Location – Khatlon region, Vose district, South-west part of the Surkhob and Yakhsu Rivers valley. The Qurbonshahid village

Bactria (in Arabic-Persian – Тahoriston), the ancient country of Central Asia, located in the area of present day South Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and North Afghanistan, was mentioned, even in the antique sources, as a region where lots of gold was mined and splendid horses were bred. In the famous Amu Darya treasure, found in late 19th century on the right bank of the Panj River, there were many gold items with portrayals of horses, with clear features of the breeds native to this area.

Panj (Jaryob) and Vakhsh (Vakhshob) Rivers flow through this area and, after merging, create the great Amu Darya known to the ancient world as the Oxus River (or Jaikhun among the Arabs). The vast area between the Vakhsh and Panj (i.e. the left-bank of the Vakhsh valley) was Khuttal region. In ancient history Khuttal was a part of Bactria.

Medieval geographers did not record the exact geographic borders of Khuttal. However, it is well known that the capital of the region at that time was the town of Hulbuk, which “disappeared” somehow after the 12th century.

In Khuttal there were several towns, both large and small (Levaqand, Helavard, Tamliyat, Pargar, Andijagar) and one of them, Munk, was even larger than the capital. Not all of these towns exist now, nevertheless their former location has been determined. So, where was the town of Hulbuk, the capital of Khuttal, located? In 1952 archaeologists looked for the first time in a location called Khisht-teppa (in Tajik – a “Brick hill”) where scholars believed the “disappeared” medieval capital to be situated. It drew the scholars’ attention because its area (about 70 hectares) was full of pieces of earthenware crockery and glass, ceramic and metallic paving stones, and fragments of baked bricks. According to written sources the buildings of Hulbuk were also made of baked bricks. A long archaeological dig further confirmed that this very hill in the centre of Hulbuk was a palace where a local ruler had governed.

In the course of the dig carried out near Shahriston, it was discovered that there had originally been a palace situated on a plain occupying the whole 300mlong citadel. The palace walls were assembled from mud bricks and coated with baked bricks. The Palace consisted of large, rectangular rooms and long, wide (about 4m) corridors. The floors were covered with parquet-style baked bricks. Initially, the walls and ceilings were decorated with plaster carvings and wall paintings – portraits of warriors, musicians and musical instruments (particularly, the two-stringed rubob which was played with a bow). Later, a picture of musicians was painted over with loam and plastered. Perhaps this was because of the Islamic art tradition which does not allow the portrayal of people in paintings, even in a wall painting. Ornamental patterns, various combinations of geometrical figures, formalized Arabic characters, images of fish and imaginary animals with human pattern scan be seen in the alabaster carvings. In the course of the dig it was discovered that the ancient town had a sewage system consisting of deep (up to 6m) refuse pits, brick channels and ceramic pipes which took the sewage outside the limits of the palace premises. Besides the sewers, water-pipes (about 60cm in diameter, 80-100cm long) were found in all parts of the town and this shows the existence of a centralized water supply system in the capital at that time.

Ancient rulers also paid attention to heating. Heating systems of several types were discovered during the dig. In particular, a chain of connected ceramic pipes (each about 50cm long and 10-15cm in diameter) and brick gutters built under a floor, was discovered. Scholars assume that air, which was somehow preheated, could have been distributed through them. This is a distant reminder of a modern central-heating system. Other methods of heating were also found. For instance, hollows 30–50cm deep with sides no more than one meter wide in the floor of a room resemble the modern “sandal” heating system used in Central Asian villages today. Else were a large khum (jug) was dug into a floor, then filled with charcoal and heated which gradually gave heat to the floor.

In one refuse pit coins were found minted by the Ghaznavid sovereign Mas’ud (1030–1041). This discovery helped determine that the palace existed in the second quarter of the 11th century. However, it may have had an earlier origin since the Khuttal capital is mentioned in Arabic sources of the 9-10th centuries. Further excavations showed that under the 11th century palace there are structures of an earlier building, i.e., the palace was built on ruins of another palace.

One other interesting find was made in a refuse pit – the Hulbuk chess set. Altogether, twenty intact and eight fragmented chess pieces were found. All of them were made of ivory. The most beautiful of them is a knight. Unfortunately, the heads of the horse and rider were not preserved. However, one can clearly see a horsecloth covering both sides with multi-pronged starshaped medallions and a harness in the form of a garland made of deeply-engraved, truncated pyramids.

A hand holding the bridle, wide trousers, and high soft boots in the stirrups are all that remain of the rider. No less noteworthy are the drawings of a horse – fragments of a dish on which four Khuttal runners are portrayed in a flat race. Such attention to a horse is explained by the fact that the “heavenly runners” of Khuttal were well-known in ancient times. It is enough to mention that fact that Khuttal horses formed the basis of Alexander the Great’s cavalry.

The discovery of famous lustre ceramics from the Iranian city of Rei, which testify to the wide trade relations of ancient Khuttal, is also of great interest. No less interesting are the numerous articles made of green, white, yellow, black, violet, blue, claret and even ultramarine glass by the ancient craftsmen of Khuttal found in the course of the dig.