Sarazm – a proto-urban archaeological site

Travel blogger Natascha walking around excavation #11 in Sarazm
Excavation Nr 11 in Sarazm

Marshrutka No. 3, one of the tiny microbuses that zip through the town of Penjikent, goes to the village of Sarazm near the Uzbek border – at least in theory. But whenever we stop a No. 3, the driver rolls his eyes, waves his arms or suggests a dubious microbus No. 16 we never set an eye on during our whole stay in Penjikent. But after some waiting, we finally sit in a No. 3 travelling to the border, with a young woman and two very cool 10-year-old boys in leather jackets. It gets a bit crowded when five voluminous peasant women cheerfully enter the microbus. “Ah, Sarazm – archaeologiya!” they nod and point to the high metal roofs a short distance from the road. This must be the proto-urban archaeological site of Sarazm! And then everybody has to climb out of the bus again to let us get off.

One of the oldest towns in the world

Sarazm is one of the oldest towns (or rather “proto-urban settlements”) in the world. The first settlement existed here in around 3500 BC. Meanwhile archaeological excavations have confirmed several layers of inhabitation from the 4th to the 2nd millennium BC – from the Neolithic Period to the Bronze Age. Not surprisingly, Sarazm is the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Tajikistan.

The entrance to the UNESCO site of Sarazm looks rather run-down

It is the day of the first autumn rain, and we appreciate the high metal roofs that protect the newer excavations. Visitors today see low adobe brick walls, old floor levels and corridors that date from about 5000 years ago. Other streets, buildings and mazes of rooms the archaeologists have covered with earth again for protection. Of course, they have before extracted stone tools, pottery items and metal objects for further research.  Among their most impressive finds was the burial of a rich or noble woman. She was draped with jewellery and precious stones, among them lapis lazuli and turquoise which had to be imported.

This must have been one of the places where cross-Asian trade routes passed and developed. Later on, these routes became the famous silk routes. In a way, Sarazm was a predecessor to other historic silk road towns we have explored, such as Paikent in Uzbekistan and Akyrtas in Kazakhstan. The settlers in Sarazm also had considerable metallurgic facilities, working with copper and tin and later bronze, too.

Archeologists at work

Pre-historic pottery shards in the on-site museum

When we are already leaving, a passer-by points us to the museum at a nearby place. We had overlooked it beause it rather looks like a neighbouring plot of land. It turns out that right now there is a team of archaeologists working, sifting through millennia-old cattle bone for further clues how the inhabitants of Sarazm lived. Someone is dispatched to get the key to the museum. Although it is only one room it does contain some surprisingly beautiful pieces of painted pottery, along with other finds of stone and metal. They found analogies to similar patterns some 1000 km to the West, which is astonishing in itself. But what amazed us more was that 5000 years later those designs still looked stylish. The Sarazmians apparently had a taste similar to ours (which you couldn’t even say of everyone in the past 50 years, say).

excavation #11 with low walls and metal roofs, but very few archaeological finds

Reasons to visit the proto-urban site of Sarazm

Most of the valuable finds of the proto-urban site of Sarazm are now in museums in the capital, Dushanbe. Therefore it requires some imagination to conjure up a lively and trade-oriented Neolithic community at Sarazm. But if you master this challenge it is quite fascinating to stand at a place that was already inhabited more than 5000 years ago. We imagine that the human beings living there might have been not so different from us. Just consider your home town – what was there 5000 years ago? Have you seen other pre-historic sites – such as Stonehenge, the temples of Malta or similar megalithic sites?

The surrounding Tajik countryside is lonely and mountainous

How to travel to Sarazm by public transport

Even if you have to wait for some time, Marschrutka No 3 is your choice if you travel by public transport. About 12 km West of Penjikent, you can see the tin roofs on your right site. If you go in the morning, the transport back by microbus shouldn’t be a problem. In the afternoon you might have to hitchhike back to Penjikent (as we did).

Since the opening of the Uzbek-Tajik border near Samarkand, it is also possible to visit Sarazm as a day trip. Any transport from Samarkand to Penjikent will do. Sarazm is only 5 km behind the border on the way to Penjikent.

The petroglyphs of Langar in the Tajik Wakhan valley are another amazing pre-historic site to visit in Tajikistan.

NB: Our trip exploring the excavations of Sarazm was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.

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  1. Wow. Sometimes I feel like maybe I should have been an archaeologist, but then I realize I rather just visit these amazing sites afterwards. Really amazing history.

    1. Dear Donna, we were lucky to meet the archeologists. Although we had read beforehand about the site of Sarazm, the site iteself is not easy to understand. There is no explanation at all and figuring out the meaning of the architecture is not easy.

  2. I am glad you finally got the No. 3 bus and made a visit to the archeological site at Sarazm. How interesting to see what has been uncovered. And to visit the museum for new things being unearthed. It must certainly give you a real feeling of history! We sure had that feeling when we visited Stonehenge.

  3. This is such an interesting and inspiring read. Not only for this fascinating site but also for the folksy bus ride 😉 The ‘Stans’ have been on my list forever since their culture was hidden for so long behind the iron curtain. For obvious reason, I’m hesitant to plan a visit there at this moment.

  4. I kind of understand why they moved the most valuable found to the capital. They will get better treatments and more people get to see them. I’m glad you made a visit to the museum and got to see pieces of painted pottery.

    1. Dear Umiko, I agree moving the most valuable pieces to Dushanbe was the right decision. And we had already visited this museum.

  5. This is an excellent guide to one of the oldest towns in the world. Sarazm seems a fascinating place as it has so reach history. It’s good to know that it’s on the UNESCO Heritage list. Tajikistan is a less popular tourist destination. It’s fabulous that you visited it and shared your experiences, as it’s challenging to find detailed information about it.

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