Istaravshan is one of the oldest settlements in Central Asia. With a history spanning more than 2 millennia, Istaravshan gives the visitor a taste of the real Silk Road, minus the tourists and the overpolished streets of Uzbekistan.
The city was founded by the legendary king Cyrus of the Parthian empire in the 6th century BC, when it started its life as a trade center on the Silk Road. In the centuries that followed, riches flowed into the city and elaborate palaces were built, one of which featured an intriguing she-wolf feeding 2 babies. Alexander the Great conquered it, but had to leave again. Rapid development came under the Tajik Samanid dynasty in the 9th and 10th century, but, as so often seemed to happen around these parts, it caught the envious eye of Genghis Khan who razed it to the ground in the 13th century. When Timur took over, the settlement lived a second golden age, until the 16th century, when trade started bypassing Istaravshan (then called Ura-Tyube) for Bokhara.
Kok Ghumbaz madrassa The light blue dome of Kok Ghumbaz surprises when you first come upon it, hidden behind the Soviet era buildings of greater Istaravshan. The citadel was built in the 16th century on the order of Abdulatif Sultan – the son of Ulugbek, astronomer, philosopher and grandson of Timur, who built one of the madrassas of the Registan in Uzbekistan. The minaret is a work of masonry art in the finest Timurid tradition.
The Khazrat-i-Shokh mausoleum is the last resting place of Khazrat-i-Shokh, the brother of Kusam ibn Abbas who was in turn the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed. Quite a big deal in the 11th century, apparently, so he got his own mausoleum. It’s a modest brick building, but the ceilings are beautifully painted and it’s worth a visit to have a look at them. Although the mausoleum was originally built in the 11th century, the present-day structure dates back to the 18th century. Next to Khazrat’s mausoleum are 2 other places of worship: the Khudoyor Valami mausoleum and Khazrat-i-Shokh mosque (also known as Namozgokh); both were built in the 19th century.
The mosque plus tombs called Sary Mazar are a bit out of town, in a picturesque setting surrounded by a set of gnarly old chinar trees.
Another site connected to Alexander the Great’s noted passage through Tajikistan: it holds the remains (try to spot them) of the fortress that he stormed some 2000 years before. Most of all, it offers a nice view over town.
Bazaar and Old Town
If the rest of Istaravshan is more for those tourists interested in seeing ‘the real Tajikistan’, the Old Town is history transported to the present day, with lots of small streets to wander through. The bazaar is quite big too, with lots of craftsmen selling their wares. Istaravshan is also a center of fruit production; come in late summer for delicious grapes and pomegranates. Tuesday is the best day.