Penjikent: Sogdian Citadels, Mountain Mausoleums, and Valley Views in Tajikistan

Penjikent: Sogdian Citadels, Mountain Mausoleums, and Valley Views in Tajikistan

Jake Smith joined MIR after several years of living and working in Tajikistan, as well as traveling to the far corners of Central Asia. Having visited the country many times, Penjikent remains one of his favorite places to hang out.

Tajikistan has so much to offer a traveler. There are the highlights of course, frequently visited by travelers to Tajikistan and somewhat well-known amongst geography, travel, and history aficionados:

  • Dushanbe: the beautiful leafy capital city with its modern monuments and pedestrian-friendly avenues
  • The Pamir Mountains, with their remote villages and spectacular views
  • The northern city of Khujand with its famous Panjshanbe Bazaar and a scattering of interesting historical sights
  • Alpine Iskander Kul Lake, the gem of central Tajikistan

There is more to Tajikistan though, places not as well known by travelers, but still beautiful and full of history, made even more exciting by the relative lack of other travelers around.

Iskander KulPhoto credit: Jake Smith

Beautiful turquoise Iskander Kul
Photo credit: Jake Smith

Where is Penjikent?One such place is Penjikent, in the far northwest of Tajikistan, not far from the Silk Road city of Samarkand in neighboring Uzbekistan. Penjikent is a small town of around 33,000 people, mostly Tajiks but with a sizable population of Uzbeks as well.

It was closed to travelers (along with the rest of Tajikistan) during the civil war years of the 1990s, and then occasionally visited by travelers as a day trip from Samarkand up until 2012, when the Uzbek-Tajik border was closed as part of a political spat between the countries. The border finally reopened in 2019 after a thaw in the relationship, meaning Penjikent is once again accessible from both the east and the west.

Young boys offer a warm welcome to Khujand's Panjshanbe Bazaar Photo credit: Richard Fejfar

Young boys offer a warm welcome to Khujand’s Panjshanbe Bazaar
Photo credit: Richard Fejfar

How can I get there?The route from Samarkand is fairly straightforward, taking just an hour or two and covering around 40 miles along the flat and broad valley of the Zarafshon River. This short distance makes day trips from Samarkand an appealing and comfortable option for those wishing to make a short foray into Tajikistan. The route from the east, from either Khujand or Dushanbe, is more arduous, taking 4-6 hours along a road that snakes through spectacular mountain scenery, but is rough in spots.

Overlooking new town Penjikent and the Zarafshon River Photo: Jake Smith

Overlooking new town Penjikent and the Zarafshon River
Photo: Jake Smith

Penjikent’s seven main attractions:

1. Penjikent Excavations and Museum of ArchaeologyOn a ledge above the new town are the ruins of what was an important Sogdian trade center.

Old Penjikent was built in the 5th century AD, and survived for three hundred years until the Arabs burned it down during their 8th century invasion. Re-discovered in 1933, the early medieval site includes the remains of the town center and the frescoed foundations of the houses of wealthy merchants. Two Zoroastrian temples demonstrate the importance of the old city. An onsite museum explains the history and significance of the ruins.

The views down to the new town and across the valley of the Zarafshon River are beautiful. The name Zarafshon means “gold-spreading” and the river is indeed gold-bearing. The ancient Sogdians that lived along the river produced fine gold ornaments and jewelry.

2. Proto-Urban Site of SarazmSarazm means “where the land begins” – an apt name for this ancient archaeological site traced back some 5,000 years, and where humans first settled in Central Asia. Located in northwestern Tajikistan in the Zarafshon River valley and discovered only in 1976, Sarazm is Tajikistan’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, officially known as the “Proto-Urban Site of Sarazm.”

This thriving metallurgical center reached its apex in 3,000 BC at the beginning of the Bronze Age, when it was rich in metals, minerals, and especially turquoise. Archaeologists also discovered evidence of wheat and barley, concluding that this fertile valley was an agricultural center as well, with early farmers tilling the soil and nomadic herders tending their animals.

Sarazm, Tajikistan's first UNESCO site Photo: Michel Behar

Sarazm, Tajikistan’s first UNESCO site
Photo: Michel Behar

3. Rudaki MuseumThis museum in the center of the town is filled with artifacts, from the Bronze Age to the Sogdian era, and natural history exhibits from around the region. The namesake of the museum, Samanid court poet Abdullah Mohammed Rudaki, was born in Penjikent, and there is an exhibit on his life and works. Frescoes from the Old Penjikent archaeological site are a highlight of the museum.

Locals heading into the bazaar Photo: James Carnehan

Locals heading into the bazaar
Photo: James Carnehan

4. Penjikent BazaarThis market is a good example of a typical Tajik bazaar. Local fruits and vegetables are highly seasonal, so what you’ll see depends a great deal on when you visit. Local stall-keepers are very friendly and will be happy to tell you about their produce, give you a sample, or sell you a kilo of your favorite – be it dried apricots, fresh figs, juicy pomegranates, or locally grow cumin.

One interesting find that is almost always available is the unique variety of yellow carrots that locals prefer over the more common orange ones. The local specialty, a rice pilaf dish called oshi palov in Tajiki (or plov in Russian) is made with yellow carrots here in Penjikent and in some pockets of Uzbekistan, but with orange carrots elsewhere in the region.

Prepping a peck of yellow carrots for oshi palovPhoto: Abdu Samadov

Prepping a peck of yellow carrots for oshi palov
Photo: Abdu Samadov

Smiling bread vendors show off their wares Photo: Michel Behar

Smiling bread vendors show off their wares
Photo: Michel Behar

5. Olim Dodkhokh Mosque and MadrassahWhile this small structure pales in comparison to the architecture of nearby Samarkand, it is a prime example of very real living Tajik and Uzbek culture and religious practice. On a visit you might be able to observe a congregation worshipping, chat with one of the town’s elders, or meet local youths eager to practice their English. A mosque has existed here for centuries, but the present structures and renovations date from the last two centuries.

The modest Olim Dodkhokh Mosque Photo: Jake Smith

The modest Olim Dodkhokh Mosque
Photo: Jake Smith

6. Rudaki MausoleumHidden in the remote Fan Mountains some 40 miles outside of Penjikent is the final resting place of Rudaki, the celebrated father of Tajik and Persian poetry. Born in the mid-9th century, Rudaki was an accomplished literary figure for his time, serving decades as a court poet to the Samanid royalty of Bukhara before eventually returning to his birthplace in Panjrud, where he spent his final years until his death in 941.

Tajik pilgrims today pay their respects to Rudaki at the poet’s small mausoleum in Panjrud, built in 2008 to commemorate the 1,150th anniversary of his birth. Created in the style of traditional Central Asian shrines, the interior of the mausoleum is bathed in natural light, enhanced by the pristine white marble and plaster decorations, with a covered black tomb in the center to mark the spot where Rudaki was laid to rest. The mausoleum is surrounded by lush, fragrant rose gardens, as well as a 400-year-old mulberry tree.

Chatting with a local outside the mausoleum. Photo: Jake Smith

Chatting with a local outside the Mausoleum of Muhammad Bashara
Photo: Jake Smith

7. Mausoleum of Muhammad BasharaThis small mausoleum is located 20 miles outside of Penjikent, up a side road leading into the foothills of the Fan Mountains. Local belief holds that Muhammad Bashara was a Sufi saint and companion of the Prophet Muhammad. The tomb was largely constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries, and as such constitutes on of Tajikistan’s better examples of Timurid architecture. The histories of both the tomb and the saint himself are somewhat obscure. The setting of the tomb is beautiful, surrounded by old trees and gardens, with views of the surrounding mountains.

Plan Your Visit To Penjikent

The first five sights would make for a perfect day trip to Penjikent from Samarkand. The archaeological sites are best visited in the morning, before the sun gets too hot. A market visit could be followed by a meal of the local rice pilaf with yellow carrots. And the day could be topped off with a visit to the museum and then the mosque. For those overnighting in Penjikent, coming from Khujand or Dushanbe, or for travelers moving at a faster pace, visits to one or both of the mountain mausoleums are also recommended.

Whether you are a first time visitor to Tajikistan, or a more experienced traveler in the country, you won’t regret a jaunt up (or down) the Zarafshon River to Penjikent. The history, scenery, people, and relative obscurity of the place all make a worthwhile and relevant stop on any Silk Road itinerary.

It’s a great time to travel to Tajikistan, to experience this remote country for yourself and to reap the benefits of its hospitality. Want to find out more?

More photos and info:
Friends meeting outside a mosque in Penjikent Photo: Michel Behar

Friends meeting outside a mosque in Penjikent
Photo: Michel Behar

Travel to Tajikistan with MIR

MIR has more than 30 years travel experience in Tajikistan and Central Asia. MIR has several small group tours through Tajikistan with the soaring Pamir Mountains as your backdrop, including:

MIR can also hand-craft a custom private journey through this undiscovered country, personalized to your interests and travel pace. If you want ideas for a private trip, check out our Essential Tajikistan itinerary.

Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289 to start planning your  travels now.


(Top photo: A friendly smile from a local; Photo: Michel Behar)

PUBLISHED: February 25, 2019

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