The ancient fortress of Gissar is one of the most interesting places to visit in Tajikistan. The fortress is just outside the modern town of Gissar., 23 km from Dushanbe. The modern town has a fine new mosque, a bustling bazaar and a hamam.

The fortress stands on a hill commanding the valley between 2 mountain ranges. There has been a settlement here since the Stone Age. The lines of the fortifications are clearly visible and show the extent of a very large fortress. The gatehouse has been reconstructed, giving some idea of the scale of the walls. Outside the gates are 2 medressas, the lower walls of a caravanserai and a 16th century shrine.

Due to its strategic position it had a violent history. It was destroyed 21 times by invaders including Cyrus, Alexander, the Arabs, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and finally the Red Army. It was an important staging post on the branch of the Silk Road, which ran from Termez on the Amu Darya (Oxus), up the Rasht (Gharm) valley through modern Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar and China. Originally Gissar had been the capital of an independent khanate, but it was annexed by the Emirate of Bukhara and became the winter residence of the Kushbegi (Governor) OF East Bukhara, a land stretching as far as the Chinese frontier i.e. modern Tajikistan.

On the site is a flat area now used at Navruz (first day of spring, 21st March) for a great festival BUZKASHI. Tajiks play this game enthusiastically and it is very popular in many parts of the country as well as in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia. The game involves an indeterminate number of men on horseback wrestling over a decapitated goat. It requires great skill and strength from the rider and great maneuverability from the horses. The winner is a rider who deposits the carcass between 2 posts. Before this happens there is mayhem, with horses rearing and lurching and whips cracking. Injuries to horses and riders are common. Local champions also compete in GUSHTINGIRI (local wrestling) at holiday time.

The legend connected with the fortress says that a lot time ago, perhaps in the 18th century, there was an evil magician in Gissar called Kahkahu Jodu, who took a dislike to some Arab missionaries from the holy land and killed them all but one. The survivor was taken by an angel to Mecca, and informed Ali (Prophet’s son-in-law). Ali flew straight away on his horse Dul-Dul and landed on a mountain near Gissar. He created a tightrope, and arrived outside the walls. There he lent on the mulberry tree, causing it to bend over. He then fought with the magician for 3 days before killing him with his sword Zulfiqor. Subsequently he set off on his magic horse for Badakhshan, where he converted the population to Islam.

The excellent museum housed through the magnificent carved doors of the Madrasai Kuhna, the old medressa, which faces the fortress. The medressa was converted into a museum in 1982. Each of the individual hujras (cells) use by students for religious study and prayer, houses a different topic in the history of the area. In the former mosque are the main exhibits including a Bactrian column, catapult stones used by the Arabs, vast Ali Baba storage jars, and a great range of pottery.

The “new” 19th century Medressa (Madrasai Nav) was built due to big flow of students in that time, but now is no longer used and is locked up.

The remains of a large caravanserai next to the museum are evidence of the importance of Gissar on the Silk Road. 

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