Istaravshan, Tajikistan

Istaravshan, Tajikistan is one of the oldest cities in the world, having celebrated its 2500th birthday in 2002. This town of 65,000 inhabitants, strategically located on the road between Dushanbe and regional capital Khujand, has witnessed the rise and fall of countless rulers and empires who have all played a hand in shaping Istaravshan into the resilient, traditional city that it is today.

Nestled in northern Tajikistan near the foothills of the Turkestan Mountain Range, the city is elevated nearly 1000 meters above sea level. The climate is mild, with snowy winters and dry, cool summers. Istaravshan borders Uzbekistan in the north and west, the Gancha district in the east, Kyrgyzstan in the southeast, and the Ayni District of Tajikistan in the south.

The city was first established between the 6th-5th centuries BC by the Persian King Cyrus. Originally called Kiropol, a derivation of ‘Cyrus’, Kiropol owes its origins, in part, to the growth of craft production and trade in the region. By the time Alexander the Great conquered Central Asia in the 4th century BC, Kiropol was already a large, well-fortified city, and it was near the city walls of Kiropol that Alexander the Great was wounded for the first time.

In retaliation for frequent uprisings, Kiropol (Istaravshan) was destroyed by order of Alexander the Great, only to reappear in the annals of history in ensuing years under different dynasties. In the 9th-10th centuries the city flourished under the Tajik Samanid Dynasty, of which Penjikent was the capital. The city underwent remarkable architectural development and held regional sway as a Silk Road stopover. In the 13th century the city was again ravaged, this time by the army of Genghis Khan.

As the Timurid Dynasty rose in power the following century, Istaravshan again grew in prominence and enjoyed peace for 200 years. It was during this time, in the 15th century, when the city was first called Ura-Tyube, a name which it retained until the year 2000. Ura-Tyube’s third era of demise was ushered in during the 16th century when new political alliances in the region led to key trade networks being re-routed to bypass the city.

With the passing of time and changing of political and regional circumstances, Ura-Tyube saw a second renaissance in the 18th century, perhaps most noted in the fortification of its city walls and ramparts. Ura-Tyube was joined in an independent feudal system with other cities in the region, including Khujand, Jizzakh and Penjikent.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Ura-Tyube lost a number of its territories to the Bukhara and Kokand khanates, and in 1866 was conquered by the Russian Empire. On a positive note, Russian rule over Ura-Tyube put an end to feudal warfare and the transition of Ura-Tyube from hand to hand. Agriculture, handicraft production, commerce and even wineries were developed in the city, and Ura-Tyube remained a noteworthy Tajikistan city for trade, horticulture and the arts well into the 20th century.

However, under the new regime skilled artisans differed little from peasants, with earnings barely sufficient to support their families. Despite strong resistance from the local feudal elite and reactionary Muslim clergy, the city continued to be molded according to Russian customs. Schools, hospitals, pharmacies, hotels, cinemas, women’s clubs and Bolshevik organizations were established, which contributed both to the development of city infrastructure and to the erosion of traditional values and ways of life.

The city was joined into the Soviet Union in the 20th century, and a present-day Tajiksitan map reveals essentially the same awkward boundaries that Tajikistan was dealt as a state within the USSR. Tajikistan remained subjugated to Russian rule until independence in 1991.

Today, Istaravshan is one of the key cities of the Sughd Region of Tajikistan and one of the largest centers of handicrafts in the region, with a special focus on woodworking, pottery and leather manufacturing. Local craftsmen are known for their unique artistic creations, some of whose works have been displayed in world exhibitions. Agriculture and winemaking are other notable sources of income for this inconspicuous town. Although Istaravshan may appear to be a town of little significance in the region today, the population retains a rightful respect for their city’s history and their significant cultural heritage.

Key Sights of Istaravshan, Tajikistan:

  • Istaravshan Bazaar - a large 3-story market selling everything imaginable.
  • Hazrat Shah Architectural Complex (18th- 19th centuries) - includes the Hazrat Shah Mausoleum, Khudayar Valami Mausoleum and Namazgah Mosque.
  • Mug Teppe - a fortress that marks the location of one of the oldest habitations in Istaravshan.
  • Giant Lenin Statue – in Istaravshan, Lenin remains ever-present in the form of a giant statue on the outskirts of the city.