Istaravshan is a good sized town with the population of 55 000 at the southern part of Fergana Valley and not far from Khujand (80 km), in Northern Tajikistan and the Sughd region and the Turkestan mountain ridge. It used to be called Kir by the Parthians, Cyropol by Alexander the Great and Ura-Tyube by the Russians and Soviets. Istaravshan is a new name as the Soviet name endured until the end of 2000 when it was renamed Istaravshan. Nevertheless, many residents and inhabitants of the neighboring cities still call it Ura Tyube and the inhabitants Uratyubins. 

It is believed that the city was founded 2 500 years ago but the exact age of Istaravshan is still not known. In the first two centuries AD, it was an important city with 6 km long walls and later it became a staging point on the Silk Road. While the older history of Istaravshan is not that well known, it is certain that the city promptly developed under the Samanid dynasty in the 9th and 10th centuries. Later, by the 13th century, most cities in the region, it fell under the Genghis Khan who razed it to the ground.

The city climate is pleasant, mild in summer there is little rainfall and quite hot, in winter there is a lot of snow. This small historic town has one of the well-preserved old towns in Tajikistan, inserted with some lovely traditional architecture.

Residents of Istaravshan were for long famous artisans whose craftsmanship was nearly impossible to beat. Most of the residents were engaged in the manufacture of shoes, dishes, fabrics and knives, which were decorated with carvings. In Central Asia, these products were evaluated at the highest level. Today the city is the most important wholesale trade center in the area. Modern Istaravshan is still famous for its crafts industry and the development of enterprises that are engaged in fruit processing and wine production.

Istaravshan Sights

Istaravshan is considered  an open-air museum. In 2002 she was celebrated 2500 years from the moment of its foundation. Furthermore, the city is believed to be one of the most ancient settlements in Central Asia. Istaravshan managed to preserve the unique architecture and historical monuments of the country, proving to the brightest history of this city. From the early days, the city has seen an active development of crafts and trade. 

Shahri Kohna Istaravshan Old Town

The old town name Shahri Kohna preserves much of its appearance with narrow streets within mud-brick houses. It is an impressive maze of alleys west of the main drag, Lenin, that links the bus station and bazaar. To get there, first, find the Timurid minaret (the tallest structure in the area), then simply walk into the streets and start exploring. Alleys soon disappear into the old town from the Hazrat-i-Shah Mosque and Mausoleum (Lenin 98), the town’s main Friday mosque.

Mug Teppe Fort

Mugh Teppe is the old citadel that used to be the residence of the Mug government, it lies on the hill overlooking the city. This site of the Sogdian fortress was stormed by Alexander the Great in 329 BC (there are faint remains in the northwest corner). The grand entry gate was constructed in 2002 for the Istaravshan’s 2500th-anniversary celebrations. A new restoration of one of the citadel’s ancient gateways dominates the site and, though it’s unlikely to be historically specific in its design. However historically more significant, are the mounds of earth in the corner of the site. Though they have more than a passing resemblance to builders’ rubble, they are all that remains of the Sogdian fortress attacked by Alexander. To get to the hill, take the road just north of the Istaravshan Hotel.

Inside the Mugh Teppe fort there is the lately restored Zoroastrian temple.

Sary Mazar

Sari Mazar (Sar-i Mazor) a complex consist of three structures that date back to more than 500 years. There are two mausoleums from the 15th and 16th centuries. The first mausoleum is the Ajina Khona, which means the house of demons and an unusual name for a holy building. Coined by the Soviet’s name to scare away children from playing there. It is austere within, but the exterior has some intricate brickwork. The second mausoleum is Hazraji Mekhdoni Azam and his family. He was a nephew of Mir Saheed Hamadoni, whose mausoleum is in Kulob. It is plain within, although there are traces of Arabic and Farsi script on the walls. 

Outside is ornate with fine stonework and tiling. His tomb is there, with those of his wife, son and nephew. He was born in Khorezm, in modern Uzbekistan. He is reputed to have died while preaching, proving his closeness to God. The third old building is the Sar-i Mazor mosque, built in the 16th and 17th centuries, and has had some recent renovations. The four tin cupolas of the Mazar-i-Chor Gumbaz conceal Tajikistan’s most impressive painted ceilings. There is also a modern mosque, which can accommodate over a thousand worshippers. The money for the construction was all raised locally. The whole complex is set in splendidly maintained grounds, with some ancient trees considered to be 800 years old. 

Hazrat-i Shoh Mosque

The Hazrat-i-Shoh is a mosque and the mausoleum belongs to the tomb of the brothers of Kusam ibn Abbas. Kusam was the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, he is presumably buried in Samarkand’s Shah-i Zinda. The structure is impressive with its modest brick building, though the ceilings are excellently painted. Although the mausoleum was originally built in the 11th century, today the structure dates back to the 18th century. In the gardens are the analogies of great Tajik figures on a wall, poets on the left, writers on the right.

Furthermore there are two other mosques that belongs to 19th century. Chahor Gumbaz or Four Domes: A tiny 19th-century four domes and a central pillar mosque. It lies next to a holy pool, shaded by an ancient tree. Havzi SanginThe modern splendidly built mosque has a shrine with a holy pool. Near the Kuk Gumbaz.

Kok Gumbaz (Blue Dome) Madrassa

Eye-catching turquoise Timurid Kok-Gumbaz (Blue Dome) perhaps the most photogenic sight standing in the old town. It lies next to the  19th-century Hauz-i-Sangin Mosque, with its fine ceiling paintings, dried small pool and tomb of Shah Fuzail ibn-Abbas. Kok Gumbaz dates from the 1600s and was built by Abdul Latif Sultan, son of Ulugh Bek, the architect of Samarkand’s exceptional medieval observatory. Ulugh Bek was a “Renaissance” humanist, who has been compared to Galileo. His son was more conservative, and so enraged by his illustrious father’s radical views is thought to have thrown him from the roof of the Observatory. 

Abdul Latif certainly left a beautiful memorial to himself in the Kuk Gumbaz. The building has turquoise tile work and stands in an enclosed courtyard with the classrooms. During the Soviet times, the madrassa but today it opened again and there are 100 students undertaking a religious education. Although not all proceed on to become mullahs. Additional to theology, the students study Arabic, Russian, English and computer studies. The professors and pupils are welcoming and visitors can go inside, students are keen to practice their English with the tourists.

Istaravshan Crafts

Istaravshan has always had a tradition of craftsmanship, particularly in metalwork, ceramics and woodcarving. Today you can still see some of that on exhibit in the metal workshops around the bazaar where men are forging knives, agricultural tools. In front of the bazaar, you can find a line of blacksmiths in small workshops, with traditional bellows, making and repairing all sorts of metal items. Some of them maintain the famous local tradition of knife making, which goes back 2,000 years. They will make presentational knives from a wide variety of designs to your choice. Most of the craftsmen are happy just for you to enter their premises to watch them work and, certainly, even happier if you purchase their product.

Istaravshan History Museum

History museum exhibits some samples of the different crafts, traditional dress as well as a collection of the 10th-century ossuaries intended to store the bones of the deceased in the Zoroastrian tradition. The museum occupies the building of a former Orthodox church, built-in 1865-1867. It was one of the first brick buildings in the city, along with the governor’s house, school and a number of administrative buildings, all of them are well preserved and serve as an adornment of one of the central parts of the city, which many residents continue to call the “Russian quarter”.

Istaravshan Bazaar

Istaravshan’s colorful central bazaar is one of the biggest in the region and worth a visit site, particularly on Tuesday. Located beyond the river, the four-storey yellow building marks the center of the bazaar. Amongst the shashlik stands and fruit stalls are a few interesting buildings, including the crumbling remains of what was once a domed, tiled chaikhana and, on the opposite side of the street, a newer building composed in a traditional style and complete with ornately carved pillars and fascia boards. 

Travel to Istaravshan

The distance between Dushanbe to Istaravshan is 268km, which has been recently improved with the opening of the Shahristan Tunnel in the autumn of 2012. So today it cuts off a range through the mountains where often the trucks struck or slipped on the rocks, with severe consequences. There are two road tolls between Aini and Istaravshan, one by the tunnel (TJS23) and the other just before Istaravshan (TJS6). Minibusses and shared taxis take seven hours. 

Furthermore, there is a perfect road between Istaravshan and Khujand, and consequently, the 70 km journey takes just an hour by car. It passes a reservoir, with one of the ubiquitous busts of Lenin, and through a fertile area of fields of wheat, vegetables, vineyards, and cotton. The product from here is exported as far as Russia in refrigerated trucks. You can make a short stopover on the way to make a short tour to view Lenin. The head is enormous, reached by 100 steps. It is a strong reminder of the Soviet past. Perhaps, it may not stay long as these reminders are slowly being removed. Most of the land is planted with cotton. Like in Soviet time, there are still students forced to spend a semester picking cotton during the autumn time without pay, receiving just their very basic board and lodging. 

Istaravshan’s main bus stand is on Lenin street at the outskirts of the town and the place to be if you head towards Khujand or Dushanbe. The intercity minibusses stop here, as do the numerous local minibusses that whistle and down to the bazaar. 

Around Istaravshan

Giant Lenin Bust

The large bust of Lenin stands outside of Istaravshan on the road to Khujand, nearby the Obanbori Dahanasoy Reservoir. You can still climb up the hill and have your picture taken with the glorious dictator’s bust. 

Istaravshan Lenin

Other sights near Istaravshan

Page updated 26.5.2023

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