Ancient Penjikent


On a terrace above the banks of River Zerafshan, 1.5km southeast of today's Penjikent, the ruins of a major Sogdian town slowly bake to dust. Looking across the minimal ruins, dubbed the 'Pompeii of Central Asia', it's hard to imagine that from the 5th to 8th centuries this was the site of one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the Silk Road. Thankfully a museum, in a traditional single-room building, brings the former settlement to life with copies of the best finds.

The site has been extensively excavated over the years and has yielded several important finds, including the so-called 'Penjikent frescoes'. Depicting hunting scenes, these frescoes would once have adorned a palace with pillars carved in the shape of dancing girls. Part of the original fresco sequence is now on display in the museum in Penjikent, part is exhibited in the National Museum in Dushanbe, while the best portion is in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. A site map outside the museum helps to explain the ruins, or just to wander at random among the sun-baked ridges.

To reach the site, drivers of marshrutka 5 will stop about five minutes' walk from 'Stary Penjikent'. On a clear day the mountain panoramas are splendid and from this raised position it's easy to plot a course back to town, descending between the main ruins and the distinct citadel site further west. The route leads down to Beruni, a 15-minute stroll from the bazaar.

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