Penjikent is a city in Tajikistan. It lies at the entrance to Zeravshan Valley, one of Tajikstan's main tourist attractions. Around the modern town and in its museum you will find remains of the pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian civilization.
The remains of this Sogdian city are just out of the city, on a hill overlooking the valley. You can wander around the site without being bothered by anyone. There are hardly any information signs, although the director of the museum next to the site is able to explain everything in detail. You may also find some excavators present, and students from Saint Petersburg willing to tell you about their work and finds.
The city has another small museum with Soviet memorabilia, stuffed animals, and impressive finds from the excavations nearby: wall paintings from the 5th century, with faded colours but recognisable motifs and hunting scenes.
There are excellent treks in the surrounding Fan Mountains and further up the Zeravshan Valley. Penjikent is usually visited from Samarkand as part of a tour along the Silk route, other entry points are Dushanbe in the South or Khujand in the North. For the latter routes, you will have to cross high passes. This means that Penjikent is often isolated from the rest of the country during winter.
Panjakent is famous for the outstanding frescoes. Today, a few of them are exhibited in the small Rudaki Museum at Panjakent, but most of them are exhibited in Dushanbe and the Ermitage in Saint Petersburg.
The name Panjakent is derived from panj (five) and kant (settlements), meaning "five settlements". Rudaki, one of the most illustrious names of Persian/Tajik literature, was born in Panjakent.
The ruins of ancient Panjakent are situated in the Zarafshan Valley about 60 km east of Samarkand. Panjakant was the easternmost city of Sogdia. The site is being excavated from 1947 onwards. Excavations were led by Y.Yakubovsky, A.Belenitsky and B.Marshak of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Due to the long period of excavations, Panjakant has become one of the most thoroughly studied early medieval cities in Asia. Excavations show that Panjakant was founded in the 5th cent and was inhabited until the 770s.
Ancient Panjakent was a town of the Soghdians. The Soghdians were a people of an Iranian language. They belonged to the most important peoples in Central Asia before arrival of the Islam. The name Soghd or Soghdian is mentioned in historical sources of the Achaemenid Empire (6th cent BC). The Soghdians founded several city-states in the Zarafshan Valley and colonies along the Silk Road from the Crimea to China and Mongolia. Ancient Panjakent was the capital of the state of Panch. The town dates to the 5th cent. AD. It was inhabited by rich merchants and land-owners. The Arabs conquered Panjakent in 722. The last ruler, named Devashtich, fled into the mountains, but he was captured and sentenced to death. People stayed in Panjakent under the rule of the caliphate, but towards the end of the 8th century, the city was abandoned.
Yaqub Beg was born in the town in the early 19th century when it was part of the Khanate of Kokand. He joined the Khan's army as a young man and later commanded it as it vigorously, but in the long run unsuccessfully, resisted Russian expansion in the area. Later he took much of the army east, took Kashgar and Yarkand in what is now Xinjiang. He ruled a substantial kingdom from Kashgar for about a decade, but then he died (assassination, suicide and a stroke have all been given as the reason) and the kingdom fell apart.
Most visitors enter Panjakent and the Zeravshan Valley from Samarkand, which is just across the border to Uzbekistan. You will need a valid Tajik visa to enter and a double/multi-entry Uzbek visa (if you need one) if you intend to return the same way you came. There is no public transport crossing the border and unless you have arranged your trip through one of the many Uzbek tour agents, you will have to switch taxis at the border. Taxis leave from Pandjakent Koutchasi, the south eastern part of the Registan. The trip to the border takes about 30 minutes and costs US$3 per person. From the border, the trip takes another 30 minutes and costs another US$3 per person. Travel agents at Samarkand organize the trip for about US$40 (including transportation, guide, admission fee and "border crossing fee").
As of September 2019, to cross the border seems to be quite straightforward. From Uzbekistan to Tajikistan: taxi drop off at the last checkpoint, get in one of the small van for the last kilometre for 1,000 tenges, walk through the two checkpoints. Some travellers have reported that they did not complete the immigration forms and officials didn't ask for them (don't show the Uzbekistan or Tajikistan visa unless asked), and to have spent five minutes waiting for the office to read passport minutiae before stamping. Otherwise no questions, no search, no problems. From Tajikistan to Uzbekistan: Shared taxis leave from the bazaar in Penjikent for about 10 TJS per person and travel to the border. The border crossing is a fairly quick process on both sides. From the border to the Registan in Samarkand, a shared taxi costs about 10,000 UZS though prices vary quite a bit (some drivers charge US$10, so it's worth shopping around).
From Khujand or Dushanbe, it is a spectacular but exhausting 5h trip to Panjakent in shared taxi (2019). In 2009, the price for a seat was about 140 TJS for the Dushanbe to Panjakent section. The roads range from virtually absent to spectacularly good, depending on whether you travel on the original road or one of the bits already repaired.
As of March 2018, the road to Dushanbe has been greatly improved: over one half of it is new, and the rest is uneven but still passable for this region. The 5 hour trip in a good taxi is reported as almost comfortable.
The distance from Dushanbe is about 230 km. You will have to pass Varzob Gorge and go over the 3,370 m high Anzab Pass. In 2006, the 5 km long Anzab Tunnel has been opened. From Khujand, you will have to pass the Shakristan Pass with a height of 3,380 m.
Panjakent also has an airport from which small planes occasionally fly to Dushanbe. There is no schedule. Normally, if the passes are closed and enough potential travellers have assembled, Tajik air runs a trip or two.
Panjakent is stretched along the south banks of the Zeravshan River. There is one bus line (not surprisingly bearing the number 1), which is running along the main Road (Rudaki) connecting the far ends of this small city. For other explorations, you will have to rely on taxis or wave down any car going into the desired direction, which is a common practice in Tajikistan. Note though that drivers will expect as small as a contribution to their fuel costs.
- Ancient Panjakent. The archaeological site of the ruins of old Penjikent, a walled inter-city which stood 2,500-years ago, was once a Sogdian trading city on the Silk Road. Today, only ruins are left as a consequence of the main construction material being clay-bricks. Sometimes referred to as The Pompeii of Central Asia, it is well worth a visit. Duplicates of old Sogdian art are exposed in the nearby museum. The director will also take you on a tour, which will open your eyes to many interesting details which will normally escape the layman's eye.
Ancient Panjakent was divided into a shakhrestan (residential quarter) covering an area of about 13 hectares, an ark (citadel) with a palace, covering an area of 1 ha, a rabat (fortified suburb) and a necropolis. The site is huge. Located on the top of a hill, it offers amazings views over the entire valley. The living quarters and fortress were separated by a narrow wadi with a bridge connecting the two parts of the city.
Two temples in the shakhrestan formed the center of the urban area. The two temples contained statues and mural paintings. During the 5th and 6th centuries, no building in Panjakent was as magnificent as the two temples and even the houses of the wealthiest residents seemed rather humble compared to the two temples.
The buildings were made of mud bricks and paksha. The residential houses ranged from single room buildings to large estates, reflecting the social status of their inhabitants. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the hoses of the rich dominated the architecture of the city. At the beginning of the 8th century, the spaces between the houses were converted into passageways and often covered with vaults. The houses of the rich became two-story buildings with vaults over the room on the first floor. All residential houses were covered with wall paintings and woodcarvings.
The larger houses consisted of halls with four columns and benches along the walls. They were the most important part of the houses and served religious purposes. More than a third of the hoses had such reception halls. It is here where the archeologists discovered many exceptional mural paintings. These paintings date from the 5th to the 8th century and are considered the most important works of early medieval art in Central Asia before the arrival of Islam. Most houses had a dark vaulted room for storage and a spiral staircase leading to the living quarters in the second floor. The houses of the well-to-do population usually had a room with a fire altar and a ceremonial hall decorated with wall paintings and wood carvings. In the main hall, there was a niche up to 4 m wider opposite the entrance with giant images of tutelary gods and small pictures of the praying members of the household. The center of the hall was marked by four wooden columns which supported complex wooden structures with a dome on a square foundation on the top. The hall was decorated with woodcarvings in high relief and even with small statues of caryatids and atlantes. The most common motif of the reliefs in the ceiling were arched niches with figures of the gods, including the sun-god in his chariot. The wall paintings on the other three walls were much smaller than the gods facing the main entrance. They formed two or three friezes depicting royal feasts, hunting scenes, the heroic deeds of Rostam, local heroes, amazons or persons from the Indian epic Mahabarata. The layout of the Sogdian central hall is unique. The decorations show that the Sogdian artist were familiar with the artistic and literary traditions of different cultures, as Persia, Greece and even India.
The majority of the population observed some local variation of Zoroastrianism, which is proved by the wide distribution of ossuary funerals and fire-altars. There is some evidence of the presence of Christianity and Buddhism and eventually even of the cult of Shiva. Zoroastrianism was combined with cults of additional gods and goddesses. Not all of these deities were of Iranian origin, as can be seen from the cult of the Mesopotamian goddess Nana.
The iconography of these goods can be traced back to the Hellenistic period, such as the image of a defeated goddess. It was also influenced by Sasanian ideas of the royal attributes of gods and observed some Hinduistic features as well. The iconography took its final form in the 5th and 6th centuries. Each household had its own divine protector, but all gods formed part of a single pantheon, as can be seen from wall paintings depicting several deities side by side. The three-headed god of the wind Veshparkar, who resembles Shiva, and the four-handed Nana riding on a lion or seated on a throne in the shape of a lion can easily be recognised. Altogether, more than 20 deities can be found on small terracotta images, murals, woodcarvings and clay figurines. The images of Nana, a god sitting on a throne in the shape of a camel and of a god standing over a fallen demon are most common. US$5.
- 1 Rudaki Museum (Republican History and Regional Study Museum) (1km west of the City Administration on the main Rudaki street). 08:00 - 17:00. This interesting museum of local history has been rehabilitated and should not be missed. Abu Abdullo Rudaki was a famous poet of the 10th century. He lived in Panjakent for a while and later became the national hero of Tajikistan. Among the exhibits in the museum are frescoes from the ancient city of Panjakent depicting a banquet, a battle, and daily life scenes; statues of Zoroastrian divinites and a wooden statue of a dancing woman. Apart from showing artifacts and frescoes of the archeological site nearby the city, it also features exhibits from Sarazm, a neolithic site a few kilometres further west. There excavators found proof human settlement as old as 5,500 years and, most notably, the richly decorated remains of a young woman referred to as the "princess of Sarazm". The museum has 8 halls. The first hall is devoted to the history and culture of ancient Sarazm with exhibits illustrating the beginnings of farming and city building in the area. The second hall shows findings from Panjakent from the 5th to 8th century AD. In the third hall, artifacts from the period of the Somonid empire are at display. The forth hall is devoted to Rudaki, the founder of Tajik literature. The fifth hall shows objects of Tajik ethnography: clothes, embroideries, copper and bronze dishes, clothes from the 19th and 20th centuries. The sixth hall refers to the establishment of the Soviet power in Tajikistan, the seventh hall to the independence of Tajikistan in 1991. In the eighth hall, animals of Tajikistan are exhibited. US$10.
- 2 Olim Dodhko Mosque and Medressah (in the eastern part of Panjakent). A Friday Mosque dating from the 18th and 19th centuries for up to 1,500 people
- Kainar Ato Spring. According to the legend, Ali, the cousin of prophet Muhammad, visited this place which at this time accommodated only serpents. When Ali came to Kainar Ato, he prayed, the snakes disappeared and a spring was formed. Today, 6 water pumps work at Kainar Alto, supplying water to about 2/3 of Panjakant's population.
- You can do excellent treks in the surrounding Fann Mountains and further up the Zeravshan Valley. The Fann Mountains are one of Central Asia's most popular trekking areas. You can do a day trip from Panjakent to the Seven Lakes (Haft-Kul, also called Marquzor Lakes), about 60 km south of Panjakent. It costs about US$40 to hire a car from Panjakent (2007). Another favourite place is Iskander Kul, a mountain lake about 25 km south of the road towards Dushanbe. There is no public transport to the lake. The former Soviet holiday camp offers accommodation for 20TJS (2007) and a great lakeside restaurant. The lake is at an altitude of nearly 2,200 m.
- The neolithic site of Sarazm, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dating back to 3500 BCE, is very close to the border crossing point.
- After having done the mandatory cultural tour, got stocked up on goodies on the bustling market in the city centre. Since it got modernised and reorganised, it lost quite a lot of its original charm, but it will still allow an impressive vision of traditional Tadjikistan on a busy day. Note that there is another market (for clothes mainly further east, not far from to the main bus terminal). Products there are fancy and cheap, but of dubious origin and quality.
- Kamoli Khujandi Park (on the banks of the Zeravshan river). recreational park with a swimming pool and children's amusement park
- Zerafshan Handicraft Store Armugon, 47, Hofizi Sherozi Street (opposite cafe Bakht). M-F 09:00 to 17:00. offering knitted crafts, woven carpets and baskets, patchwork and embroideries
- Central Market, Rudaki Avenue (served by buses 1,2,4,5 and 6). The market is busiest on Sundays.
- Javonon cafe, Rudaki Avenue (in the central park).
- Ansori cafe, Rudaki Avenue (in the central park).
- 1 Salom Hostel, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Good hostel in Panjakent, quiet atmosphere around a nice garden. There are 2 dorms of 6 beds each, everything is very clean, there is a hot shower and good wifi. The breakfast is amazing (listed price is without breakfast). TJS75.
- Hotel Penjikent, Borbadi Marvazi 22, ☏ . A double costs US$35-50/night with TV and hot water.
- Nematov Niyozkul Homestay, Rudaki 22/16 (at the west end of the town, about 700 m from Rudaki Museum), ☏ . US$10 full board.
Travel agencies will also offer a variety of homestay accommodation (from US$5 with breakfast) or let you a complete apartment (US$10-15 /night). This may often be a better pick.
- Tourist Information Centre, 47, Hofizi Sherozi Street (opposite cafe Bakht), ☏ . M-F 09:00-17:00.
There is a number of tour operators in Penjikent which can organize about everything in Penjikent and the Zerafshan Valley. Those with websites are listed below:
Zeravshan Tourism Development Association: A network of small providers offering community based tourism products with special emphasis on cultural and ecological sustainability. Supported by international development organisations. Excellent for arranging custom made tours and accommodation for the individual and group traveller. http://www.ztda-tourism.tj
Most visitors leave Penjikent and the Zeravshan valley to Samarkand. There is no public transport crossing the border, so you will have to switch taxis at the border. The trip to the border takes about 30 minutes and costs about 10TJS per person in a shared taxi (September 2019). From the border, the trip takes another 30 min and costs another 10,000 UZS per person in a shared taxi (September 2019). Taxis arrive at Samarkand at Pendjikent Kouchasi, the south eastern part of the Registan.
From Penjikent to Khujand or Dushanbe. It is a spectacular but exhausting trip to in shared taxi. In 2009, the price for a seat is about 140TJS. In September 2019, the trip to Dushanbe is about 5 hr as the road has been greatly improved, the price is 100-150TJS.
Flight to Dushanbe operate infrequently in winter. Ticket price is US$ 45 (2007). The airport is about 4 km west of the city.