Sitting on plateau high above the Zerafshan River, the ruins of the Sogdian city of Bunjikath spread out over some 45 acres. At first sight they look like nothing more than a muddle of sunbaked clay mounds and hollows but, begin to walk through the site and it doesn't take long for your eye to begin to pick out the lines of a adobe wall here, a doorway there and as your guide points out more and more features, the tumbled earth reveals its secrets and the city begins to take shape. If, as we were, you're the only people around, the clear sky above and silence all around increases your focus as time falls away, the ancient world of the Sogdians envelops you and their long-lost city spreads around you.
Who were the Sogdians?
They were a confederation that arose in the fertile oases of the lands between the two great rivers of Central Asia - Transoxiana - with the Zeravshan valley being the most important. For fifteen hundred years from the the 6thC BCE and the 10th C CE they were some of the greatest traders in Central Asia and the cities they founded were to form some of the main trading centres along the Silk Road. Despite being the founders of such legendary cities as Samarkand and Bukhara, today they are all but completely forgotten, their civilization swept aside by the force of the Muslim invasions of the 8th C , their cities destroyed and left to return to the earth from which they were constructed. Faint whispers of their presence are heard when we read that Alexander the Great's beloved bride, Roxana, was a Sogdian princess, a badly eroded section of the monumental staircase at Persepolis shows Sogdians bring tribute to the Persian Emperor, ancient graffiti prove that they were in India.
Two maps (Russian legend only) near the museum show the layout of the city. The shahristan - the inner walled city - is immediately in front of you at that point, the citadel is quite a way off to the left, the necropolis is behind you and the dwellings and workshops of the outer city are to your right.
Up on the hill surrounding the citadel there's the palace of the ruler, several temples and grand mansions and there are more grand houses as well as shops, wealthy merchants houses and two temple complexes inside the city walls. Nothing remains in situ of the superb murals and wood carvings that decorated many of these houses but their discovery demonstrated just how wealthy the city was, even small tradesmens' houses were found to be two stories high with several rooms and small wall paintings.
Although the site museum houses some of the original finds, the wall paintings are only reproductions. There are some originals in the main museum in town but the best were taken to the Hermitage in St Petersburg
As everywhere in Central Asia, Panjakent's bazaars are full of colour and life. You'll find the usual mounds of fresh and dried produce under the dome of the general bazaar, and the stalls and mats of the vendors outside are stacked and piled with everything a Tajik housewife needs to keep her house clean and cook and care for her family.
Down the street a bit, the stalls of the textile market are a blaze of colour, heaped as they are with bolts of the brilliantly coloured fabrics that Tajik women use for even their every day clothes. For summer it's silky zig-zagged ikats; winter dresses are made of patterned velours often sparkling with glittering embroidery. Both will be used to make the one-style-suits-all kurta - a long loose dress worn over trousers -shalvar. I love the braided edge used to trim the hem of the shalvar - not least for the flirty little tassel that sits on the inner leg seam.
Other stalls are piled high with the soft leather boots and embroidered skull caps - taqi worn by men.
No Tajik market would be complete without the stalls selling the elaborate clothes required for a traditional wedding. Velvet coats lavished with gold embroidery are worn by men and women for the celebrations that can go on for 3 or 4 days. Tradition doesn't end there though - the new bride will wear a square white hat, embroidered and with a trail of beaded fringing throughout the first year of her married life. Our October visit coincided with peak wedding season and we saw any number of these hats out on the streets. They, and all the other variations of a hat for every stage of life, are all on sale in the bazaar.
As well as the regular stallholders, here in the textile bazaar is where you will find women selling suzani, the wonderful embroidered cloths that are the main ornament of Tajik homes.
Before you leave the ruins of Bunjakanth, be sure to make your way right across the site to the edge of the plateau. All modern Panjakent is laid out below you, the river and the mountains forming a backdrop to the city. With a pair of binoculars, or even a good zoom on a camera, you can look right into the inner courtyards of the houses below. From the heights it all looks very quiet and peaceful, a sprawling place with lots of trees and greenery around traditional compounds of low houses.
Driving back into town the impression of a rural backwater is belied slightly by a few rather decrepit Soviet-era apartment blocks and the area around the bazaar in the centre of town was certainly a hive of activity. The entrance to the city is guarded by an equestrian statue (photo 2)of Ismael Somoni, the 10thC CE Samanid prince who is held to be the father of the Tajik nation (Somoni's mausoleum in Bukhara is considered the most significant building in that city of architectural treasures). Somoni's elevation to national hero mirrors neighboring Uzbekistan's veneration of Timur as homegrown heroes have taken Lenin's place on the plinths and pedestals of post-independence Central Asian cities.
Dedicated to, and named for, the blind 10thC poet Rudaki who is generally recognised as the father of Persian poetry, Panjakent's museum has been recently, and quite impressively, upgraded. One gallery is dedicated to the poet, another to Tajikistan's very recent status as a new republic, but it is the historical galleries that are the most interesting.
Beginning with the earliest traces of human settlement in the region located some kilometres west of the city, a neolithic site known as Sarazm where artifacts dating back 5500 years were found, the rooms and displays progress through the millenia to the last days of the Sogdian confederation. Ceramics, jewellery, wooden columns and stone-carved ossuaries are some of the artifacts from the city on the hill that are on display, along with photos and diagrams from the excavations. The sections of the famed wall-paintings of Bunjakanth in the museum are but poor fragments of the splendid finds made by the Russian archaeologist who worked on the site - the best were all removed to St Petersburg. No doubt there will be arguements over whether they should be returned in years to come but for now that's where they are, and that's where they're staying.
When first uncovered, reports tell of the paintings having colours as fresh as the day they were painted that began to fade almost immediately. 60 years on, they are very indistinct, and the low lighting necessary to preserve what colour there is left makes distinguishing some features even more difficult. However, photography (without flash) is permitted and, thanks to the wonders of digital enhancement, a bit of simple editing allows the colours to be brought up more brightly and the images to appear more clearly.
The statue of Rudaki in the museum garden reflects the veneration felt for poets in Central Asia - not only is the face particularly sensitive, his blindness apparent, but someone had places a posy of fresh flowers in his hand very recently and there were more at his feet.
Panjakent is recorded as having a Friday mosque as early as the 10thC CE, thus elevating it from a village to a town.
Newly restored after decades of neglect under Soviet rule, the old Juma (Friday) Mosque is set among roses and shady trees, a tranquil haven in the midst of town, a place where old men (muy saped - whitebeards - the name is a mark of respect for their age and elder status) stroll and sit in the shade.
A new mosque was built at the entrance to the garden before the old mosque was restored.