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In Tajikistan, discover the ruins of a once mighty Silk Road kingdom

The country’s most important archaeological find has been compared to Machu Picchu. Here’s how to see it

At first glance, it doesn’t look like much, just a rectangular meadow in the Pamir foothills of central Tajikistan. But there was a time when this ground reverberated with the thunder of hooves.

Occupying a broad saddle, high above the mighty Panj River, this meadow is believed to be an ancient arena for the Central Asian sport of buzkashi, or dead goat polo. The playing field was a centerpiece of a once sprawling settlement, a political and religious capital inhabited for centuries but since lost to history.

What the whole 15-hectare site amounts to, according to those responsible for its conservation, is the most important archaeological site in Tajikistan. It is a keystone of national efforts to resurrect a distinctly Tajik identity from the country’s fragmented history—and a potential magnet for travelers who are already drawn to the legendary road that snakes along the Panj Valley, the Pamir Highway.

Its rediscovery has drawn comparisons with Machu Picchu in terms of historical importance, if not outright spectacle. Archaeologists have dubbed it Kala-i Kukhna, or Castle Karon, the fortress “located at a height.”

A key archaeological discovery in Tajikistan

It was 2012 when Yusufsho Yakubov, chief archaeologist at the National Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, was summoned to Darvoz district to investigate an incongruous mound of rubble above the small village of Ruzvat, in the western outriders of the Pamir Mountains. For centuries a crossroads of trade and empire, Tajikistan is littered with long-abandoned citadels and caravanserai built during the heyday of the Silk Road

But Yakubov, a veteran scientist, now 87, immedediately thought that they had stumbled upon something extraordinary. “For years the site had endured only as a rumor,” he told me in July, when I met him in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital. “I knew it was a special place within an hour of being there.”

As Yakubov’s team went to work on the mound, they began to unearth an intact building, around 20 feet square, its mud-brick walls topped with a dome. Closer inspection led Yakubov to conclude that it was a “fire temple,” which once would have sheltered an eternal flame, a relic of the Zoroastrian religion that spread out of Persia, modern-day Iran, with the rise of the Achaemenid Empire in the sixth century B.C.

Other discoveries soon followed. Archaic mausoleums dotted the surrounding hills. The excavation of a suspected water temple and observatory, alongside the remnants of a substantial defensive wall, augmented Yakubov’s supposition that Karon may have been a place of special ceremonial prestige. Evidence of winemaking and gold processing pointed to a once thriving economy. Coins found in the vicinity of the fire temple date back to the second century A.D.

(Some of the most magnificent frescoes can be found in the “Paris of the Balkans.”

An image of ruins from Castle Karon protected by an overhang.

Karon is located at the western edge of Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), a vast province dominated by the Pamirs, where the scattered population is often at odds with the government in Dushanbe. As such, the uncovering of the Karon story holds significance not just as a milestone of Tajik history, but as an emblem of nation-building—part of a slate of “patriotic projects” that has seen the Dushanbe skyline transformed with extravagant monuments.

For all its historical significance, however, Karon’s timeline remains subject to conjecture. “From the size of the site it might have been a medium-sized town,” says Pavel Lurje, head of Central Asian Studies at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, who worked alongside Yakubov for three seasons. “Such settlements are extremely rare in the highlands of Central Asia where even today the life is essentially rural. Karon is a true enigma.”

By the Middle Ages, Lurje believes, the settlement at Karon had fallen into decline. Sparse literary sources suggest that the last of its population relocated to the Panj Valley in the early 17th century, perhaps prompted by the drying out of local mountain springs. By now Zoroastrianism had long since been displaced by Islam as the region’s dominant religion, though exactly what motivated the concealment of Yakubov’s fire temple remains uncertain.

What does seem clear is that the last chapter in a long period of forgetting came with the Soviet era, which required the erasure of local culture in the service of revolutionary communism. Soon after Tajikistan was absorbed into the U.S.S.R., in 1929, Soviet engineers began construction of the M41, the spectacular road that traverses the high plateaus of Murghob, and onto the trading hub of Osh, in Kyrgyzstan, which would come to be known colloquially as the Pamir Highway.

A city street in the town of Khorog surrounded by the mountains in Tajikistan.

The importance of Castle Karon now

Today, the nearest major settlement to Karon, Qalai Khumb, also called Darvoz, is a staging post for long-distance truckers and an increasing number of foreign travelers, who drive and cycle in their dust-plumes. The simple restaurant in the center of town, with its balcony protruding over the raging Obikhumbob River, is always busy.

But whatever mule trails once crossed the passes were forgotten generations ago—until now. As you ascend the southern hill, you can start to appreciate the strategic importance of the site and the scale of the settlement that once occupied it. At the crest, a knot of ruins comprise Karon’s best preserved complex, believed to be the remnants of a royal enclosure.

Looking back down to the pass, the polo field is cradled by tapering meadows. Faint ribs stratify the western hill—evidence, Yakubov claims, of stadium bleachers that could have accommodated 10,000 spectators. To fill the arena today, you would need to lure people from miles in every direction.

Despite the uncertainties surrounding its history, champions of the region—and Tajikistan tourism more generally—are hoping it may one day serve as an anchor site for heritage tourism. A modern luxury hotel, the Karon Palace, opened in Qalai Khumb in 2015. A small museum, designed to house the wealth of coins, pottery, and other artifacts that Yakubov’s team has unearthed, is in the planning stages. Huge swaths of the site are yet to be disinterred.

“It might not have the grandeur of Samarkand,” said Yakubov, referring to the Silk Road city in Uzbekistan, famed for its Islamic architecture. “But it is just as important to the story of Central Asia.”

What to know

How to get there: Travelers require a permit in order to visit GBAO; these can usually be obtained in advance through your tour operator or local embassy.

Qalai Khumb is located around 230 miles from Dushanbe by road. Buses and shared taxis go from the Badakhshan bus station and take around 12 hours.

Outfitters: Recommended tour agencies specializing in the Pamir region include Orom Travel and Paramount Journey in Tajikistan, and Silk Road Adventures in the U.K.

Where to stay: Karon Palace is a modern, comfortable hotel in the center of Qalai Khumb. Simple and more affordable accommodations can be found at one of the numerous homestays that are signposted on the main road.

What to do: For most travelers, Qalai Khumb is a stopping point on the road to Khorog, and the central Pamir valleys. The Tajik National Park is the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage site. Comprising 10,000 square miles of the Pamir range, it’s a spectacular region of stark desert plateaus and snow-bound peaks rising above 23,000 feet and a mecca for trekkers and climbers.

Castle Karon is one of a number of cultural sites in the Pamir region, including the thermal springs of Garm Chashma and the spectacular Yamchun Fortress, high above the Wakhan Corridor.

Source: National Geographic