The History of Tajikistan, Part I: Ancient history until the arrival of the Arabs

Avesta Text
Written form of Avesta, the language of the ancient Zoroastrian scriptures and believed to have been spoken in ancient Tajikistan

The History of Tajikistan

Ancient History

Recorded history of Tajikistan goes back to the early Indo-European tribes that roamed around the plains of Central Asia around the second millennium BCE. Though there were many tribes, they are collectively called Scythians and were famous as expert warriors who fought on horseback. These people are considered to be the ancestors of both the Tajiks and many of the other Iranian peoples from Central Asia and Iran.

Eventually, many of the Indo-European and Iranian tribes settled down and formed kingdoms. Bactria (Balkh) and Sogdiana were two such entities that appeared which were later absorbed into the Achaemenid Persian Empire around the 6th century BCE. Ancient Bactria more or less made up what today are parts of north-eastern Afghanistan, southern Tajikistan, and south-eastern Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Many Tajik scholars believe that the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrians and one of the earliest written Indo-European/Iranian texts, has its origin in Tajikistan. Though scholars disagree as to the exact location of the Avesta and its author, the Prophet Zarathustra, Tajik scholars claim that many of the lands mentioned in the text refer to Bactria, Sogdiana and the land of Khorezm. These historians attest that:

Nowadays it is a well established fact that the Avesta was a product of the minds and spirituality of the Tajik people. A large body of commentaries on the Avesta mentions such cities and states as Bactria, Khorezm, Kabul, Sogdiana, Merv and Parakana (Fergana), … The homeland of Zarathustra was Sogdiana and Bactria. 1

Though not conclusive, there is some evidence to substantiate this claim, both linguistic and archaeological. For example, many Indo-European languages and dialects such as Avesta were spoken in the region. In addition, the ruins of many early Zoroastrian sites of worship such as fire temples have also been found in both Tajikistan and Uzbkistan. 2

Persian rule

In the mid-6th century BCE, the regions of Bactria and Sogdiana were annexed into the Achaemenid Persian Empire of Cyrus II, also known as Cyrus the Great. Cyrus’ empire went on to become the largest that the world had ever known until then and stretched horizontally from the edges of the Libyan desert to India and from the Caucasus mountains and Central Asian steppes to Arabia and Ethiopia. Bactria and Sogdiana, being culturally and linguistically similar to the Persians, was an important part of this empire and along with the areas along the banks of the Oxus (Amu Darya) river, were the heart of the eastern part of the Persian empire. The cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, today in Uzbekistan, were as much centers of eastern Persian culture then as they are now. Even today the populations of both cities are overwhelmingly Tajik and Persian.

Alexander the Great and Greek colonization

In 334 BCE, the Macedonian king and conqueror who would later be known as Alexander the Great crossed the Dardanelles, the narrow strait connecting the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara that divides Europe from Asia. His intent was to conquer the Persian Achaemenid Empire, which he effectively did by defeating the Persian emperor, Darius III at the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE. Darius fled the battle and so over the course of a few years, Alexander and his army chased him through Persia and eventually to Bactria, where the later was betrayed by his satrap Bessus. With the Macedonian and Greek army in pursuit, Bessus (or some of his men) reportedly struck Darius with their javelins and left him to die, bounded to an ox cart. A Macedonian soldier soon found the dying king and alerted Alexander, who arrived just as Darius breathed his last. Alexander gave Darius a royal burial as befit a king and then pursued Bessus, capturing him in Bactria, torturing and eventually executing him. With the last Achaemenian king dead, Alexander officially became the successor to all of the lands of the Persian empire, Bactria and Sogdiana included.

Though he was technically the new king, Alexander did not have an easy time subduing the Bactrians and Sogdians into full submission, both who did not take kindly to his interference in their local affairs. In fact, several tribes of Sogdians and other local nomads united to fight against him. This angered Alexander who began destroying villages and killing any local princes who resisted his authority. He also tried to resettle many of the surrounding peoples into one of the many “Alexandrias” that he founded, in this case Alexandria Eschate, or “Alexandria the farthest.”

The Sogdians put up stiff resistance against Alexander and his Greco-Macedonian army under the leadership of a local noble named Spitamen. Spitaman was able to unite several local tribes of warriors and inflicted heavy casualties on Alexander’s forces. In fact, many scholars argue that Alexander’s campaign in Sogdiana was possibly the bloodiest and most savage of his career as a soldier. In the end though, Alexander was able to defeat Spitamen, but the difficulty he had faced in subduing him caused a change his policy. Instead of punishing the local princes who revolted against him, he restored them to their former positions in the hope that the area would remain calm enough for him to journey into India. He also married Roxane, the daughter of a Sogdian chieftain to help cement his claim as the legitimate ruler in the region. Despite all this as well as leaving a garrison there, Bactria and Sogdiana did not remain pacified for long and by the time Alexander died in Babylon in June of 323 BCE, both regions were in open revolt. 3

After his death, Alexander’s generals fought amongst themselves for his vast empire. The areas of Iraq, Iran and Central Asia, including Bactria, Sogdiana and the rest of ancient Tajikstan came under the realm of his general Seleucus. To help him settle and control the more volatile regions of his new empire, especially in the east, Seleucus established Greek colonies in Bactria and Sogdiana. The area though was still difficult to control and so Seleucus, who went to Babylon, gave Bactria and Sogdiana to his son Antiochus to rule. Several civil wars took place within the empire and by 250 BCE, Seleucid ties with Bactria and Sogdiana were more or less severed and a new Greco-Bactrian kingdom took its place.

Greco-Bactrian Kingdom map
Bactria, Sogdiana and other areas of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom

Rule of the Kushans

Though powerful in appearance, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom was actually quite weak and subject to constant raids by nomadic Sogdian and Turkic tribes. They were eventually overpowered by tribe known as the Yuechi who formed what we now call the Kushan Empire around 50 AD.

Along with Tajikistan and parts of Afghanistan, the Kushan Empire was made up of many territories and extended south all the way to Kashmir, the Punjab, Sind and parts of Uttar Pradesh in India. The most famous Kushan king was Kanishka who also was a strong supporter of early Buddhism. In fact, the remains of many Buddhist monasteries, statues of the Buddha and other artifacts from Kushan times have been found in many parts of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Kushans were relatively tolerant and during this time other religions, including Zoroastrianism, Judaism and even early Christianity also flourished within their domains.

Eventually the Kushans lost their kingdom to the Persian Sassanians, self-appointed heirs to the Achaemenid kings of old. Initially though their rule of the area was brief as a group of Turkic nomads known as the Hephthalites came onto the the scene. Their rule lasted barely 160 years as the Sassanians eventually defeated them in 565 AD.

Arab Invasion

In the 630s and 640s, the Arab armies of Islam defeated the Sassanians and conquered Iran and the Persian-speaking territories to the east. Though they decisively defeated the Sassanians, the Arabs had an extremely difficult time subduing the eastern and northeastern parts of the former Sassanian lands. The areas on the other side of the Amu Darya river were difficult for them to control. Instead, they based themselves at the city of Merv in the former Sassanian province of Khorasan (currently in modern Turkmenistan) and exacted tribute from the kingdoms on the periphery of their newly established empire.

Eventually Tukharistan (the Arab name for Bactria), Sogdiana, Ustrushan and Fergana came under the jurisdiction of the Umayyad caliph in Damascus and later the Abbasids who ruled from Baghdad.

From a cultural perspective, the Arab conquest was disastrous for the Persian lands. Whereas previous conquerers such as Alexander had at least respected and even adopted attributes of the peoples they subjugated, the Arabs had little respect for the region’s pre-Islamic culture and destroyed much of the literature and objects of other religions, including temples, monasteries and even some churches, many which were converted into mosques. They also imposed the Arabic language on the people whom they governed.

However, Persian culture was not lost. In fact, it revived under a new dynasty of Persian kings known as the Samanids.

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