Dushanbe, Tajikistan: Travel, History, Culture and Things to See and Do

Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Dushanbe, the “Paris of Central Asia.” At least that’s what many call it.

Dushanbe could describe Tajikistan in a nutshell. One traveler/author spent a considerable amount of time observing the city and described the city’s main avenue, Rudaki, as such:

The blasting Persian pop music, the money-changers with wads in half a dozen currencies, the plate-glass shops bursting with Chinese imports hauled across the Pamir mountains mark the economic vim that drives the city. It seems hard to believe that only a few years ago, Tajikistan was still in civil war (1992-97) and gunmen swaggered openly down Rudaki. Dushanbe – and the country – have moved on. What was a ghost-town after dusk, is now a lively thoroughfare where families stroll in the cool of evening and the air is thick with the smell of shashlyk. 1

Many call Dushanbe the “Paris of Central Asia,” though this is probably a stretch. While the city does contain newer and elegant buildings with a mix of European and Central Asian architecture, there are still plenty of drab buildings from the Soviet era. However, one thing that Dushanbe has that Paris doesn’t is the beautiful mountain backdrop the Pamirs. They give the city a special wilderness or frontier character that’s hard to find in many other urban areas.

Dushanbe is set in the western part of the country about an hour’s drive from the border with Uzbekistan. The city lies in a high valley (2,300 feet above sea level) with two rivers, the Varzob and the Kofarnihon, flowing through it.

The Quick History of Dushanbe

I think that there are few places like Dushanbe in the world. It’s a beautiful city in a land with an ancient and predominantly Persian culture in a remote part of the world once on the frontiers of the Soviet empire. However until the first quarter of the 20th century, Dushanbe wasn’t really a city at all. The city was “founded” by amassing three already existing settlements together. Initially having roughly 5,000 people, Dushanbe became the capital of the Tajik S.S.R. in 1924.

When the Soviets came, they forced their alien Communist ideology on the Tajik people, most of whom were part of a very traditional and unindustrialized society. For decades, the Soviets did much to destroy Tajik culture. This included measures such as banning all forms of organized and traditional religion and the Persian/Arabic alphabet, replacing it with the Russian/Cyrilic one. Finally when the Soviet Union dissolved and Tajikistan became independent virtually overnight, the new country broke out into a deadly civil war that lasted for five years.

Today, Tajikistan is coming to grips both with its ancient and more recent past. The government and people are trying to forge a distinct identity for themselves based on their unique cultural heritage while also adapting it to the demands of an ever-changing world. There is probably no better place to witness the transition from a old-world to modern society than in Dushanbe.

Things to See and Do in Dushanbe

Dushanbe at night; photo from goldensteppes.com
As mentioned earlier, Dushanbe has been called the “Paris of Central Asia.” However unlike Paris, you won’t find much in terms of fancy nightlife here. That probably won’t be a problem since it’s doubtful you’d be in Dushanbe for that anyway

What Dushanbe does have are really good historical museums and some quirky landmarks, the type that you’d probably not find elsewhere.

National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan

Buddha statue in Tajikistan Antiquities Museum; photo from BBC
For a tiny, remote country literally at the roof of the world, Tajikistan has quite a long and fascinating history. From the early Bronze Age to Medieval times, this two-floor museum features exhibits from nearly all of the well-known peoples who have at one time or another lived or passed through Tajikistan. Persians, Sogdians, Greeks, Kushans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks and others have left their mark on the country. This museum displays this long and interesting story.
Sogdian painting in National Museum of Antiquities Tajikistan; photographer unknown
Each room covers a different region or era of Tajikistan’s history. Highlights include a 6th-century, 13-meter statue of the Buddha sleeping and ancient Persian artifacts including a copy of the Zoroastrian holy book, the Zend-Avesta. The museum’s web site below has a good description and interactive map of the other exhibits on display.

National Museum Web Site

National Museum of Tajikistan

National Museum of Tajikistan; photo from dxnews.com

Not to be confused with the National Museum of Antiquities of Tajikistan (see above), the National Museum of Tajikistan is one of the newer and more impressive attractions in Dushanbe. Opened in 2013, the collection contains a lot of archaeological exhibits. One of them is the recreation of the 7th-century Ajina-Tepe Buddhist Monastery. It’s a relatively spacious building that is close to several of Dushanbe’s main attractions including Rudaki Park, the Dushanbe Zoo and the Bayrak Flag Pole (see below).

Statue of Rudaki

Statue of Rudaki in Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Photo from Lonely Planet
For most people, this is just a statue. For those who know who Rudaki is, it’s a homage to one of the most influential and important Persians in history. In fact, it’s quite probable that without poets such as Rudaki, the Persian language as we know it might have been lost for all time.

Rukaki was a blind poet who is considered by many to be the founder of classical Persian literature. It is believed that he wrote over a million couplets during his lifetime (he died at the age of 83). Unfortunately, only a fraction of his writings remains. Regardless, his influence on the development of the Persian language, literature and style of poetry cannot be understated. Nearly every classical writer who has written in Persian has been influenced in some way by his work.

Bayrak Flagpole

Bayrak, currently the world’s tallest flagpole.
Yes, you read that right. Dushanbe may not have the tallest building or largest palace, but it does have the world’s largest flagpole. Towering over the city at 165 meters tall, Bayrak was completed in 2011 to commemorate Tajikistan’s 20th independence anniversary.

Ismail Samani Statue

Statue of Ismail Samani in downtown Dushanbe
Though not the first of his line, Ismail Samani was arguably one of the most important rulers of the Samanid Dynasty, the rulers who Tajiks credit with first forming their nation-state. The Samanids are largely credited by historians as being the revitalizers of Persian culture after the Arab conquest of Iran and neighboring territories. They are considered to be so important that even the Tajik currency, the somani, is named after them.

Writer’s Union Building

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The building that is the Dushanbe Writer’s Union pays tribute to the authors, poets and guardians of Tajikistan’s Persian literary heritage. The building, though modern, is relatively ordinary. However it is the structure’s facade with several statues of the titans of Persian literature that is most impressive. In some ways, these statues look like similar ones of various saints found at medieval Gothic cathedrals. Statues include those of Sadruddin Ayni, Omar Khayyam, Firdowsi, Rudaki and a few others from grand universe of Persian literature.

Botanical Gardens

Persians have been known throughout history for their love of gardens. Thus, Tajikistan has many of these throughout the country. Dushanbe’s Botanical Gardens are similar to these save for the ancient Achaemenid Persian-style gateway on its eastside. It’s a popular spot for Tajik couples, families, picnickers and people-watchers. The Dushanbe Zoo is also located here, though it’s rather basic.

Gurminj Museum

Though small, this is a fascinating museum if you’re into music and musical instruments. The museum’s collection includes many antique instruments from all over Central Asia. If you’re lucky and come at the right time, you may even get to see impromptu shows by local and accomplished musicians who often perform here.

Gurminj Museum Official Site

Shah Mansur Bazaar (Green Bazaar)

This is Dushanbe’s central bazaar where one can find, well, almost anything. Everything from dried fruits to textiles and the latest tech gadgets and gizmos can be found in one of the bazaars seemingly countless stalls. It’s not Macy’s though if you’ve never been to a Persian bazaar, it’s quite an experience.

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