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There has been a settlement at Gissar since the Stone Age, and it has to rate as one of the unluckiest sites in Tajikistan. Due to its important strategic location and commanding views along the valley, it has been destroyed no fewer than 21 limes: everyone from Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great (neither of whom would have gained those monikers had Gissar's residents had anything to do with it) to Ghenghis Khan, Timur and, finally, the Red Army, razed the town to the ground. Each time it had to be rebuilt almost entirely from scratch. As you might expect, only fragments of architecture remain from each of these painful periods in history.

What a nowadays tourist will see on a wide mountain-fringed plain are the remains of an 18th century fortress (working hours 8am-6pm), that was occupied until 1924 by Ibrahim Beg, the local henchman of the Emir of Bukhara. Once a basmachi stronghold, the fortress was destroyed by the Red Army and all that remains is a reconstructed stone gateway (Darvaza-i-Ark) in the cleavage of two massive grassy hillocks. A scramble up the hill on the right (the former residence of the beg, or landlord) offers excellent views. The fort is depicted on the 20 TJS note.

Still, the ancient fortress of Hissor is one of the most interesting places to visit in Tajikistan. The fortress is just outside the modern town of Hissor, 25km from Dushanbe, just off the main road going east to the Uzbek border. By car, take the M41 west of Dushanbe and then take the left fork in the road to Gissar. The total distance is just 20km and should take you no more than half an hour. If you are using public transport, take bus 8 from Ismoili Somoni to Zarnisar Bazaar on the western outskirts of Dushanbe, then the minibus to Gissar (TJS2; 30 minutes). Gissar bus station is on the eastern edge of the town, 5km from the fort, so you will need a shared taxi (TJS1 per seat; 10 minutes). Alternatively, there is a daily train service from Dushanbe to Gissar. Gissar train station is on the northern side of the town. The modern town has a fine new mosque, a bustling bazaar and a hamam (Turkish baths).

The reason for Gissar's existence, and its recurrent destruction, is Gissar Fort (08.00-18.00; TJS1), which is depicted on the TJS20 bank note.  Flattened most recently by the Red Army when they drove out Ibrahim Bek and his Basmachi followers in 1924, all that remains of the fort is the Darvaza-i Ark, an imposing stone gateway strongly reminiscent of the one marking the start of the Khyber Pass at Peshawar. If you climb to the top of the hill you can still make out the lines of the fortifications, though much of the rubble has been incorporated into other structures in the city.

In front of this gate is a a bent old mulberry tree which, legend has it, was bent by Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, during a fight with a local magician. The tree is decorated with votive ribbons. For a small fee, the local mullah, Said Abrorkhon, will turn up on his motorcycle and recount a legend. Sometime a long time ago, perhaps in the eighth century, there was an evil magician in Hissor called Kahkahu Jodu, who took a dislike to some Arab missionaries from the holy land, and killed them all but one. The survivor was taken by an angel to Mecca, and informed Ali, son-in law of the Prophet. Ali flew straight away on his horse Hazrat-i Poyi Dul-dul and landed on a mountain near Hissor. He created a tightrope, and arrived outside the walls. There he lent on the mulberry tree, causing it to bend over. He then fought with the magician for three days before killing him. Subsequently Ali set off on his magic horse for Badakhshan, where he converted the population to Islam. There is a holy well near the mulberry tree, dedicated to the Arab missionary who brought the news to Ali.

The fortress stands on a hill commanding the valley between two mountain ranges. There has been a settlement here since the Stone Age. The lines of the fortifications are clearly visible, and show the extent of a very large fortress. The gatehouse has been reconstructed, giving some idea of the scale of the walls. Outside the gates are two madrassas, the lower walls of a caravanserai and a sixteenth century shrine.

Due to its strategic position it had a violent history. It was destroyed twenty one times by invaders including Cyrus, Alexander, the Arabs, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and finally the Red Army. It was an important staging post on the branch of the Silk Road, which ran from Termez on the Amu Darya (Oxus), up the Rasht (Gharm) valley, through modern Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar and China.

Originally Hissor had been the capital of an independent khanate, but it was annexed by the Emirate of Bukhara and became the winter residence of the Kushbegi (Governor) of East Bukhara, a land stretching as far as the Chinese frontier i.e. modern Tajikistan. It retained a fair measure of independence and the local Kushbegi had high status as a key lieutenant of the Emir of Bukhara. Each summer the Kushbegi moved with his entire entourage to Karatagh in the mountains west of Dushanbe.

Visitors can explore the site for a small fee. The walls encompassed a large area, well defended at every point. There is a lake, and this with the wells, enabled defenders to hold out for considerable periods of time. On the site is a flat area now used at Navruz (the first day of spring, 21st March) for a great festival of buzkashi. Thousands come to watch the spectacle, and increasingly it is attracting foreign visitors. The game is more associated with northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the Tajiks play it enthusiastically and it is very popular in many parts of the country, as well as in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia. The game involves an indeterminate number of men on horseback wrestling over a decapitated goat. It requires great skill and strength from the rider and great manoeuvrability from the horses. The winner is the rider who deposits the carcass between two posts. Before this happens there is mayhem, with horses rearing and lurching, and whips cracking. Injuries to horses and riders are common.

Local champions also compete in gushtingiri (local wrestling) at holiday time.

Facing the fortress are two madrassas (Islamic schools), the older of which, the Madrassa-i Kuhna (facing the fortress gate) , dates from the 16th century and the 17th-century Medressa-i-Nau, a later overspill (nau means ‘new’). Inside Madrassa-i Kuhna is the Gissar Museum (08.00-18.00; TJS3), whose mildly interesting displays include an 1800-year old ceramic tomb discovered nearby. Exhibits are displayed inside each former hujra (student cell) and include an archaeological map of Tajikistan, a Bactrian column, jewellery and numerous pottery finds. Unusually, some information is available in English.

Each of the individual hujras, used by students for study and prayer, houses a different topic in the history of the area. In the former mosque are the main exhibits including a Bactrian column, catapult stones used by the Arabs, vast Ali Baba storage jars and a great range of pottery. There are short guidebooks in English.

The second madrassa, the Madrassa-i Nau (New Madrassa) is kept locked, but if you ask in the museum they will get you the key. Though the 19th century building is not terribly interesting, you can get up onto the roof relatively easily and from there enjoy the view. Look out for the remains of the towns caravanserai (next to the museum) in the former Registan Square front of the medressa, dating from 1808, and also the mausoleum of Mahdumi Azam, a Sufi preacher whose grave still attracts local pilgrims. You can also see the remains of the town taharatkhana (bath house). The remains of caravanserai are evidence of the importance of Hissor on the Silk Road. Within the old town walls, 200m from the museum to the south is the sixteenth century Mahdumi Azam mausoleum, commemorating a Sufi saint.

Though Gissar has no formal restaurants, there is an atmospheric and lavishly decorated chaykhona at the foot of the slopes around the fortress next to the museum serving laghman, shashlik and other small snacks as well, of course, as tea. There are also a number of food and tea stalls in Gissar Bazaar.

If you stay on the M41 rather than turning south to Gissar, you reach the town of Tursunzoda, named in honour of Mirzo Tursunzoda, and home of the Tursunzoda Aluminium Works, a smoke-belching industrial complex that still uses the Soviet technology installed in the 1970s. You are most likely to find yourself in Tursunzoda en route to or from the Uzbek border crossing to Denau.

Once a great silk-weaving centre, Karatag produced fine textiles for export to Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. Mirzo Tursunzoda was born here in 1911, but today the small town is really only used as a stepping-off point for treks into the Karatag Valley. Popular day hikes include the steep climb to the glacier-fed Timurdara Lake (1,970m above sea level), or the slightly longer route to Lake Payron. Both sites offer excellent opportunities for camping.

Continuing north, the Shirkent Valley forms the backbone of the Shirkent National Park. Founded in 1991 to protect areas of special scientific interest, the park has three sets of known dinosaur footprints (the largest of which contains more than 300 prints from Upper Jurassic-period sauropods and theropods), ancient copper and tin mines and a medieval necropolis. You will, however, need a knowledgeable guide to find these sites.

If you prefer to wander the park alone, there are excellent trekking routes through the gorge, impressive waterfalls and a large number of caves. The park's juniper forest is thriving in spite of heavy logging in the mid 20th century, and it is hoped that ibex and Marco Polo sheep can be reintroduced once livestock grazing is restricted to certain areas.

Getting There & Away - There are regular minibus services from Dushanbe. There is also a daily rail service. A combination of a minibus and train outing will give a flavour of the life of the market traders. To get here from Dushanbe, take bus 8 west on Ismoili Somoni to Zarnisar Bazaar, then a minibus or shared taxi to Hissar (30 minutes). In Hissar bazaar take a shared taxi across from the bazaar to the fort, some 7km further, past cotton fields. Ask for the qala (fortress; krepost in Russian).