Two roads diverge…we took the road less travelled, to Samarkand

The amazing Sogdian town of Bunjikat, in Tajikistan, controlled this part of the fertile Ferghana Valley until the 8th century CE. It straddled the route south, through the Shahriston Pass to the Zarafshon Valley, and on to Samarkand and Bukhara. I had always assumed that the main trade routes of the Silk Roads passed along the Altykul river valley, as the modern road does today.

  • Tajikistan
  • Coordinates: 39.727845° 68.711986°
  • Site type: Settlement, fort/watchtower

However, recent CAAL fieldwork, during a workshop in Khujend, Tajikistan, with our Tajik colleagues, led us to explore a well-preserved watchtower and associated settlement activity in a smaller river valley to the west (marked as Fort/watchtower on Figure 1). This suggests that another route through the mountains, perhaps connecting with Sanzar valley further west, and from there on to Samarkand, by-passing Penjikent – a road less travelled, or perhaps just less well-known to us today, to Samarkand.

Figure 1. The supposed main route south (in orange) along the Altykul River from Bunjikat.

What this fieldwork shows is how little we understand the complexities of routes through Central Asia, and with it the complexity of trade, interactions and settlement which played out over millennia in this vital region. The CAAL project aims to bring together previous scholarship, including important Tajik and Soviet excavations at this site and Bunjikat, with identification of new sites and new routes from satellite imagery, and new field documentation. Data from this fieldwork can be viewed at https://doi.org/10.5522/04/11385852.v1 and the landscape models can be viewed below 👇 or low-res at https://skfb.ly/6OOKK.

This will both better help us to understand the range and quality of the archaeological evidence, which is not solely reflected in the great cities of the Silk Roads, but also to work with our local colleagues in its protection and management.


Figure 2. Satellite image showing the fort/watchtower nestled between two small river valleys. To the west, and extensive settlement in the base of the valley probably controlled the passing trade through the area.
Figure 3. Kalai Sar fort, Tajikistan. The CAAL team conducted training and a UAV survey in October 2019, documenting the landscape where two roads diverged either side of hill, with a Sogdian fort at its summit controlling the passes.

Upper Right: Denis and Gai preparing the UAV survey.

Left: Tajik archaeologist Bobomullo, from the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography named after A Donish, examining the remains of structures in the valley floor. Previously undocumented, these remains are vulnerable to changing river patterns and land use.

Middle Right:. Part of the well-preserved fort rampart.

Lower Right: A perspective view in Google Earth TM , looking north, with the settlement and fort controlling the routes up these valleys.

Fort/watchtower and associated settlement; also known as Kalai Sar. Located in Shakhristanskiy Rayon, Sughd Province, Tajikistan. Not far from Shahristan (Шаҳристон) town and Khisor (Ҳисор) village.

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