Pajakent | Tajikistan Travel Guide
Panjakent is more than just another Silk Road settlement, as it lay at the centre of the Sogdian Empire.
The Sogdian was an ancient Iranian civilization encompassing Samarkand, Bukhara, and Shahrisabz it existed from 6th century BC to 11th century AD.
Panjakent made its first mark in history when mentioned in early Iranian Achaemenid records from the 6th century BC. However, the town wasn’t to grow and flourish until the 5th century AD, when it was at the heart of commerce and a place of trade for local businessmen and landowners.
Money was also made here as the river was a source of gold (as it is today). The surrounding valleys were and still are some of the most fertile for many miles.
As the town grew, beautiful frescoes were added to the houses, and this thriving town became home to Zoroastrian temples, Buddhists, Manicheans, and Nestorians. Unfortunately, in 722 this was all to end as the Arabs completed their two-year siege, and conquered not only Panjakent but the whole Sogdian region.
During the Arab onslaught much of the town was destroyed, some people remained, some fled whilst a few chose to follow the last Sogdian ruler, Dewashtich. Dewashtich famously retreated into the mountains from where he waged a guerrilla war against the invading army but was later captured and crucified.
Panjakent limped on for around another 50 years eventually its remaining residents abandoned this thriving town. Its houses, temples, and streets were left deserted to slowly crumble and decay. This is not the end of the story however, as Arab geographers once again mentioned Panjakent in the 10th century. Panjakent has grown once more, its location slightly nearer the river, and it gets a mention as it has a mosque now.
A mosque defines a settlement as a town and not a village, also noted for Panjakent by the Arabs was the quality of its walnuts (some things haven’t changed).
From this point the history of Panjakent is very much tied to the rest of the region, eventually becoming part of Tajikistan when its borders were defined during the Soviet Union.
Although this was to have an added benefit as it meant that the history of Panjakent was to surface again. From 1947 a team of Russian archaeologists led by Y. Yakubovsky, A. Belenitsky and B. Marshak of the Ermitage Museum in St. Petersburg were to begin their work.
Slowly uncovering Panjakent’s lost past; Marshak was to spend over 50 years here.
This has meant that a lot of the stunning frescos have now ended up in either museum in St Petersburg or Dushanbe.
The Panjakent of today is a slightly sleepy affair, the entrance to the town lacks a certain wow factor and you may almost feel as though you are passing another village. If it weren’t for the addition of newly glazed buildings, the larger market place and an impressive mosque you might just sail through to Uzbekistan. There is no doubt about it Panjakent is certainly a one-road town everything happens along the main street, accommodation, restaurants, markets, museums, and shops. It's et to grow again.
Panjakent did suffer during the rocky relationship between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Being a border town with no border to cross came as a bit of a blow. Since the thawing of relations, it looks as though more trade has already started as well as cross border tourism. This can only be good news as there is so much to see in the small sleepy corner of the world.
Panjakent has been known by various names.
This is not only due to its proximity to the famous city at 50KM; Panjakent was the last city on the way from Samarkand when travelling east to the Kukhistan Mountains.
After 722 AD ancient Panjakent was left deserted and not touched again frozen in time awaiting its modern discovery.
This was the original name of Panjakent and has the same meaning as its current variation, 5 villages or settlements.
When travelling inside Tajikistan, the drive from either Khujand or Dushanbe is simply amazing, both meeting at the crossroads in the town of Anyi.
From Anyi the road follows the Zerafshan valley and river, skirting mountains and cutting through steep river valleys the early parts of this journey are not for the faint-hearted. Around 1 hr from Panjakent, the Zerafshan valley opens up to lush green fields flanked on either side by mountain ranges.
The Panjakent summers are a hot Mediterranean affair a welcome break from other areas in the country normally in the mid-’20s. The winter months normally see temperatures around 0 or a little below.
The best times to visit are late spring throughout summer especially if planning to hike in the surrounding mountains, where temperatures will be lower.
How to get to and travel around Khujand.
Buses/ cars to and from Dushanbe (5 hours) depart from a small station east of the central market building.
The drive to Dushanbe is amazing and a real journey, care should be taken though due to the journey being affected because of seasonal weather and Tajik driving. This journey will take you through the notorious tunnel of death.
Once in Dushanbe or coming from most busses stop just past the Cement Factory, if using a personal car they may take you to or near your destination.
There is a small airport in Panjakent although at the time of writing there are currently no regular services using this airport. Now the border has opened this may change in the future.
Buses/ cars to and from Khujand (5 hours) depart from a small station east of the central market building.
As of March 2018, the border is now open, a. taxis from outside the market building are normally happy to take, the journey will take a little under 30 mins. It’s important to make sure you have the correct Uzbek visa.
As you may have guessed this town has a lot to offer, especially if you’re into ancient history.
This is truly a must-see in Panjakent even if you have just an afternoon or morning. This archaeological site contains the surprisingly well-preserved ruins of ancient Panjakent - a walled city which stood 2500-years ago and was an important trading city on the Silk Road.
Now only ruins are left especially as the walls were constructed of clay bricks. Once you start exploring however you will see fragments of colored pottery scattered on the ground, you may even manage to make out parts of the city. This area is even better with one of the local guides who will be able to truly bring the site to life. The views across new Panjakent, the Zerafshan River and mountain range are also pretty tasty too.
Note more ruins I hear you say!
Located 15km west of Panjakent on the way to the Uzbek border lays another important archaeological site. Sarazm is around 5 500 years old, it is remarkable for both its size and its age believed by many archaeologists to be the precursor to Samarkand and possibly one of the world’s first trade centres. The ongoing excavations show the layout of a complex settlement. Looking down from above these covered pits reveal walls, doorways, and streets. It is still possible to see what was eaten at the time as small bones and funeral offerings are uncovered. This complex is now a listed UNESCO site which adds to its importance.
As you may have guessed we do like an ageing museum, especially one from the Soviet Union. This one does not disappoint, you will be required to put velvet covers over your shoes, there will also be a woman following you to make sure nothing is amiss. You will finish a visit here in the badly stuffed animal room, although it’s what’s in-between that truly counts.
The Museum offers up a glimpse of the frescoes which were once uncovered in ancient Panjakent, few are original here the ret reproductions.
There are also relics and other discoveries such as funeral offerings and jewelry from local ladies of the time. Near to the end of the museum are also some pretty decent artefacts from the more modern soviet history.
This bustling market cannot and should not be missed, sitting on a bend in the road as you enter the town. Its entrance is comprised of eye-catching yellow brickwork, and always busy with locals coming and going. If you are interested in local life, photography, shopping or just out for supplies then this is for you. In my opinion, the market in Panjakent is one of the friendliest markets in the country, do treat people with respect, ask before photographing and have a laugh and a joke.
Those interested should head to the centre of the market to visit the picturesque central building which houses markets core traders. Try some of the region's famous walnuts and apricots along with some of its fresh honey.
This restaurant is located next to a small local food market; the food is basic not aimed at tourists but hot and fast. It’s a point and grab affair what's on offer is what they have, some Russian pasties and roasted chicken were the best of the pick on my last visit, they managed to rustle up some fried potatoes which gave a pleasant lunch.
This is a more staged homestay affair located on the backstreets of the town it is well worth the visit. Set in an old-style wooden house the owner has collected a plethora of old Tajik items making it even more interesting. Once inside the family prepares a series of courses including salad, soup, and Plov. The Plov here is some of the best I have had in the region.