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.

pamirs kushan gold amulet jewellery demeter
Gold amulet from the Bactrian Kushan period 1st-3rd centuries CE (Greek goddess Demeter?) - note the similarity to contemporary Gandharan representations of Buddha

Persian Empire

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.

White Huns

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.

Arab invasions

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 importance.

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: here.

The Earl of Dunmore - Travel in the Pamirs 1892-93: here.

See also the interesting story of the Sumantash stone: here
and The Tajik Pamirs: historical connections to China - Paper presented to the University of Fudan, Shanghai 24 May 2013 - here.

Soviet Union

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.

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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
In 1991, 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.

Humanitarian crisis
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 fundamentalists.

Peace Agreement
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 armed forces.

pamirs tajikistan civil war tank kalaihusain
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  



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.”

(From )

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.

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Visiting card from 1993 of the Chairman of the Council of People’s Deputies of “the Autonomous Republic of Badakhshan”

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 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 hiding.

For a summary of events during this period see here and here. Also critical report by Tajik NGO on 2012 government military operation in GBAO - see here and here.

There was again unrest in 2014, beginning with the killing of civilians. See here, here, here, and here.

The murder of foreign cyclists in 2018 led to a new crisis. See here and here. 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 here and here.


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 here.

My Bibliography for the Odyssey book can be downloaded here.

See also my section on Archaeology.

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 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 Bashri, 1997,; The 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.

Persian Empire

Alexander the Great / Kushan Empire

White Huns / Hephthalites / Sassanids


All text and photographs (c) Robert Middleton 2002

Web master Romanyuk Mikhail