Istaravshan, located in the Sogd region of Tajikistan, bears traces of civilizations that have emerged and grown here for over 2500 years. This is a museum city, an ancient center of architecture, culture, science, trade, and crafts. One of the oldest centers of the Middle East, Istaravshan was founded in the VI century BC by Cyrus, an Achaemenid King.
The city had a citadel, defended itself with three rows of walls, whose length was 6000 meters. In the south of the citadel there was a gate with two towers. Archeological investigations revealed the ancient core of the city – an ancient settlement Mugteppa having area of 6 hectares, which occupied this place from II to VII centuries BC. In V-VIII centuries, not far from Mugteppa aristocrats and landowners erected numerous castles with expressive architecture. Bundzhikat and Chilhudzhra complexes were found here - with well-fortified constructions, palace structures and buildings for public worship decorated with paintings and carved panels.
In the years of Arab rule, new types of architectural structures get a boost (mosques, madrasas, mausoleums, minarets, etc.) based on portal-dome structures. In addition to adobe brick, burnt brick and ceramic tiles become more common, which gave impetus to improving the dome structures.
The rapid development of Istaravshan is associated with the rule of the first ethnic Tajik Samanid dynasty (IX-X century). It was a period of extraordinary prosperity of urban culture, and Istaravshan grew up, being improved. The second period of prosperity falls on the XIV century, when the powerful Timurid Empire was formed.
The city turns into a large, very dynamic center of new state. Residential neighborhoods are expanding, urban space is improved, and its water supply is established by irrigation ditches, pipes and structures. In each quarter, recreational areas with ponds and closed tanks with water are created. In the XVI century, the city is experiencing a new stage of development - a Kok-Gumbaz Mosque is erected here and a new garden – Chorbog is laid out.
The old town has preserved a large fragment of late medieval buildings - mosques, madrasas, mausoleums, baths, hamams and markets. The glaze that covers their arches and domes is painted in golden brown hues.
The most significant structure of the surviving monuments of Istaravshan is a mosque and madrasa of Kok Gumbaz. The arches, decorated with stalactites, walls with murals, carved doors and the majestic dome make the building unique. The mosque Bobo Tago was also built in the XVI century. In 1899, a four-column aiwan was attached to it. Compact, strict forms of the building in the ensemble with a minaret provide a unique architectural composition.
In Istaravshan, the holy shrines of Islam are represented by many monuments of memorial architecture. Sarah Mazor Mausoleum is a simple building, modest in decoration, which impresses with its monumental architectural forms. Another Abdulkadir Gilani mausoleum is characterized in that its interior decoration incorporates many types of ornamental decor: stalactites, wood and ganch-stucco carving, painting.
In the XVII century, Istaravshan is expanding and improved. At that time, the city occupied an area of 527 hectares. Here was located an ancient citadel, mosques, madrasas, six baths and numerous teahouses operated. Among the surviving monuments of that period, a mausoleum to Hudayar Vallami within the funerary complex of Hazrat Shah should be mentioned above all.
In 1868, Central Asia was part of the Russian Empire. The architecture in Istaravshan at that time has a great diversity. One notable example is Rustambek madrasa built in the middle of the XIX century of brick and decorated with majolica, mosaics with lions on the tympanum. Unfortunately, in the first half of last century the madrasa was destroyed.
Domes in mosques of Istaravshan are usually of wood, covered with reed, which is typical for the architecture of northern regions of Tajikistan. Ceramic tubes in the walls created good ventilation. The ornamental decoration often was to create pictorial compositions on the dome and walls, as well as the carved wooden details.
As an example of this architectural solution can serve suburban mosque of Hazrat Shah (the end of XIX century), which has carved wooden pilasters. Its walls are painted in folk style. Another mosque - Havzi Sangin (Stone House) – was built in 1910 by master Mir Sayyid. The wooden elements of the dome, ceiling, chapiter and aiwans are covered with murals. Clear proportions and decoration give the building a special charm.
A traditionally urban area was divided into two parts; the boundary between them passed by a sai. In the 60s of the XIX century, the city had 60 quaters; artisans lived in most of them. In Istaravshan 122 mosques were functioning. In the last third of the XIX century, the so-called Russian part of the city was formed here. It had its own style, different from the traditional, and was very reminiscent of European settlements which, of course, contrasted with the existing appearance of the city.
An old residential building deserves close attention. In contrast to the official court architecture, the folk architecture has never experienced periods of crisis. The houses of townspeople for centuries maintained a traditional layout. You can find in the architecture of Istaravshan’s residential buildings many local characteristic features. All the buildings usually had flat roofs. Living spaces, separated into male and female parts, formed a courtyard. There was a fireplace in the house, and kitchen with a hearth was located separately in the yard.
A variety of colorful interiors reflected the social conditions and characteristics of climate in the foothills. The focus was always on a high multicolumn aiwan (verandah). It was erected in front of a large guestroom. Aiwans were decorated with ganch carving, stalactites, and various ornaments. Important components of the decoration were wooden columns, wall paintings, small niches in the walls of rooms.
An important part of the living environment was nature - vineyard, garden, flowers, bubbling water, and house. Wood was also widely used, in addition to stone, clay and brick to create roofs, gate, and columns. These elements had a different configuration, and their design was ingenious. Common decorative elements were panjara (carved lattice), carved architraves and door panels.
Istaravshan is a city of masters. Until recently, there existed quarters of weavers, potters, blacksmiths, etc. Samples of artistic decoration of houses and mosques show the high craftsmanship of local artisans.
Today Istaravshan is an architectural reserve. In the late 80s of last century, it was decided to preserve the unique part of the old town, and to build a museum on its base. In the city, 15 historic monuments were restored and renovated, including Sarah Mazor Mausoleum, Namazgah, Hazrat Shah, and Chorgumbaz mosques, Mugteppa fortress; streets and squares were landscaped, roads were put in order.
The modern Istaravshan, which has grown prettier and expanded its borders, is an important economic and cultural center in Tajikistan. The ancient city is looking to the future; it develops and at the same time honors its history, and unique architecture.