Medieval Mountain Citadel

May/June 2024

Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan and Afghanistan
Fortress ruins of Karan, Tajikistan
(Shutterstock/ Maximum Exposure PR)

From at least the sixth to eighth century A.D., the diverse peoples of Central Asia’s Pamir Mountains were under the rule of various kingdoms, including the Shughnān Kingdom. Although there is a present-day region in Tajikistan and Afghanistan called Shughnān, scholars only have a slim understanding of this ancient kingdom’s history, even though it lay at the crossroads of major ancient trade and pilgrimage routes connecting China and India. According to the Tang Shu, a Chinese history of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–906), a town called Kǔhán was Shughnān’s capital. Seventh- and eighth-century A.D. Buddhist travelogues, as well as the Shahnameh, a Persian epic poem written around A.D. 1000, provide crucial, yet vague, details about the kingdom. “These texts state that Shughnān played an active and important role in the political, military, trading, and economic life of Central Asia,” says historian Muzaffar Zoolshoev of the Institute of Ismaili Studies. Little is known, however, about the origins of Shughnān, its borders, the lives of its people, or the location of Kǔhán. “Although the Tang history identifies Kǔhán as the capital, it doesn’t give any details about its location, size, or population,” Zoolshoev says. “No other historical sources mention it.” The names of three early Shughnān kings who are recorded in the Tang Shu suggest that the kingdom’s earliest rulers could have been descended from the nomadic Iranian-speaking Saka tribes, one of many groups that migrated to the region in the first millennium B.C. These people may have followed Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith that arose among Iranian-speaking people in the sixth century B.C. and involves worship in fire temples.

Throughout the twentieth century, Soviet archaeologists documented traces of fortresses, settlements, and Saka burial grounds in Tajikistan that they tentatively dated to the era of the Shughnān Kingdom. They also identified numerous fire temples across the Pamir Mountains, including an unusual example that is circular with a square altar at the center, leading some archaeologists to speculate it was used by Saka who were followers of a fire or sun cult that was much more ancient than Zoroastrianism.

Based on historical texts and the available archaeological evidence, Zoolshoev has proposed more than 25 potential locations for Kǔhán within the modern-day region of Shughnān as well as elsewhere in Central Asia, including the ruined fortress of Karan in Tajikistan’s Darvaz district. Many of these sites have standing ruins of fortresses that have never been excavated or even formally recorded. “I hope this work will encourage historians and archaeologists to conduct further research that may reveal the site of the lost capital of Shughnān,” says Zoolshoev. Finding it, he says, would be a boon to scholars still struggling to understand the history of this mysterious kingdom.