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In their villages of clay and brushwood, the Tajiks walked in harlequin colours and a touch of defiant grace. Longest settled of all the Central Asian peoples, they had been driven from the Zerafshan valley and into the mountains by Arab and Turkic invasion almost thirteen centuries ago. They had intermarried with Mongoloids, but an Iranian physiognomy prevailed, and from village to village the faces changed. Some were inbred and delicate. They showed long, European features and heavy noses. Sometimes the hair curled russet or auburn above their high brows, and their faces shone with blue or green eyes. All the colour which had drained out of the Kirghiz towns returned on this side of the mountains. Even the old men glittered in gold-threaded quilts and bright-hued skull-caps: biblical patriarchs with dripping beards, who crouched still limber on their haunches by the wayside. Children sported embroidered shirts and dresses, and the lean, handsome women walked in fiercely brilliant gowns with their headscarves tied piratically around their foreheads.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

Inhabited at least since the Neolithic period and situated at the meeting point of numerous Silk Roads, it should come as little surprise that Tajikistan is a melting pot of ethnicities and that even those who claim to belong to a single ethnic group may in fact have a diverse genetic heritage.

It was only last century that ‘Tajik’ came to denote a distinct nationality. Despite their predominantly Persian ancestry, there has been so much ethnic blurring that it’s often hard to distinguish Tajiks from their Turkic neighbours (Tajik skullcaps closely resemble Uzbek, adding to the confusion). Pureblooded Tajiks tend to have thin southern European-looking faces, with wide eyes and a Roman nose.

Around 65% of Tajikistan's population (some 4.4 million people) are ethnically Tajik and give the country its name. They are by no means the only Tajiks, however: considerably more Tajiks actually live in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan (an estimated 8 million) due to the annexation of Badakhsan in the 18th century and the mass exodus to escape Soviet persecutions in the 1920s and '30s, and the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand (both now in Uzbekistan) also have Tajik-majority populations.

Tajiks are essentially Persians, the division between the two groups being the result of a 20th-century political decision. They consider themselves to be the oldest ethnic group in central Asia and trace their ancestry right back to the Bactrians and Sogdians. The Tajiks are not a homogeneous group, however, and are deeply divided on clan-based lines with strong regional affiliations and blood ties.

There are some recognisable ethnic subdivisions among the Tajiks. As well as the Pamiris, dwindling numbers of Yagnobis, direct descendants of the ancient Sogdians, survive in the mountain villages of the upper Yagnob Valley. Sogdian, the lingua franca of the Silk Road and last widely spoken in the 8th century, is still spoken by a few hundred Yagnobis. About 65% of Tajikistanis are Tajik, 25% are Uzbek, 3.5% are Russian and 6.5% are other groups. Much of the population of the eastern Pamirs are Kyrgyz, who arrived here from the Alay Valley in the 18th and 19th centuries.

With their Mediterranean features and the occasional green-eyed redhead, Tajiks like to tell visitors that their land was once visited by Alexander the Great and his troops, who are known to have taken local brides. Whether that blood is still visible or not, the Tajiks are in fact descended from an ancient Indo-European people, the Aryans, making them relatives of present-day Iranians. The term ‘Tajik’ is a modern invention. Before the 20th century, taj was merely a term denoting a Persian speaker (all other Central Asian peoples speak Turkic languages). Tracing their history back to the Samanids, Bactrians and Sogdians, Tajiks consider themselves to be the oldest ethnic group in Central Asia and one that predates the arrival of the Turkic peoples. There are in fact many Tajik subdivisions and clans (such as the Kulyabis and Khojandis), which is one reason why the country descended into civil war after the fall of the USSR.

Badakhshani or Pamir Tajik (sometimes called mountain Tajiks) are a distinct group, speaking a mix of languages quite distinct from Tajik and following a different branch of Islam. Most Tajiks are Sunni Muslims, but Pamiri Tajiks of the Gorno-Badakhshan region belong to the Ismaili sect of Shiite Islam, and therefore have no formal mosques. Most Badakhshani define themselves primarily according to their valley (Shugni, Rushani, Yazgulami, Wakhi and Ishkashimi), then as Pamiris, and finally as Tajiks.

Traditional Tajik dress for men includes a heavy, quilted coat (chapan), tied with a sash that also secures a sheathed dagger, and a black embroidered cap (tupi), which is similar to the Uzbek dopy. Tajik women could almost be identified in the dark, with their long, psychedelically coloured dresses (kurta), matching headscarves (rumol), striped trousers worn under the dress (izor) and bright slippers.

There are almost eight million Tajiks in northern, western and northeastern Afghanistan (about one quarter of the population). Afghani Tajiks follow a code of conduct called Abdurzadagai, similar to the Pashtun Pashtunwali but share closer ties to their valley than their ethnic group. Their language Dari (very similar to Tajik) served as the language of government for centuries, even while the reigns of government were dominated by Pashtuns. Tajiks, led by the war hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, dominated the mujaheddin and Northern Alliance governments in the 1990s. There are also around 33,000 Sarikol and Wakhi Tajiks in China’s Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County. Wakhi Tajiks also live in northern Pakistan.

UZBEKS The Uzbeks are a Turkic people who today comprise around 25% of Tajikistan's population (1.6 million people). They are mostly found in the west of Tajikistan around Gissar and Vakhsh, and also in the northern patchwork of territories that is the Fergana Valley (see Geography, page 3). It is likely they originated in southern Siberia and the Altai Mountains and came south in the wake of the Mongols in the early medieval period. The Uzbek community tends to be more urbanised than other ethnic groups, probably due to their history of conquest and trade in place of nomadism.

KYRGYZ Some 2.5% of Tajikistan's population are Kyrgyz, and most of these live in the eastern Pamir around Murgab, with another smaller group in the Wakhan Corridor. The origins of the Kyrgyz are distinctly hazy (indeed sources as late as the 19th century tended not to differentiate between Kyrgyz and Kazakh clans) but it is likely that, as with the Uzbeks, they migrated to central Asia from Siberia between the 10th and 15th centuries. The Kyrgyz language is Turkic and, though a few nomads do retain their traditional lifestyle, the majority of the population was forced to become sedentary (with great loss of life) by the Soviets.

RUSSIANS In the late 1980s Russians and other Slavic groups comprised around 10% of Tajikistan's population. Today they are little over 1% as many people returned 'home', even if they were born in Tajikistan, upon the break-up of the Soviet Union or fled to escape the violence of the civil war. The remaining Russian population is mainly based in Dushanbe (formerly Stalinabad) and Khujand (formerly Leninabad).

OTHER ETHNIC GROUPS The Soviet policy of deporting subversive and other undesirable elements to central Asia (the alternative place of exile to Siberia), mixed with a few self-orchestrated migrations, has left Tajikistan with notable populations of Koreans (more than half a million were deported to the region during World War II), Volga Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Dungans, Uighurs and even Kurds. Afghans have also fled across the border to escape the violence and to seek work. Though these groups have frequently intermarried, and many have now emigrated, it is still possible to hear snatches of their languages and, more importantly for those fed up with the ubiquitous shashlik, to feast on their various cuisines.