The territory of present-day Tajikistan was a crossroads for the
passage of the many different tribes and ethnic groups that controlled
Central Asia over the past 3000 years. Cimmerian and Scythian tribes,
several Persian dynasties, Macedonian/Greek armies under Alexander the
Great, Parthians, Bactrian Kushan, Huns, Hephtalites, Mongol hordes,
Nestorian Christians, Arabs, Russians, even British - all left their
mark on the region.
N.B. I have just put together a short anthology of my favourite pieces of travel
writing about the Pamirs that I have called Nuggets. You can download it
here. I welcome comments and suggestions for other items to include.
I have also added a section at the end of this page dealing with the critical events of
2012, 2014 and 2018 in Khorog.
Gold amulet from the Bactrian Kushan period 1st-3rd centuries CE (Greek goddess Demeter?) -
note the similarity to contemporary Gandharan representations of Buddha
From about 500 BCE until the Arab invasions, beginning in the 7th
century CE, shortly after the death of the prophet Mohamed, most of Central
Asia was under Persian influence or control. Bactria (today Balkh in
Northern Afghanistan) on the banks of the Oxus (now called the Amu Darya)
was the centre of Persian civilisation in Eastern Iran. The Persians
displaced the Scythian and Cimmerian nomadic tribes in the region. Afrosiab
(now Samarcand) was the centre of the region known as Sogdiana that
covered what is today Southern Uzbekistan and much of Tajikistan. The
cities of Samarcand and Boukhara, although today in the territory of
Uzbekistan, are centres of Tajik/Persian culture.
Alexander the Great
Alexander of Macedonia defeated the armies of the Persian Emperor
Darius II between 336-323 BCE and brought about the fall of the
Achaemenid Empire. Alexander subjugated Sogdiana but, in order to
promote the pacification of the conquered peoples, married Roxane,
daughter of a local chieftain. When Alexander died in 323 BE, the
Macedonian Empire broke up. After a long period during which Bactria
was ruled by Graeco-Macedonian satraps and subjected to frequent
invasions by nomadic Turkic hordes, the area fell under the control of
the Yuchi from what is now the Gansu region in Western China (Kushan
Empire) from the second century BE to the third century CE.
The Persian Sasanids (224-642 CE) destroyed the Kushan Empire and the
region reverted to Persian control.
In 400 CE a new wave of Central Asian nomads under the Hephthalites
took control of the region. According to Procopius' History of the
Wars, written in the mid 6th century, the Hephthalites or “White
Huns”, “are of the stock of the Huns in fact as well as in name:
however they do not mingle with any of the Huns known to us. They are
the only ones among the Huns who have white bodies....” If Procopius’
description is correct (and this is disputed by the accounts of other
travellers), the relatively large number of inhabitants of Gorno-Badakhshan
with blond hair and blue eyes may be related to this ethnic ancestry,
although other theories link these features with Scythian, Macedonian and
Russian ethnic stock.
The Hephthalites were defeated in 565 CE by a coalition of Sasanids
and Western Turks. The Sasanids took Bactria and the Western Turks
ruled over Sogdiana.
Soon after the death of the prophet Mohammed, Central Asia was invaded
successively by the Arabs of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties.
These conquests brought a flowering of Islamic thought, philosophy and
mysticism and stemmed Chinese expansion in Central Asia. However, Persian
influence remained strong, and new Islamic Persian dynasties sprang up, of which
the most important was that of the Samanids (875 to 999). The Samanid
period, marked by the scientific work of Muhammad al-Khorezmi, Abu-Nasr al-Farabi,
Zakariya al-Razi (Razes), Abu Ali Ibn Sino (Avicenna), Abu Reikhan al-Biruni
and the poetry of Abu Abdullak Rudaki and Abdulkosim Firdousi, made
a major contribution to the development of the cultural identity of the
peoples that were subsequently to call themselves Tajiks.
The defeat of the Samanids by the Turkic Ghaznavid dynasty in 999
marked the beginning of the decline in Persian influence in Central
Asia. From the end of the first century CE, there had been sporadic
westward movements of nomadic Turkic peoples from the area of what is
now Mongolia: the massive military invasions under the leadership of
Genghis Khan (Temujin - 1167?-1227) and Tamerlane (Timur-Lang -
1336?-1405) ended Persian dominance in the region. Largely due to the
protection provided by the mountainous terrain, the peoples of what is
now Tajikistan were better able to preserve their society and Persian
culture. While the languages of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and
Turkmenistan all have Turkic roots, Tajikistan is the only former
Soviet Republic with an Iranian language; music, dance and poetry in
the Persian tradition play a major role in Tajik society.
The ”Great Game”
Until the Soviet period, the territory of what is now Tajikistan was
part of the Emirate of Boukhara. In the latter part of the 19th century,
because of its geographical location at the confines of the Russian Empire
and contiguous to China and British India, the territory of Tajikistan –
especially the Pamir region of Gorno-Badakhshan – had considerable strategic
The “Great Game”, between Russian and British adventurers, soldiers
and diplomats – staking the limits of the respective Empires – was
largely played out in the mountains of the Pamir and the Hindu Kush.
Subsequently, at the time of the Soviet invasion and occupation of
Afghanistan (1979-1989), the Pamir region again assumed strategic
importance for the Soviet Union as one of the main supply routes for
the logistic support of Soviet military operations in Afghanistan.
My Pamirs section of the Odyssey guidebook Tajikistan and the High Pamirs
deals extensively with the period of the Great Game. Two chapters can be downloaded:
The Great Game - Myth or Reality:
The Earl of Dunmore - Travel in the Pamirs 1892-93:
See also the interesting story of the Sumantash stone:
and The Tajik Pamirs: historical connections to China - Paper presented to the University of Fudan, Shanghai 24 May 2013 -
After the 1917 Bolshevik coup d’état, communist power in Central Asia
was challenged by the remnants of the White Army and a strong
resistance movement organised by indigenous tribes (the so-called
“Basmachi” revolt); moreover, the embryonic Soviet state was faced
with vigorous opposition (including more or less covert support to the
Basmachis) from Britain, with imperial interests to defend in the
region. These concerns led to the determined military subjugation and
forced sovietisation of the native peoples of “Turkestan” in the
1920s. Under Stalin, the region – in particular the Fergana Valley,
the most fertile area in Central Asia – was divided in 1924 between
separate Soviet Republics in such a way as to maintain a mix of ethnic
groups, the tensions between which could be exploited to justify the
necessity of the strong centralising influence of the Soviet system.
Tajikistan, initially an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan, became
a federated Soviet Socialist Republic in 1929.
Main square in Khorog: statue of Lenin
opposite the University
The sovietisation of Central Asia, while imposing a degree of
communist orthodoxy, did not lead to the total destruction of local
culture and religion: the region was far from the centre, it comprised
a large number of backward rural communities where traditions remained
strong and, in addition, the government in Moscow found it politically
advantageous to pay a certain amount of lip service to the concept of
the “multicultural identity” of the Soviet Union.
Soviet rule brought economic and social benefits for the Republics of
Central Asia. Universal education and health services achieved a level
of literacy and public health far superior to that achieved in the
former British Empire just across the Wakhan Corridor to the South.
Subsidies from Moscow maintained a standard of living and social
services that bore little relationship to the actual economic
development of the region.
In November 2009 the Tajik media group ASIA-Plus published a nostalgic
collection of photos of Dushanbe and its people during the late Soviet period. See
here. I like especially
the two photos of the bridge over the Dushanbe river in 1930 and 1980.
Independence and civil war
Tajikistan was the poorest of the Soviet Republics. When the Soviet
Union broke up in 1991, Tajikistan became an independent state but was
immediately faced with the economic problems associated with the
breakdown of the centrally planned Soviet economy: withdrawal of
subsidies, disruption of former guaranteed markets, exchange
instability etc. Today Tajikistan ranks as one of the poorest
countries of the world.
In 1992 civil war broke out. Its causes are complex and relate to some
extent to the previously mentioned ethnic (and regional) tensions that
were the legacy of the boundaries attributed to the new Soviet Republics
in 1924, but also to premature attempts - imitating the policies
implemented under Gorbachev in Russia - to liberalise the Tajik
political system. At the end of the Soviet period, power in Tajikistan
was tightly guarded by representatives of the Leninabad district in the
North. Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost led to demands in Tajikistan
that other regions of the country should also participate on equal terms
in the political process and that the communist party should abandon its
monopoly of political power in favour of a multiparty system.
1991 Presidential elections
Tajikistan was the first ex-Soviet Republic to hold free elections: not
totally free, of course, and probably subject to some manipulation, but,
in comparison with experience under the Soviet regime, nevertheless free.
The new "Democratic Party" had formed an alliance against the ruling
Communists with the "Popular Front" (Rastokhez) and the "Islamic Renaissance
Party", a moderate Islamic organisation that did not at the time agitate
for Sharia law or the introduction of "Islamic values" in society. The
opposition presidential candidate - Davlat Khudonazarov, a popular film-maker with origins
in Gorno-Badakhshan - was beaten by the communist candidate, but his
score of some 30% of votes put pressure on the government to open the
country to a multi-party system.
Refusal of power-sharing
Despite the moderating influence of Gorbachev, the Tajik regime was not
ready to face up to the profound changes implicit in the fall of the
Berlin wall in 1989 and refused power-sharing. This inflexibility led
to civil war.
With support from the southern region of Kulyab (and, it is claimed, of
the Russian military forces stationed in Tajikistan), the leaders of the
government faction defeated the opposition coalition forces recruited
essentially from fighters of Pamiri (Gorno-Badakhshan) and Garmi
(Karategin/Rasht) origin. Large numbers of people from these mountainous
regions had been relocated in the 1950s to the cotton-growing areas of
the south-west (Kurgan-Tyube); in Dushanbe, the capital, many of the
intellectual elite were of Pamiri origin.
Exactions against these ethnic
groups in the aftermath of the civil war forced large numbers to return
to their traditional homeland. Many fighters fled to Afghanistan and
subsequently returned with fundamentalist ideas gained there in the
refugee camps, mainly to the Karategin valley but also to a few
predominantly Sunni areas in the North of Gorno-Badakhshan. The result
was a sharp polarisation of national politics and the radicalisation
of the Islamic Renaissance Party.
The civil war compounded the economic disruption caused by the
break-up of the Soviet system and the people of Gorno-Badakhshan and
the Karategin/Rasht valley found themselves virtually isolated. This
national crisis was largely ignored by the international community:
few had even heard of Tajikistan, fewer still knew where it was located, and
most considered that it was a problem in Russia’s backyard of little
relevance to the West. Those few serious newspapers that reported a
little of what was going on too easily adopted the cliché of a
conflict between former hard-line communists and Islamic
The civil war continued at relatively low intensity – mainly through
sporadic cross-border incursions from Afghanistan – until June 1997,
when a peace agreement was signed between the government of Tajikistan
and the United Tajik Opposition. This agreement opened the way for an
interim “power-sharing” government and Presidential and Parliamentary
elections; it provided also for the integration of opposition forces
into the regular armed forces of Tajikistan.
In November, President
Emomali Rahmon was re-elected for a seven-year term, and, in March
2000, elections were held for the upper and lower houses of
parliament, in which the former opposition parties did not make a
strong showing (around 10% of votes).
Although the speed in reaching agreement was undoubtedly influenced by
the unstable situation in Afghanistan, the peace accord was
nevertheless a remarkable achievement; its subsequent relatively
problem-free implementation is even more remarkable. After a civil war
characterised in its opening stages by extreme brutality (cf the
Amnesty International report Tadzhikistan – Hidden terror:
political killings, ‘disappearances’ and torture since December 1992,
May 1993) the integration of former fighters in the national armed
forces and in civil life has been exceptionally smooth: the process
can indeed be held up as a model for other inter-community or ethnic
conflicts in countries with considerably higher economic and social
resources than Tajikistan.
Despite occasional “incidents”, the peace
process has so far been remarkably successful and the former
opposition seems to have accepted its poor electoral showing without
protest. Tajikistan today offers one of the few examples in the modern
world of the full integration of opposition fighters into regular
Tank in riverbed
near Kalaihussain – the furthest point in Gorno-Badakhshan reached
by government troops during the civil war: a symbol of futility
The Tajik civil war resulted directly from laudable efforts to promote
pluralism and was not – as a reading of the
contemporary Western press might have led readers to conclude
– a conflict between neo-communists and Islamic fundamentalists. The
eyes of Western journalists were turned towards other man-made
tragedies closer to home in Bosnia and Somalia: Tajikistan was
described in simplistic clichés for readers already saturated with
disasters. Moreover, then as today, the cliché of the threat of
Islamic fundamentalism served the interests of those major powers that
wished to maintain or extend their power and influence in Central Asia.
Regrettably, much of the world press continues to be obsessed with
fears of Islamic fundamentalism in the whole of Central Asia without
distinguishing between the very different situations of each Republic.
While the economic situation in Tajikistan remains probably more
precarious than in any other former Soviet Republic, the exceptionally
high level of literacy and secular education achieved under the Soviet
Union and the political maturity shown by leaders of both government
and opposition give ground for some optimism that Tajikistan may
ultimately prove more stable than its neighbours. If, on the other
hand, the international community withdraws from engagement in the
development of the country and its institutions from fear of Islamic
fundamentalism, this fear may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Contrary to many people's expectations, President Rahmon has brought
a remarkable degree of stability to Tajikistan and has so far succeeded in
balancing (and outmanoevering) the various factions and interest groups.
However, the International Crisis Group (ICG), which reports regularly
on the political situation in Tajikistan, points in its report of May 2004
("Tajikistan's Politics: Confrontation or Consolidation") to signs that
this balance may now be precarious and suggests that there is an imminent
danger of a return to factionalism. For this and other excellent reports
on Central Asia, see the ICG website
HISTORY OF GORNO-BADAKHSHAN
Badakhshan, sometimes spelled "Badakshan", was known by medieval Arab and
European writers as "Balascian"; the name "balas" ruby, mentioned by Marco Polo,
is still found in gemmology and defines the "lale badakhshan" that was
then considered the finest form of ruby (technically spinel) and is still
mined in Gorno-Badakhshan.
In his book Marco Polo (Faber 1959) Maurice Collis writes of
Marco Polo’s visit to Badakhshan, where he recuperated from an
illness: “Balkh, besides being a symbol of the extreme limit of Greek
civilization, was a place beyond which there came a geographical
change. The tangled mass of mountains, called the Roof of the World
and which includes the Pamirs and the Hindukush, towered up to the
east of it, and to cross them was a greater undertaking than anything
the travellers had faced as yet. But among the mountains they found a
tableland called Badakhshan which was a delightful place. ‘It’s a hard
day’s work to get to the top,’ writes Polo, ‘and there you find a wide
plain covered with grass and trees.’ Through this parkland flowed
streams of sparkling water full of trout. The air was so pure that the
plateau was regarded as a sanatorium by those living in the valleys,
and a visit there cured you of a fever. ‘I have proved this by
experience,’ Polo continues, ‘for when in those parts I had been ill
for about year, but on visiting the plateau, as I was advised to do, I
recovered at once.”
The Pamir region (Gorno-Badakhshan) was incorporated into the Tajik
Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in 1925. Prior to this it had been de
jure under the Emirate of Boukhara but – since the end of the 19th
century - de facto under direct Russian rule.
“Politically, the Pamir peoples have always been heterogenous.
Formerly the Yazgulami, for example, were connected with Darvaz
through Vandzh, belonging, as did the latter, to the state of Darvaz.
The speakers of the Shughni-Roshani languages constituted the states
of Shughnan and Roshan. In the 18th century Roshan became a vassal to
the Shughnan, both contending against their closer neighbours,
Badakhshan and Darvaz and alternately falling under the supremacy of
one or the other. Bartang, at the time, was part of the state of
Roshan. Shughnan and Vakhan were constantly at war with each other
over Ishkashim where ruby deposits are to BCE found. From the late 16th
century the small Pamir states were occasionally vassal-states to
Bukhara. In the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century the nomadic
Kirgiz tribes caused the Pamir peoples hardship, cutting them off from
the cultural and trade centres in the Kashgar and Fergana valleys. In
the second half of the 18th century Afghanistan's interest in the
Pamir began to grow. In 1883 the Emir of Afghanistan, supported by the
British, seized Vakhan, Shughnan and Roshan. By the second half of the
19th century Russia had seized most of Central Asia, including the
East Pamir. In 1868 Russia established a protectorate over the Bukhara
Khanate. In 1895 Russia and Britain came to an agreement over the
border in the Pamir, according to which the left banks of the Roshan,
the Shughnan and the Vakhan went to Afghanistan. The right banks were
ceded nominally to the vassal of Russia, the Emir of Bukhara. The
border divided the ethnic territories between two countries. In 1905,
real power went to the commander of the local Russian military force.
Soviet power was wholly established by the end of 1921. In 1925 a
Pamir District was established in Badakhshan, an area that had been
left to the U.S.S.R. Later in the same year this area was renamed the
Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and placed under the jurisdiction
of the Tadzhik SSR, with Khorog as the administrative centre.”
Within the Tajik SSR, Gorno-Badakhshan became an autonomous Oblast
(province). At the height of the civil war in 1993, the Gorno-Badakhshan
parliament decided to declare the Oblast an independent Republic and
seek re-incorporation in Russia.
Visiting card from 1993 of the Chairman of
the Council of People’s Deputies of “the Autonomous Republic of
Contrary to misleading press reports
that continue to today, Gorno-Badakhshan was not at any time since
1992 a home or hotbed of hardline Islamic opposition. Some parts of
Gorno-Badakhshan were indeed occupied by armed opposition groups until
the Peace Agreement was signed (Sagridasht and the Vanch and Yazgulom
Valleys) but did not serve as a base for launching attacks either on
government troops or Russian border guards: most such attacks came
from across the frontier in Afghanistan. Many Pamiris fought in the
civil war alongside the followers of the Islamic Renaissance Party and
created their own militia. In 1995, however, the leaders of the Pamiri
militia gave a solemn undertaking to His Highness the Aga Khan,
spiritual leader of a large number of Pamiris, that they would never
initiate hostilities against the State or the Russian forces. Despite
much provocation – including the poisoning of their leader, Majnoon
Palaev, in June 1996 – this undertaking was respected.
The website of the Aga Khan Development Network
www.akdn.org gives examples of development activities that
have contributed to stability in the Pamir region and helped to
prevent a slide into “warlordism” and drug dependence. Under these
programmes many former fighters have been successfully re-integrated
into civil society as farmers or small businessmen – AKDN can claim
with some justification that Pamiri society has witnessed the
conversion of “kalashnikovs into ploughshares”.
Unrest and military invasion of GBAO: 2012, 2014 and 2018
On 24 July 2012 the Tajik government sent heavily armed troops (from the
Presidential Guard, the Interior Ministry, the State Committee for National Security
GKNB - formerly the KGB - and the elite ‘Alfa’ commando unit - according to a
government statement), armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships to Khorog, the
capital of the Pamirs region (autonomous province of Gorno-Badakhshan - GBAO)
nominally to apprehend the alleged murderers of Abdullo Nazarov, head of the
regional branch of the GKNB. Nazarov died in unauthenticated circumstances near
Khorog on 22 July. The government accused Tolib Ayombekov, a local border guard
officer, and others connected to him, of the alleged murder.
A full-scale assault, with snipers posted on high ground around the town was
launched on Khorog districts in which the alleged murderers were suspected to be
For a summary of events during this period see
Also critical report by Tajik NGO on 2012 government military operation in GBAO - see
There was again unrest in 2014, beginning with the killing of civilians. See
The murder of foreign cyclists in 2018 led to a new crisis. See
In October, Yodgor Faizov, formerly head of the Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan was
appointed acting Governor and seems to be succesful in keeping the situation calm. See
As a co-author, I am of course bound to recommend Tajikistan and the High Pamirs -
a Companion and Guide, the second edition of which was published by Odyssey Publications in September 2011. It is today the only
English-language guide devoted exclusively to Tajikistan produced for the international market - see
My Bibliography for the Odyssey book can be downloaded
See also my section on
By far the best Internet resource for historical
research on Central Asia is the "Silk Road Seattle" project at the
University of Washington
The site includes digitized historical texts and very useful overview maps.
Perhaps surprisingly, the US Defense Department has an impressive website
on the history and archaeology of Afghanistan, much of which is valid for Tajikistan.
The site is part of a project for the safeguarding of cultural property - cynics may
say too little too late, but the information given on the site is concise and serious,
and the intention excellent.
The French Société de Géographie has also digitized a number of their 19th century
Proceedings that deal with the exploration of the Pamirs. These can be researched
and downloaded (pdf format) from
http://gallica.bnf.fr/. Click on the button "Recherche"
and enter "Pamir" in the box labelled "Recherche libre".
In addition to web searches on historical references in this summary,
the following books are useful: History of Civilizations of Central Asia,
UNESCO, Paris 1996; The Resurgence of Central Asia, Ahmed Rashid, Zed Books,
London 1994; Samanid Renaissance and Establishment of Tajik Identity, Iraj
Great Game, Peter Hopkirk, London 1990; Tajikistan: Disintegration or
Reconciliation? Shirin Akiner, London 2001; Rand Corporation, US and
Russian Policymaking with Respect to the Use of Force, California 1996
– Chapter 3 Tajikistan by Arkady Dubnov
Aid to Tajikistan, Ernest Greene, Central Asia Monitor 4/1993.
Alexander the Great / Kushan Empire
White Huns / Hephthalites / Sassanids
All text and
photographs (c) Robert Middleton 2002
Web master Romanyuk