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.
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.
Penjikent’s seven main attractions:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Travel to Tajikistan with MIR
- The Pamir Highway & Across Fabled Frontiers
- Journey Through Central Asia: The Five ‘Stans
- Chinese Turkestan & Central Asia
- Silk Road Backroads & Byways
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