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Hissar Fortress

Location – Hissar District.About 30km west of Dushanbe, 6km from the centre of Hissar.

Hissar valley is a wide inter-mountain trough, about 70km long and 2-18km wide, through which the Kofarnihon, Qaratag, and Shirkent rivers run. This area was populated as early as the Stone Age in 4th-3rd millennia B.C. Later it became a part of Bactria and then of the Greco-Bactrian and Kushan states. Numerous archaeological finds of remains of ancient settlements in the form of man-made round and rectangular embankments, known as teppa by the local population, are evidence of that. Other archaeological monuments – madrassahs, mosques, burial grounds, remains of irrigation canals, etc. are also known.

In the Middle Ages, Hissar was already famous in the Middle East for its craft production and had a rich market. The royal town was one of the 28 possessions of the Bukhara emirate. By the early 20th century Hissar was in a state of severe decay. At the site of the ancient town, archaeological and architectural monuments of different eras are now preserved, occupying an area of about 86 hectares. An original architectural complex formed around the Hissar fortress, where the palace of the East Bukhara governor-general, one of the most influential aristocrats of the Bukhara emirate, was located, is of particular interest. Baked-brick gates with two cylindrical towers connected by a lancet arch have been preserved from the outer ring of the fortifications. A hill slope where the fortress was once located was built in the form of brick-faced terraces. The terraces and stairs on each side which led to the gates were destroyed. The Hissar fortress gates are similar to Bukhara’s 18-19th-century gates in their outer appearance and features of their construction.

The best-preserved buildings are the old (16-17th century) madrassah (madrassah-i kuhna) — a domeshaped building with a wide courtyard and hujra (cells) inside, a library building and a new madrassah (madrassah-i nav) from the 17-18th centuries which only has two-stories on its front left side. All the structures resemble complexes in Bukhara and Samarqand and have been restored and nowadays are available for visitors to see something resembling the original. In the early 20th century madrassah-i kuhna had 100-150 students. Classes in the madrassah ended in 1921. To the south of the old madrassah lies the 16-17th century MahdumiA’zam mausoleum. MahdumiA’zam means “Greatest master” and is not so much a name as a title or a nickname. It is interesting that in Central Asia there are several complexes under this name connected with a variety of real people, states and religious figures. Researchers have yet to identify who exactly is buried in the Hissar mausoleum, although there are already several theories and guesses.

There is one other remarkable local monument, the 12-16th century Sangin (Stony) domical mosque. The mosque was so named due to the fact that the lower half of its walls were built of stone. The unique feature of this structure is the presence of four resonating chambers below the dome frames in the shape of bottomless ceramic jugs embedded in the brick mass. The resonating chambers were intended to improve the acoustic characteristics of the mosques’ interior where sermons and praying took place.

A Khishtin (“built out of bricks”) caravanserai (ancient inn/motel) is one more construction within the complex. At first sight this construction does not stand out as anything particularly interesting. However, it is actually a noteworthy object primarily due to the tremendous amount of hard work that people have put into its restoration. At the beginning, this 17-18th century caravanserai was just incomplete ruins, with foundations and bakedbrick walls no more than 1m high. Restorers only had a 1913 photo where the caravanserai was shown in its original image to work from. After detailed study of the photo and other documents describing similar structures, specialists began restoration, the result of which you can now see with your own eyes. Several folk legends told by local residents relate to the Hissar fortress. Rustam and Afrosiyob, the renowned heroes of Firdausi’s immortal Shohnoma are reputed to have battled here. According to legend, the Hissar fortress was built by Afrosiyob to protect himself from Rustam.

Another legend says that Caliph Ali came to this area on his horse Dul-dul to preach Islam and stopped on the mountain which is nowadays called Poi Dul-dul, located to the west of Hissar. He lowered a rope from the mountain to the fortress and, like a tight-rope walking acrobat, slipped into the fortress, but here he was recognized and imprisoned. In order to escape from captivity, Ali summoned his horse which brought him Zulfiqor’s sword. With this sword he defeated his enemies, including the wicked magician who controlled the fortress at that time.

To get to the Hissar complex, one can go by public transportation from Dushanbe to Hissar and then further to the fortress either by hitchhiking or on foot. There is a teahouse next to the fortress in the shadow of two large chanor (sycamores) that are 500–700 years old, where one can sit outdoors and try national dishes and quench one’s thirst with aromatic green tea.