Sarazm – a proto-urban archaeological site

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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 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, and 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.


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 were built about 5000 years ago. Other streets, buildings and mazes of rooms the archaeologists have covered with earth again for protection, after extracting stone tools, pottery items and metal objects.  Among their most impressive finds was the burial of a woman 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. The settlers also had considerable metallurgic facilities, working with copper and tin and later bronze, too.

Archeologists at work

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When we are already leaving, a passer-by points us to the museum at a nearby place that 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, which is only one room but contains 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).

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Reasons to visit the proto-urban site of Sarazm

Most of the valuable finds of the proto-urban site of Sarazm have been removed to museums in the capital, Dushanbe, and 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, by human beings that might have been not so different from us. Just consider your home town – what was there 5000 years ago?

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How to get to Sarazm by public transport

Even if you have to wait for some time, Marschrutka No 3 is your choice if you go 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).

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