Although Istaravshan has a lot of tourist potential because of its crafts industry, big bazaar and medieval architecture, it is just potential at the moment.
The city feels neglected, almost unwelcoming for tourists. Do stop over, but don’t budget a whole day unless you are a real history buff. Tajikistan has better things on offer.
It is unclear how old Istaravshan is. Locals would have you believe it is the site of ancient Cyropolis and Alexandria Eschate, but it’s more likely that Khujand is that town.
What we do know is that rapid development came under the Samanid dynasty in the 9th and 10th century. 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 the Timurids took over, the settlement lived a second golden age, until the 16th century, when trade started bypassing Istaravshan, then called Ura-Tyube, for Bokhara.
The town was called Ura-Tyube until the year 2000, when it was renamed Istaravshan.
Kok Ghumbaz madrassa
The light blue dome of Kok Ghumbaz surprises when you first come upon it, hidden amongst the winding streets of central Istaravshan (OSM / Gmaps). It would not look out of place in Samarkand, and indeed, the mosque was built in the 15th century on the order of Abdul-Latif Mirza, son of Ulugbek, great-grandson of Timur.
He rebelled against his father and managed to have him assassinated, thus taking the throne in Samarkand. His rule did not last long: 6 months later he was murdered himself by his cousin’s henchmen.
The minaret is a work of masonry art in the finest Timurid tradition.
One mausoleum is called the Ajina Khona, which means the house of demons, which is an unusual name for a holy building. It was coined by the Soviets.
The other mausoleum is that of Hazraji Mekhdoni Azam and his family. He was a nephew of Mir Saheed Hamadoni, whose mausoleum is in Kulob. Both mausoleums are plain inside, but have some intricate exterior brickwork.
The third old building is the Sar-i Mazor mosque, built in the 16th and 17th century, with some recent renovations that have lighted up the wooden ceilings.
There is also a modern mosque, which can accommodate over a thousand worshippers.
The hill overlooking the centre of Istaravshan was once the citadel. It was there in 1220 when the Mongols came, and it was there when the Russians bombed Istaravshan into submission in 1866.
It’s not there now. An uninspiring new gate was built in 2002 to celebrate the town’s 2500th birthday, but there is nothing behind the gate. Parts are already in need of repairs. It feels way too new, much much like the fortresses in Hisor and Hulbuk.
You can overlook the town from here. Not a highlight.
Istaravshan has a good bazaar. It’s not pretty, but it is very ‘real’. Worth a look if you are stopping by.
Istaravshan’s main claim to fame in Tajikistan are its grapes and pomegranates. Yum!
Crafts, museum and 19th-century house
Istaravshan has always had a tradition of craftsmanship, especially in metalwork, ceramics and woodcarving. You can still see some of that on display today in the metal workshops around the bazaar. Although some craftsmen are skilled, it’s not exactly art, though.
Istaravshan’s museum (OSM) has some examples of the various crafts on offer, traditional dresses and a set of 10th-century ossuaries designed to keep the bones of the deceased in the Zoroastrian tradition.
You will need to hunt down someone to open the door, though. We didn’t find them.
The following comes from an old guidebook, so we are not sure how relevant this still is, but we would not want to withhold it from you in case it turns out to be a real attraction.
“In the old town, with a prior appointment, it is possible to visit a rare example of a 19th-century town house of Mirzo Bobojonov, 18 Rahmatov Street, Ghaffur district. In the guest room is a magnificent painted ceiling, and intricately designed wall cupboards. The house, built by Usto Karimfon, is in a courtyard. The lady of the house prefers her husband to be present, so it is better to arrange your visit in the late afternoon, when he has returned from work.”
The Hazrat-i-Shoh mosque and mausoleum is the last resting place of Hazrat-i-Shoh, the brother of Kusam ibn Abbas. Kusam was the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed; he is supposedly buried in Samarkand’s Shah-i Zinda.
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.
There are 2 more mosques in the city centre you could track down, the 19th-century Chahor Gumbaz (great painted ceilings), and the modern Havzi Sangin near the Kok Gumbaz.
For the Lenin-seekers who did not get their fill with the giant statue in Khujand, Istaravshan has another very impressive one, just south of the city, overlooking the Kattasoy reservoir (Gmaps). The reservoir is a nice place for a pick-nick.
Ruins of Bunjikat
The site has been properly excavated. In Dushanbe’s Antiquities museum you can see statues from the Zoroastrian temple and frescoes showing scenes of Aesop’s fables, similar to those in Panjakent. Most famous is a statue of a she-wolf suckling twins, likely evidence of contact with Rome. German Wikipedia is very thorough on the subject.
3 km further off, in the village of Jarqutan, are the remains of the well-preserved fortress of Chilhujra. Once again, German Wikipedia has all the info.
Getting there and away
Shared taxis to Dushanbe (4 hr) leave from the southern end of the bazaar. Cars to Panjakent are a little further south. Shared taxis to Khujand (1,5 hr) gather across from the bazaar. Marshrutkas to Khujand are cheaper and run from the main bus stand, 3 km north of the centre (OSM / Gmaps).
We did not find any good hotels in Istaravshan on our last visit. We advise you stay in Khujand instead.