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“In Dushanbe every day is Friday!” Now that’s my kind of city. And in a sense, it’s true: Dushanbe means “Friday” in Tajik, and the capital of Tajikistan takes its name from its weekly market day. Unless you’re a Central Asia buff you’re unlikely to be able to place it on a map, but this quirky little city is the perfect start or end point for an adventure in the country appropriately known as the “Roof of the World”.
A short geography and history lesson first, then. Tajikistan is a Soviet successor state, a small but independent country tucked in between China and Afghanistan. Its landscapes are dominated by the mighty Pamir Mountains and the Amu Darya (the River Oxus of antiquity), and its past has been intricately woven by Silk Road merchants and missionaries, yurt-dwelling nomads, Great Game spies, and plenty of marauding hoards. Dushanbe itself began life as a 17th century trading post strategically located at a crossroads, and it boomed in the 1920s once it became the capital of the new Soviet Tajik Republic. The Soviets re-christened the place Stalinbad, but as Stalin’s personality cult faded, it got its old name back.
I’m a sucker for Soviet architecture (yes, even the cookie cutter concrete apartment blocks), and based on other Central Asian capitals that’s what I expected to find. But Dushanbe was right at the edge of the USSR — a frontier town in every sense — and it was populated by economic migrants, prisoners of war, and exiles. Ethnic Germans mixed with Koreans; Russians did business with Afghans and Uighurs from across the border. All of them have left their mark.
Dushanbe’s streets are wide, planned, and tree lined, flanked predominantly by low rise buildings. The centre of the city is small, easily navigable on foot. Especially in the autumn months when there’s a pleasurable breeze in the air, it is best to walk from one place to the next through the parks.
The lawns are manicured, the flowers well-tended, and amongst them are scattered statues and monuments to Tajikistan’s most celebrated pre-Soviet figures. I stopped briefly before the ostentatious golden statue of Ismoili Somoni, an ancient king who has been raised to the status of national hero in recent years, and lingered rather longer to admire the mosaic-covered arch which curves above the poet Rudaki like a slightly pixellated manmade rainbow.
Unlike their Central Asian neighbours, the Tajiks are ethnically and culturally Persians. I wanted to find how that aspect of Dushanbe’s heritage was exhibited on the street.
Communism largely did away with religion — Marx’s much derided “opiate of the masses” — but in Dushanbe Islam did survive (albeit as a shadow of its former self) and today it is experiencing a renaissance. Tucked back from Rudaki, the city’s main artery, behind an unremarkable run of shops, is the 200 year old mosque and madrassa of Haji Yaqub. As a woman I was permitted only to enter the courtyard, but this is in any case the part you’d want to see. It’s impressive in scale, built to accommodate 3,000 worshippers for Friday prayers, and the portico is beautifully tiled. The turquoise blue dome and lattice work panels on the windows evoke the architectural jewels of the medieval world, but unlike in their counterparts in Uzbekistan or Iran, here you’re likely to be the only tourist.
On the other side of Rudaki, a few minutes’ walk away, I dipped out of the increasingly intense sunshine into the shade of the Chaykhona Rokhat. It’s a curious building — the Soviet interpretation of a Persian chaikhana, or teahouse — but undoubtedly attractive in its own way. Both sides are open to the elements, with tea drinkers seated on the first floor so they benefit from any gust of wind. I climbed the stairs and took a seat overlooking the street so I could watch the world go by. The brightly painted ceiling above me with its colourful floral designs seemed incongruous when juxtaposed with the grey, somewhat crumbling facades of the shops and apartments opposite. I slurped on a almost-too-hot bowl of laghman, the noodle and mutton soup which is a Tajik staple, and polished off a plate of shashlik, a slightly oily (but nevertheless delicious) grilled kebab served with sliced onion and bread.
Dushanbe is rapidly changing, with a number of towers starting to rise up above the skyline. The Hyatt, Sheraton, and Serena chains have all opened hotels here in recent years, and the nouveau riche are opting for brand new apartments in gleaming white high-rise blocks. President Rahmon commissioned the world’s largest flagpole to stand outside his new gold-domed palace, marking 20 years of independence in 2011, but the Saudis insensitively ripped away his proudly-held record just three years later, erecting one in Jeddah 5m taller.
Many of the Dushanbe’s modern buildings are of no artistic or cultural merit, but the National Museum of Tajikistan is a notable exception. Recently opened in a purpose-built building on the edge of Rudaki Park, the 22 exhibition halls house some 50,000 artefacts. Visiting dusty archaeological sites in rural Tajikistan, it can be hard to get a sense of their historical importance, but here in the museum it all suddenly comes together.
With the country’s national treasures in front of me, properly displayed and explained, I not only grasped for the first time the chronology of different settlers and rulers, but could also see the influences they exerted on one another. I saw finds from Buddhist and Zoroastrian temples, medieval sculptures, and fine Islamic ceramics. It was a poignant reminder that though Tajikistan today can seem like the back of beyond, for millennia its cities were commercially thriving, cosmopolitan melting pots of cultures. Just enough ghosts of this past survive in the buildings of Dushanbe, and on the faces of the Tajik people, to allow for a fascinating stay.
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