The Jewels of Badakhshan.

ساقی با وفا منم,  دم همه دم علی عل

It seems there is nothing that reflects the spirit of Asia better than its mountain ranges. From the Caucasus to the Altai, from the Kunlun to the Himalayas; these mountain ranges carve their way through the Asian landscape, defining its history, its people and their culture.

Traveling through the Pamirs reflect this notion in its most soaring expression.

Situated at the eastern part of Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, the Pamirs are among the highest mountain ranges in the world, when some of its peaks top well beyond seven thousand meters in altitude.


Historically isolated by the force of its unforgiving topography and harsh climate, the Pamirs, also known as Badakhshan (بدخشان), “A Ruby” in poetic Persian, harbor a dense network of river valleys, packed with Mulberry, Poplar and Apricot trees, which are home for the Pamiri people, of the Eastern Iranian ethnicity.

The high inaccessibility of the region, especially before the age of motors and explosives, left it usually beyond the direct control of central Asia’s major power centers, and its arid mountain slopes and green river valleys, pretty much to their own devices.

Early travelers such as Marco polo, and the 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuan Zang (玄奘- 602-664 AD), who traveled through the Pamirs on his way to India, left some description of the land and its people, mentioning among the rest their blue and green eyes, which distinguish them from the people around. This assertion is true to this very day.

Although economically marginal, Badhakhshan had its role in the what is commonly known as the silk roads, hosting its southern route, which stretched from Kashgar and Yarkand through Tash Kurgan, on the modern Chinese-Kyrgyz border, and across the Wakhan valley. From Wakhan  the route junctioned again to the Chitral valley and grater India to the south, and westwards to the city of Balkh, in today’s Afghanistan.


Despite its isolation, Badakhshan’s location at the heart of Asia had linked it inevitably to the frequent upheaval and clashes of its neighboring kingdoms and empires. The Pamir’s proximity to the lush and much desired Fergana valley brought it under the shadow of countless struggles between the warring states around. Sassanids and Macedonians, white Huns (Hephthahlites) and Kushans, and even the Han Chinese and the Tibetan empire at its peak, marched through it on their path to establish a firm hold of the region.

The eights century AD sow the incorporation of central Asia into the expanding Arab empire of the Umayyad, although decades of revolts and uprising went by before the region was completely pacified.

The Islamic expansion brought forth tremendous social, ethnic, and commercial changes. The gradual Islamization of the region, although was not usually made by force, brought forth the disappearance of local traditions and religions. The age old Avestan practices gave way to the Faith of Allah and his messenger, and the last active Buddhist monasteries where abandoned, after almost a millennia of rich presence in central Asia.


The establishments of the eastern Islamic civilization, first by the Umayyad and Abbasid, and later by local Iranian and Turkic dynasties, brought forth an immense immigration waves of Arabs, west Iranians and Turks, which had changed the ethnic and demographic map of the region. The merging of those groups with the local Soghdian and Tocahrian communities had formed what we know today at the Tajik people.

The rest of the indigenous east Iranians were forced to retreat to the high mountain havens of the Pamirs, where their descendants dwell to this day, preserving some of the original languages of their forbearers. Today, despite years of Soviet and later Tajik national cultural oppression, some local eastern Iranian languages such as Shugnanai, Ishkoshumi and Wakhani are still spoken in the Pamirs, although the number of native speakers is gradually dwindling , with the realistic concern of their extinction within the next few generations.

The people of the Pamirs hold a great deal of national pride, strengthen by the long standing resentment between them and the Tajik central government in Dushanbe, especially after the bitter years of the civil war (1991-1997) and the economic collapse which followed.

Although the war came to a halt more the ten years ago, the hostility between the local population of Badakhshan and Dushanbe still stands, the burnt government buildings in the GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province) capital of Khorugh, an outcome of the last clashes of May 2014, stands as a silent reminder of this long standing tension.

civil war

The hostility between the Badakhshanis and the government is based on tribal and regional differences, as well as continuing discrimination, but a prominent religious element plays a major role in this game as well.

The Islamic expansion of the eights to the tenth century brought forth the gradual conversion of most of the central Asian people to Islam, and predominantly, its Sunni version.

The Sunnis compose roughly ninety percent of the world’s Muslim community, while the rest are defined as Shiites, and hold a majority in only a few regions of the Islamic world, predominantly Iran and Iraq, and smaller population in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, India and the east African coast.

The source of the separation and rivalry between the Sunnis and Shiites is rooted in the formation years of the young Islamic community, when the fourth Kahlifa and prophet Muhammad’s son in law, Ali ibn Abi Taleb, was deposed of his position as the political and spiritual leader of the Islamic nation, in favor of the Umayyad family. The Umayyad “coup”, was grasped by the supporters of Ali as a sinister treason against the prophet’s family and his divine legacy. The rivalry between the supporters of the house of Ali, also known as Shiitu Ali (the party of Ali) , and the Umayyad Caliphate resulted in the massacre of the direct descendants of Ali in the battle of Karbala (680), an event that will shape the Shiite notion of martyrdom and its historical perception, till this very day.

The Shiite position as the oppressed “Underdog” of the Islamic world had shaped the creed’s religious psyche and gave its spiritual path a distinct flavor. The Shiite perception of history as being terribly diverted from its natural course, i.e. the Islamic leadership of the direct descendants of Prophet Muhammad through the seed of Ali. The years of persecutions by the Sunni majority made the Shiite community extremely prone to factionalism, eschatology, and deep messianic tendencies. The Shiite harsh social reality and notion of sacrifice were channeled towards the anticipated return of the Mahdi, the hidden Imam, the direct heir of Ali and Muhammad, and the bearer of divine light, who will lead his people to their right and just position.

As mentioned, the Shiite tendency to eschatology and Messianic anticipation naturally made it prone to religious fragmentation over the question of Imamate, the religious leadership of the Islamic nation. In the Shiite tradition, this position hold a special quality, a divine essence or light that went by divine providence through the house of Ali, and channeled through a linage of spiritual teachers which are the embodiment of god’s massage to its people.

A tragic superstar-Imam Ali

A tragic superstar-Imam Ali

In short, as result of these frequent disagreements regarding the identity of the true Imam, the Shiite community has fragmented into few separate branches throughout the last millennia, when the major split occurred between the Itna’asariyya and the Sab`iyya. The Itna’asariyya or “twelver” Shiites, got their name for their constitution of a 12 Imam’s cycle, and are mostly predominant in today’s Islamic republic of Iran. the Sab`iyya, or “seveners” Shiites better known as Ismailyya, had again split into few branches, when the most well-known of those, are the Nizari Ismailis.

In the west, the Nizari branch is famous, or perhaps more appropriately, infamous, for the activity of Hasan-I Sabah, AKA, “the old man of the mountain”, the legendary leader of the Assassin order of Alamut, which had cast its shades of terror throughout the Islamic world of the 12th and 13th century. Legend has it that Sabah and his followers use to lure young men through administration of Cannabis, or Hashsih (hence the name, Ḥashshāshīn, which became Assassins in the European tongues) to perform their suicidal missions of murder, which made generations of Vizirs and princes throughout the Sunni realm sleep with one eye open.

It was only with the disastrous invasion of the Mongol hordes, under the command of Hulegu Khan (1256), that the Nizari stronghold of Northern Iran had been destroyed completely and most of its inhabitants massacred, as the Mongol tradition required. Only then the dignities of the Sunni caliphates could have finally sleep at ease, that is, if there had been anything left of that caliphate after the Mongols went through it.

Mongol siege of Alamut. (1213-1214)

Mongol siege of Alamut. (1213-1214)

Despite the Mongol onslaught, the Nizari Ismailis did not perish in Iran, and the community continued to exist undercover, in a practice long known to them, known as “Taqiyya”, disguising themselves as regular members of the Sunni community, and later as Sufis or Twelver Shiites, in order to keep on and hold their practices in a hostile environment. This situation proceeded alternately, until the 46th Imam, known as the Aga Khan, had moved to the Indian subcontinent under British support and established his community on the open in 1848, after settling in Mumbai.

Hasan ali shah, Aga Khan I.(1804-1881)

Hasan ali shah, Aga Khan I.(1804-1881)

The Aga khan linage continued, and had widely been accepted by the different Nizari-Ismaili communities as the sole representation of the Imamate chain. The current 48th Aga Khan, Prince Shah Karim (b.1936), is a well-known businessmen, but also a philanthropist and an establisher of a number of charity funds, development networks, as well as a research center for Ismaili studies, and other academic centers.

It is not certain when the Ismailyya was actually firmly established in Badakhshan. Although one of the of the Samanid rulers of the region, Nasr ibn Ahmad (d. 914), had actually converted publicly onto Ismaliyya, this had been a short phase, and the Sunna soon returned to its dominant status. It is appear that the ismaliyya was permanently propagated in the Pamirs by dai’s (missionaries) during the Alamut period, and after that fall of Alamut, the local community had known alternating periods of separation from the main Ismaili centers in Iran, and eventually as said, accepting the divine status of the Aga khan lineage during the course of the latter half of the 19th century. In fact, it was the persistent philanthropic aid of the Aga khan in Badakhshan during the havoc years of the civil war that saved the population from the brink of starvation. The broad scaled activity of the Aga khan foundation is still the most noticed provider of services in the Pamir, replacing the lacking governmental ones.

Karim Shah, Aga Khan IV. (b.1936)

Karim Shah, Aga Khan IV. (b.1936)

The ancient Badakhshani culture, despite well rooted unto the slopes of the Pamir mountains, decades before the arrival of Islam, had managed to dress the old Pamiri foundations with new Islamic attire.

The most obvious feature of the Badakhshani –Ismaili culture is the Pamiri dwelling. A simple mud or baked brick flat roofed structure from the outside, similar to many other rural housing around the world, it conceals a genuine architectural gem.

Entering a Pamiri house, after having the shoes removed, one will usually walk through a simple entrance hall which includes a siting area (Poga), defined by an elevated platform and a couple of wooden posts. Turning into the main living space (Tshid), you will enter a square hall, again defined on all sides by elevated platforms, sometimes adorned with carpets. The entrance to the lower level is through a portal made out of two poplar wood posts, connected with a richly decorated upper piece (Butshkighidj). The entire ceiling is supported by a total of five posts (Sotun). The number five is by no means accidental, and the setting was made to commemorate the supreme position of Prophet Muhammad and his family members, Ali, Fatima, Hussein and Hassan, known in the Pamir as the Phanj-tan.


But the most striking feature of the Pamiri house is not the warm, almost Tibetan -monastic like design of the main hall, but by its celling, for almost every Pamiri-Ismaili house is defined by its uniquely shaped four layered sky-window, known as the Chahar-Khone. The origins of this design are uncertain, but some attribute it to the Pre-Islamic past of the region and connect it to the Zoroastrian four elements. As such, the first layer represents the earth, the second layer represent the water element, the next one represent fire, and the last and highest layer, represent the air. It is also said, that prior to the adoption of Islam, the five columns used to represent the five arch-angels of the Avestan religion, Surush, Mehr, Ardbon, Zamyod and Ozar. In Addition, the three main walls of the living quarter, use to represent the three realms of life on earth, namely Flora, Fauna, and the world of man.


A portal to heaven- Chahar Khona.

A portal to heaven- Chahar Khona.

The Ismaillis of Badakhshan, despite being Muslims, do not use mosques as their house of worship, but a structure named the “Jamat-khone”, or house of gathering, which conceptually hold somewhat of a resemblance and perhaps a real connection to the prayer halls of other Shiite groups in the Islamic world, such as the‎ Ahl-I Haqq (اهل حق) of western Iran and the Alevis of Turkish Anatolia.

The design of the Jamat khane is generally similar to that of the Pamiri house. Although today it is usually bigger and more elaborately ornamented, in the past any regular housing could have been used for that purposes. Inside the prayer hall it is common to see artistic depictions of Imam Ali, as well as pictures of the respectable Prince Karim, the current Aga Khan. In addition it is common to spot, along with copies of the Koran, volumes of the poetry of Nasir Khosrow (1004 – 1088), the patron-saint, and the founding father, according to local belief, of the Badakhsahni Ismailyya.

The fact that the Ismaili community used the common Pamiri house as a place of worship enabled its survival despite the waves of religious persecutions under the Soviets, especially during Stalin’s reign of terror, when other religious institutions, such as Madrasas, Mosques, churches and synagogues where confiscated or completely destroyed.


Unlike the other Muslim communities, the Ismailis preform only two daily prayers (Namaz) .Also, in contradiction to the Sunni practice, men and women pray together with no separation, when sometimes sacred music, known as Madah, is being performed, accompanied by lyrics taken from the poetry of Nasir khosrow, Jalal a din Rumi, passages from the holy Koran, or local compositions. The Madah music is known among the Ismailis for its spiritual and healing powers (Qudrat, or Baraka).

The main instrument used in the performance of Madah music, is the Pamiri Robab. This traditional six string instrument is made out of the Apricot tree, when the sound box is covered with hide from the back of a cow (some sources claim that Horse skin is used), and the Strings and frets are traditionally made out of sheep’s guts. The overall shape is said to resemble a human figure, asserting the connection between heaven and the human world through the divine power of music.



A good Pamiri luthier knows how to locate a suitable tree to be used as row material for the making of the Robab. A tree of good age, but not too old, straight and free of  knots is suitable for the craft. The tree is cut down in the autumn, when the sap flow is low, and it is free of leaves and fruits. On the coming spring, three or four trees will be planted as a replacement for the cut down tree.

After the tree was cut down, the timber will be soaked in water for a period of few months to one year, and then buried in snow for the winter time. The next stage is to cover the timber with cow’s dung, which will enable the timber to dry. This aromatic stage may take up to four years.

Unfortunately, not many luthiers are left in the Pamir to pass down the knowledge, perhaps as few as ten in the entire region, all of them are more than fifty five years old. As a consequence,  the tradition of musical instrument making in the Pamirs is facing an almost certain extinction unless measures will be taken soon. Masaii, a local luthier we have met in the village of Andorov, half way between Khorog and Ishkashim, is crafting some unusual and to say the least, creative instruments. He admitted that not many makers have left to preserve the old craft, but that he is training his grandsons for the trade, so perhaps there is still hope, after all, for the Robabs of Pamir.

Masaii- The unusual luthier of Andorov.

Masaii- The unusual luthier of Andorov.

Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, played an important role in the Muslim communities from the days of their creation. Usually removed from the mainstream orthodox practices, but at the same time inseparable from the core of Islamic culture, its adherents seek the intimate connection and final reunion and assimilation with the divine presence. Diverse as it is united by its ultimate goal, Sufism have always had an important status in central Asia. Many Sufi orders (Tariqat), which differ in their methods and practices, had sprung out from this vibrant corner of the world, best known are the Naqshabandyya from Bukhara, Yasaviyya from the Kazakh steppe, and the wondering dervishes of the Qalandari Tariqa.


Perhaps the most famous Sufi teacher, at least in the west, is Jalal al din Rumi. Active in Anatolia (In modern day Turkey), but a native of Balkh, Rumi’s writings and poetry are much revered throughout the Muslim world, especially in it’s the eastern, Persiante part, as well as in the west. The Mevlevi order, which was formed by his disciples in Konya, is famous for its iconic whirling meditation, in a practice known as Dhikr (ذکر), a gathering for the purpose of spiritual elevation and ecstatic union with the higher realms. Different tariqas had developed different approaches and methods to perform the Dhikr, some involve musical instruments, such as the frame drum (Daf) , the reed flute (Ney) and different kinds of long necked lutes, some only include a silent prayer, in a path known as “Sober” Sufism, in contradiction to the “drunk” ecstatic practice of others.




Despite obvious similarities between some Ismaili practices in the Pamirs, and the Sufi path, namely the usage of music and poetry during the religious rites, and documented connection between the Nizari Ismiliyya and at least one major Sufi order, the Nimatullah Tariqat, it appear that Sufism was never dominant in this region of central Asia. Despite the absence of solid evidence of dominant Sufi activity, a legend has it that the propagation of the faith in Badakhshan was made by the hands of the Chilmurid, forty wondering hermits or dervishes, and shrines of their honor, adorned with Ibex and massive Marco polo sheep horns are scattered around the villages of the Wakhan valley and other places.




In the village of Yamg, not far from the Afghan border used to live a local dervish named Mubarak Kadam Wakhani, (1843-1905). Although not having a normal Sufi initiation through the guidance of a spiritual teacher, Wakhani connected himself voluntarily with the Malvevi order after reading Rumi’s poetry. He leaved his entire life in Yamg village, wondering and meditating on the bare mountains and in the dark ravines around the valley, and writing poetry in the classical Persian forms used by his Sufi predecessors. His direct descendent, Aydar Malikmadov was happy to show the Sundial his grand-grandfather designed, meticulously made to show the time of the equinox. Wakhani made the calculations and crafted the device only to die a few months before the first time of operation, certain it will work perfectly, and preparing his own grave in advanced, how Sufi of him.

The Mazar (mausoleum) of Mubarak Kadam Wakhani.

The Mazar (mausoleum) of Mubarak Kadam Wakhani.

Visiting the old sage’s mausoleum, before heading down the mighty Phanj river and up the Pamir highway, gave a  reminder that the true gems of the Pamir, are not the celestial white peaks, crisp watered lakes or its lush green apricot orchards, but its people. The men, women and children we met along the way, with their ever welcoming houses, sincere smiles and honest curiosity, these people, who went through decades of religious persecutions, Soviet cultural oppression and a cruel civil war, but non the less never lost their humanist essence, which remained bright and shining through the thick dust of harsh reality,  they are the true jewels of Badakhshan.




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