Jizzakh was an important Silk Road junction on the road connecting Samarkand with Fergana Valley. It grew up as a trading post at the crossroads between Samarkand and the Fergana Valley, a gateway to Western riches. Anxious to control the valuable trade passing through, it was fortified in turn by the Sogdians, the Arabs and the Bukharan Khanate. It is at the edge of Golodnaya Steppe, and next to the strategic Pass of Jilanuti (Timur's Gate) in the Turkestan Mountains, controlling the approach to the Zeravshan Valley, Samarkand and Bukhara.
The name Jizzakh derives from the Sogdian word for "small fort" and the present city is built of the site of the Sogdian town of Osru-shana. Others say the name has been described as 'Key', for it controlled the strategic Pass of Jilanuti in the nearby Turkestan range, gateway to the famed riches of the Zerafshan Valley, Samarkand and Bukhara. It was a large settlement in the medieval principality of Usrushana, whose chief town was based on the ancient Sogdian city Bunjikath, present-day Penjikent in Tajikistan.
After the Arab conquest of Sogdiana, Jizzakh served as a market town between the nomadic raiders and settled farmers. Each required the other's products, crops and clothing or meat and horses, but too often the nomads came for plunder rather than trade. As a result to counter those frequent attacks the Arabs built a series of rabats (blockhouses) at Jizzakh, housing volunteers known as ghazis ('warriors for the faith') to protect the people. Dzhizak was a rallying-point for these fighters of infidels, for whom many rabats were built.
By the 19th century, these blockhouses had evolved into a major fortress for the Emirate of Bukhara. Russian General Mikhail Chernyayev, the “Lion of Tashkent” failed in his first attempt to take Jizzakh, but succeed in his second try, with a loss of 6 men, against 6000 dead for the defenders. The old town was mostly destroyed, its remaining inhabitants evicted, and Russian settlers brought in. Colonialism brought the railway and a slackening of caravan trade. In 1916, Jizzakh was the center of an anti-Russian uprising, which was quickly suppressed. In 1917, Jizzakh most famous native son, Sharof Rashidov, future secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, was born.
Modern Jizzakh is quietly tree-lined European, with almost nothing remaining of the pre-Rashidov era.
Almost nothing is left of Dzhizak's past: what you see is a 20th-century industrial town. Locals claim Dzhizak was merely earth and sky before the Rashidov era, when they say he even planned to make it the republican capital. Tree-lined avenues now mark a city devoid of antique appeal, but one which offers a quietly industrial picture of contemporary Uzbek life. There is no much to see in the town unless you are to be a rare species of true fan of Rashidov and his legacy. Rashidov Square and the Rashidov Memorial Museum are both named in honour of Sharaf Rashidovich Rashidov despite his subsequent fall from favour.
At the centre of Rashidov Square there is president Rashidov's bust, Rashidov Garden adjacent to decaying oversized Hotel Uzbekistan. Rashidov Garden is featuring a chaikana and a two-storeyed madrassah founded in 1890 but used as a theatre in Rashidov's time. Independence restored it to religious use. Nearby is Rashidov's school and, a little further up Sharaf Rashidov Street, is the Sharaf Rashidov Memorial Museum (closed on Sundays), bursting with memorabilia from peasant childhood to Soviet statehood. Photos, paintings, embroideries and ceramics tell the official story. Pride of place goes to a stuffed crocodile presented by an admiring Fidel Castro.
Dzhizak's second most famous son, the gifted Uzbek poet and writer Hamid Alimjan (1909-1944). His life and works are on display in photos, paintings and literature in Memorial Museum up Sharaf Rashidov Street. In 1938 Alimjan wrote Zaynab and Aman, a story poem of love and women's liberation on a Soviet Uzbek collective farm. Promoting modernism over traditionalism, it was at heart a popular love story and the author's death six years later in a Tashkent traffic accident was much mourned. In 1958 his poetess widow turned the text into an opera.
The two reasons you might come to (or through) Dzhizak are both located out of the city. Timur Darvaza (Timur's Gates) mark the narrow opening to the Zarafshan Mountains, the bottleneck that numerous soldiers have sought to defend (or at least died trying). Ulug Beg left an inscription here to mark his triumphant return home in 1425; other historic inscriptions are sadly hidden amongst the modern graffiti. Although the site itself is in some ways unimpressive (there are no structures to see), it's a place charged with history and you can easily appreciate its strategic importance in keeping invading hordes at bay. The Dzhizak-Samarkand minibuses pass right by, so it's easy to jump off, take a look, and hop back on the next one passing through.
The Zaamin National Park is 75km southeast of Dzhizak, along an uninspiring road that traverses a dusty steppe and former collective farms before taking a last minute turn up into the rolling hills and snow-capped mountains that ring Tajikistan. The oldest national park in Uzbekistan (founded in 1926), it covers around 460km2 of apricot orchards, juniper forest and alpine meadow and is crisscrossed by four rivers, the Aldashmansoy, Baikungur, Guralsh and Kulsoy.
Tashkent to Dzhizak
Christened the V.I. Lenin Great Uzbek Highway, the four-lane M-39 strikes out southwest from Tashkent to follow silken routes to Samarkand, Shakhrisabz and, far to the south, Termez on the Afghan border. Some 64 kilometres from Tashkent, the road reaches Chinoz on the right bank of the Syr Darya. Here, in the last century, ferrymen rowed passengers on the hours crossing of the great expanse, while tsarist merchants pictured roaring river trade on Aral Sea steamships. The railway finally crossed the Syr Darya in 1895, linking Tashkent to Samarkand and the Trans Caspian line. Poor navigation on the shallow river forced abandonment of trade plans and Chinaz was turned to intensive cotton production, draining precious water resources. Earlier travellers bound for Dzhizak then faced a perilous journey across an arid zone the Russians called the Golodnya, or Hunger Steppe. The Buddhist monk Xuan Zang encountered it on his classic Silk Road pilgrimage from China to India in the seventh century:
We enter on a great sandy desert, where there is neither water nor grass. The road is lost in the waste, which appears boundless, and only by looking in the direction of some great mountain, and following the guidance of the bones which lie scattered about, can we know the way in which we ought to go.
Although irrigation and cultivation projects were underway in tsarist times, it took Soviet mass mobilization to effect the transformation one views today.
Getting there Dzhizak is just 203km and 95km from Tashkent and Samarkand respectively along the M39 or M34, but if you don't have your own vehicle then getting there can be a bit of a drag on account of the fact that the intercity bus stand is 10km out of the city on the M39 highway. The minibus ride to Tashkent takes 2,5 hours and costs US$3; the journey to Samarkand is just over an hour and costs US$2.