Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains are breathtaking, and have attracted a lot of skilled photographers in the past. High-quality coffee table books about Tajikistan are not in short supply: we highlight the best ones.
Good writing about Tajikistan is a different question. There are a few jewels, though. Good travelogues and historical and political accounts of Central Asia that include Tajikistan can be found in the Central Asia books section.
The best book on Tajikistan
Beyond the Oxus – Monica Whitlock
An absolute gem, this is the best book to introduce you to Tajikistan’s turbulent last 100 years. Whitlock builds the narrative around 3 generations of a single family, and explains the history and the culture of Tajiks in the process.
The center of gravity of the book is Tajikistan, but included are extended chapters on events in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, without which it’s impossible to understand the history of Tajikistan. Whitlock is a journalist, and she writes riveting reporting: describing the places she goes to, quoting the people she meets. The expert touch of a Central Asia old hand is all over.
Be aware that this book is not about the Pamir. Although Pamir looms large in the minds of tourists and photographers, it has had little impact on the history of Tajik society. The towns reported on are Tashkent, Khujand, Dushanbe, Qurghon Teppa, Samarkand, Bukhara, Termez, Herat, Kunduz and Mazar-e Sharif.
A terrific book that deserves to be more widely read, Beyond the Oxus is the best book-shaped introduction to Tajikistan you can hope to find.
Other good books on Tajik and Pamiri culture
With Our Own Hands
Winner of the World Cookbook Awards 2016, I have raved about With Our Own Hands before. This is not a cheap book, but if you are interested in the culture of the Pamir, you cannot do better than this cook book to end all cook books.
Food is at the heart of everything in Pamir, from the rhythm of daily life to the big festivities. Understand what grows in the Pamir, how it is prepared and how it is eaten and shared, and you will understand the Pamir.
The Hundred Thousand Fools of God: Musical Travels in Central Asia – Theodore Levin
Fascinating portrait of cultural life in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan just after the collapse of the Soviet Union by an erudite and talented ethnomusicologist. Completely different from what Monica Whitlock offered, this is nonetheless a very interesting read for those who want to dig a bit deeper into Tajik folk culture.
Hurramabad – Andrei Volos
Awarded with the Anti-Booker Prize in 1998, Hurramabad describes the bloody national strife and the eviction of Russians from Tajikistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Trekking in Tajikistan
The only guide to trekking in Tajikistan, the book covers 25 routes with 102 hiking days in the Fann and Zerafshan ranges of the north, the Western and Southern Pamir, and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. A trusted companion for anyone serious about exploring Tajikistan on foot.
Tajikistan and the High Pamirs (Odyssey Guides) – Robert Middleton
This is not a practical guide. The information is outdated and instructions for visiting a particular place are rarely very clear. However, it remains a must for any traveler with a deeper-than-average interest in Tajikistan. The book is absolutely unrivaled in its detail on the culture and history of Tajikistan.
It might not tell you exactly where an ancient mosque or petroglyph is, but it points you in the right direction. In the spirit of exploration, it’s up to you to go and find it. Filled with numerous asides and excerpts from ancient travelogues, this is still one of the best books to get for an in-depth view at Tajikistan, yesterday and today.
Bradt Guide to Tajikistan
While the original Bradt guide left much to be desired, subsequent updaters have added an extra 100 pages to make this a much more usable guide with a lot of helpful travel tips that you won’t find in the small space Lonely Planet gives to Tajikistan. Published in 2020.
Coffee table books
Tajikistan: People and Landscapes – Nicolas Pernot
If people ask you: what is a Pamir?, show them this book. As promised, wonderful pictures of the people and the landscapes of the Pamir.
As an aside, the most famous photography book about Pamir, by Matthieu Paley, is actually about Kyrgyz shepherds in the Afghan Wakhan. It’s hauntingly beautiful and the story is amazing, but it is not about Tajikistan.
A History of the Tajiks: Iranians of the East – Richard Foltz
A history not of Tajikistan, but of the Tajiks. It is a book for the general reader, but one with a sincere interest in Tajikistan. Much of the history of the Tajiks in the past century has been written by historians with an agenda to make the history fit their (state) ideology.
Professor Foltz cuts through a lot of that and lays bare the facts. Although the book is not flawless, it is an informative introduction to an understudied subject and it offers a lens to evaluate some of the wilder claims one reads and hears.
The Birth of Tajikistan: National identity and the origins of the republic – Paul Bergne
The best book on the history of Tajikistan proper by an extraordinary man with a profound knowledge of Central Asia. You can find a full review here.
Tajikistan: A Political and Social History – Christian Bleuer & Kirill Nourzhanov
This one is a free e-book, so no harm in trying it out. It rivals Paul Bergne’s effort in its effort of delivering a wide view of Tajikistan’s history from past to present. Like other academic books, though, it is not a page-turner.
Tales of exploration
The Pamirs and the source of the River Oxus – George Curzon
The classic account of Lord Curzon’s expedition to the source of the river Oxus. This is a ‘ye olde skool’ narrative: for the lovers. It’s very interesting, though, and absolutely inspiring to those who get through it all. If you need even more heroic exploration adventure, 2 other important explorers followed in his footsteps, delivering similar tales of derring-do.
The Roof of the World – T.E. Gordon
Another British gentleman traveler who traveled in the 19th century to Tajikistan to find the source of the river Oxus.
A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus – John Wood
The third important British explorer who traveled in the 19th century to Tajikistan to find the source of the river Oxus.