to Vorohshiloh is the 15th century fortress of Utapur. Dating from the 1600s, Utapur is unusual amongst forts in Tajikistan by virtue of the fact that it has a moat, which would have been supplied with water from Chashma Chehel o Chahor. It was not attacked by the Red Army and is in a reasonable state of preservation. It has impressive walls with some fine carved alcoves. The walls are reasonably well preserved and the fine stone carvings indicate the skilled craftsmanship used in the fort's construction.
- Khoja Sarboz This is the remains of a mausoleum to one of seven holy brothers. It is on the main road south, on the right, just before the turning to Khoja Mashad. Some walls remain.
- Kabodion Named in honour of Kaboti Shahnour, a legendary king in Ferdowsi's Shahnama ('Book of Kings'), the modern town of Kabodion hides a medieval gem: the Kala-i Mir fortress. Covering 4ha, the fortress was occupied by local rulers until its destruction by the Red Army in 1921.
Although many of the archaeological finds are held by museums in Russia, the town museum has a few interesting pieces and the curator will also guide you around the fortress site. Unlike elsewhere in Tajikistan, no renovation has followed the excavation, but it is still possible to make out the gatehouses, strong defensive walls and living quarters.
The main road continues south to Aywaj, where it heads west to the Uzbek border. 18km from Shahr-i Tuz there is reported to be the remains of a Nestorian church in the foothills, 3km west of the main road.
Another 18km is the small town of Aywaj, with a significant Arab population of Tajik Arabs - i.e. local people who trace their ancestry to the coming of Islam. There is a mausoleum with walls standing and many votive offerings.