It has been an inevitable stop for millennia, which makes it interesting in its own right for those keen to scour ruined cities, old mausoleums and abandoned fortresses.
Panjakent has a good bazaar where you can eat, shop and catch transport to your next destination. After you have seen the museum, it’s time to get moving: the surrounding area offers excellent opportunities to get off the beaten track and meet locals in timeless villages.
In the 5th century, Panjakent grew up on the fertile lands along the banks of the Zarafshan river, and the city of 5 000 quickly became one of the centers of Sogdian civilization, together with nearby Afrasiyab (now Samarkand). Gold was panned here with sheep skins and beautiful frescoes were drawn on multi-story houses. The town had several Zoroastrian temples, as well as a population of Buddhists, Manicheans and Nestorians.
Money was flowing in from the Silk Road trade; after several centuries of internal unrest, China recovered its stability and traffic picked up again in the 5th and 6th century. The Sogdians were pivotal to the Silk Road at this time, together with Bactrians and Persian Jews.
The story of ancient Panjakent ends in 722, when it was captured by Arabs after a 2-year siege, ending the Sogdian dynasty. The Arabs set fire to the city and ancient Panjakent was abandoned. The sudden destruction ironically preserved much of what we know about the Sogdians today, because in the fire some walls collapsed inwards, preserving frescoes under rubble for 12 centuries.
The last Sogdian ruler, Dewashtich, retreated into the mountains to wage a guerrilla war but was captured at Mount Mugh and, according to al-Tabari, crucified. Some survivors made it to safety in the Yaghnob valley and became the ancestors of today’s Yagnobis.
Things to see and do
The Rudaki Museum of History is the place to see ancient Panjakent’s remarkable frescoes. Actually, the best ones are in the Hermitage in St-Petersburg (you can visit virtually, room 47 to 51), which is to Central Asia what the British museum is to the rest of the colonised world, and some other frescoes are in Dushanbe’s National museum.
But Panjakent’s museum is without a doubt the 3rd-best place to see them. You can see a 3-headed god, the Iranian hero Rustam fighting demons, and Sogdian aristocrats.
Other Sogdian relics like statues and ossuaries (containers for bones from dead bodies after the birds had pecked away the flesh) bear witness to rituals of Zoroastrianism, the main religion in the area before the arrival of Islam (besides paganism, Buddhism and a Shiva cult).
There are also tools found at Sarazm and a copy of documents found at Mount Mugh. Beyond this, it’s a pretty standard Soviet-era regional museum, with displays on local wildlife, Rudaki, the Samanid dynasty, local folklore, Soviet legacy and post-Soviet agit-prop.
Ancient Panjakent is an archaeological site, so do not expect to find anything beyond sun-baked walls. The good stuff is in museums. If you are keen to learn more, it should be possible to arrange an English-speaking guide at the Rudaki Museum in town, or perhaps at the small museum (10-17 Tue-Sun) attached to the ruins.
Sarazm neolithical site
Some 15km west of Panjakent lies another important archaeological site. Sarazm, 5500 years old, is remarkable for both its size and its antiquity.
The excavations show the layout of a sophisticated settlement. The walls of the different buildings are superbly preserved; you can still walk through their doorways and follow the streets.
As with ancient Panjakent, Sarazm’s most important archaeological finds were spirited away, but a small collection is still housed in the attached museum. The artefacts demonstrate this was a well-developed city with sophisticated agriculture, craftsmanship and metallurgy (bronze, copper, tin and precious metals) and that it had trading partners as far afield as Iran and India, where metal objects from Sarazm have been found in turn.
Yes, the Silk Road is that old. What you are looking at here is one of the first trade centers in the world, and one of the first places in the world where metal was forged. Deserted 4000 years ago, it was reborn 20-30 kilometers west as Samarkand.
The most famous find is from about 5000 years ago. ‘The Princess of Sarazm’ is a woman buried in clothes, richly embroidered with turquoise, lapis lazuli, jasper and limestone beads. The beads and a bronze mirror are in the Museum of National Antiquities in Dushanbe.
7 lakes, Fann mountains & beyond
The Fann mountains are a highlight for trekkers and climbers. Artuch, 60 km west of Panjakent, is the gateway town.
The beautiful Shing valley is home to 7 lakes and a few villages that are still quite traditional. It’s possible to see the lakes with a day trip, but if you are not adding on a trek in the Fann mountains, you need an overnight stay (minimum!) to get a feel for life in this valley.
Beyond the town of Ayni, continue east for the seldom-visited Upper Zerafshan Valley, or the more popular Yaghnob Valley.
If you are going to the Fann mountains, pay your respects at the tomb of Rudaki in Panjrud (Gmaps), 6 km before Artuch.
Rudaki, considered the founder of Persian literature, was born in Rudak near Panjakent in 859, and after a long career at the Samanid court in Bukhara, eventually fell out of favour and returned to his homeland, where he died in 941.
The mausoleum was built in the 1950’s after archaeologists found Rudaki’s final resting place here. After independence the mausoleum got a major overhaul, partly by a team from Nishapur, Iran. There is a small museum attached.
Surrounded by the quaint village-ness of Panjrud, its formal rose garden and sparse interior are a pleasant shock.
Mausoleum at Mazor-i Sharif
The ancient shrine of Khoja Muhammad Bashoro can be found 40 km east of Panjakent, in Mazor-i Sharif (Gmaps / OSM). Bashoro was a missionary, born in Basra in 743. The mausoleum was built around the same time he died in the 9th century, with some additions in the 14th century.
Inside the saint and his family are buried, and there is superb woodcarving, including representations of fish – it’s reminiscent in that sense of the Hazrati Shoh mosque in Chorku near Isfara, built around the same time.
Fortresses of Dewashtich
Well worth a small detour are the villages and forts associated with Devashtich, the last leader of the Sogdians. If you are not interested in old stuff, go anyway, you now have a great excuse to visit these interesting villages that rarely see foreigners. Very rewarding.
Kum and Mount Mug
On a hill above the village of Kum lies a fortress (Gmaps) that was the scene of a battle between the Sogdians and the Arabs in AD 722. There are substantial remains of the mud brick buildings, with barrel roofs. The views from the site down the Zarafshan valley are impressive.
Just before the turn-off to Kum, Dar-Dar has a lovely unrestored mosque with carved and painted ceilings.
Just west of Khairobad is the fortress of Mount Mugh. This commands a view over a bend in the river, with steep hillsides right down to the riverbank. Here Dewashtich made his last stand against the Muslim army. To reach the fort it is advisable to take a guide from the village; a scramble is required.
Little would have been known about Dewashtich, but for a chance find in 1932 by a shepherd at this site of a basket of 8th-century documents on leather and bone of correspondence of Dewashtich. This has given us a very important understanding of his life and times.
Another fortress can be found in nearby Madm (Gmaps / OSM). To reach the fortress, follow the track up from the village for an extra kilometer. There are the remains with some brickwork, and the foundations of houses excavated by archaeologists. The houses were 2-storey buildings with carved pillars.
On the mountain sides high above the village you can still see lalmi, fields with no irrigation, which rely on rainfall. You can see them in the nearby Shing Valley of the 7 lakes as well. These are now largely abandoned in Tajikistan because of cheap imported food, but they are still used in Afghanistan, and can be seen from the road between Kulob and Khorog.
Budget travelers will feel right at home at Salom Hostel. Very warm place – all you need to organise your onward trip to Fann mountains or 7 lakes is provided for. Umariyon‘s hostel room looks fancy, but you cannot cook and it has none of the hostel atmosphere a backpacker craves.
If you are looking for a double, Panjakent has 3 options, all centrally located, inexpensive, with helpful staff and functional bathrooms.
None of them is great (online reviewers tend to get over-excited). All things considered (beds, breakfast, wifi, …) we think Umariyon is your best bet, with Sugd coming in second (bonus points for the wallpapers, though!) and Zarafshon in third place.
Zurmich (OSM) used to be the place to be, but it has since been surpassed by the places listed above. Still, it’s run by a warm and helpful family with a lot of knowledge about the area. The rooms are a bit old, but it’s not bad if everything else is full.
Panjakent has always been a satellite town to big brother Samarkand, sharing the same language and history for millennia. And although it’s just 50 km away, there is no direct transport to Samarkand across the border erected in 1991.
Shared taxis to the border gather near the entrance of the bazaar (8-10 somoni). Once past the border, take a bus or shared taxi to Samarkand. Total travel time: 2 hours. All info at the border crossing article.
Irregular flights between Panjakent and Dushanbe operate in winter only.