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Introducing Penjikent

On a terrace above the banks of the Zerafshan (Zeravshan) River, 1.5km southeast of the modern, pleasant but somewhat dull modern town, are the ruins of ancient Penjikent, a major Sogdian town founded in the 5th century and abandoned in the 8th century. At its height the settlement town was one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the Silk Road and a rich trading centre, whose palace was decorated with ornate hunting scenes and pillars carved in the shape of dancinggirls.

The ancient city has not been built upon since it was abandoned. You can make out the faint foundations of houses, two Zoroastrian temples and the shop-lined bazaar of the main shakhristan (town centre), as well as the obvious citadel to the west, but the best of the frescoes (some of them 15m long), sculptures, pottery and manuscripts were long ago carted off to Tashkent and St Petersburg. A small museum (admission 2TJS; 10am-5pm) chronicles the excavations. Surrounding the site are scattered remains of a rabad (suburb) and necropolis. The ruins are an 800m walk from the end of marshrutka 5 (40 dirham) or a 15-minute walk from the bazaar. Visit in the early morning or afternoon to avoid the heat. For more on the excavations, including a map, see www.orientarch.uni-halle.de/ca/capage.htm.

Some more finds and reproduction frescoes are on display at the Rudaki Museum (Rudaki; admission 3TJS; 8am-5pm), 1.5km west of the bazaar in modern Penjikent. There are also tools from the nearby Neolithic site of Sarazm and a copy of documents found at Mt Mug, where the Sogdians made their last stand against the Arab invaders. A statue of Devastich, the last Sogdian leader, dominates the roundabout at the west end of town.

The museum’s name arises from the claim that Penjikent was the birthplace of Abu Abdullah Rudaki, the Samanid court poet considered by many to be the father of Persian poetry. His modern mausoleum, a popular pilgrimage place, is located 58km west of Penjikent in the village of Panjrud, along with a small museum and guesthouse.

The best local excursion is to the pic­turesque Marguzor lakes, up in the Fan Mountains.