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History of the Yaghnobi People October 15, 2007

Posted by Bahrom in History, Tajikistan, Yaghnobi.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Yaghnobi, who have inhabited the high mountain valley of Yaghnob in west-central Tajikistan for centuries, have been identified as descendants of the ancient Sogdians. The kingdom of Sogdiana existed from before the sixth century BCE until the Arab conquests of the eighth century CE. The Sogdian territory occupied what is now northern Tajikistan and southern Uzbekistan (Raspopova and Shishkina, 1999). From the fifth to the eighth centuries, the Sogdians were the main caravan merchants of  the Silk Road which passed through the Sogdian cities of Samarqand (their capital) and Bukhara (Vaissiere, 2004). The Sogdians also established extensive colonies in what is now western China. Their influence was so extensive that Sogdian, an east-Iranian language, was the lingua franca of Central Asia during the seventh century (Dien). The region to the south of Sogdiana, Ustashana (also called Sorushna) was also populated by Sogdian speaking people (Negmatov, 1999). Its capital, Bunjikat, was near present day Istravshan in northwest Tajikistan (Bosworth, 2005). The dialect of Sogdian spoken in Ustrashana in the eighth century has been identified through lexical and phonological similarities as the language from which modern Yaghnobi has descended.

After the Sogdians were defeated by Arab invaders at the battle of Mount Mugh in 722 CE, many of them fled Arab domination to live in the high mountain valleys (Whitfeld, 2005). According to Belyakov (2003) the village of Pskon in the Yaghnob valley became a de facto capital for the Sogdian refugees. It appears that the Sogdian refugees remained fairly isolated from outside authority and influence, although significant numbers were subject to forced conversion to Islam. Eventually all of the Yaghnobi adopted Islam, but they also retained Zoroastrian beliefs which continue to be a part of their religious practice  (Gunya, 2002).

In the 17th century a significant number of Yaghnobis migrated to the Varzob valley (Bielmeier, 2006) which is mainly populated by Tajiks and closer to the lowland population centers. A sizable Yaghnobi population remain there in half a dozen villages today. The Yaghnobis’ land came under control of the tsar in 1870, but Russian authority was mainly in name only. Aside from tax collection, from which the Yaghnobis were exempted in 1895, there was little control exercised by the Russians and the Yaghnobi remained isolated by the high mountains surrounding their homeland. The first scientific records of the Yaghnobi language were made in 1870 by the Russian scholar Alexander L. Kuhn and his Tajik companion and interpreter Mirza Mulla Abdurrakhman from Samarkand.

In the 1920, the Bolsheviks took control of Russian Turkestan, but because of the rugged terrain surrounding the Yaghnob valley they exercised no real control until 1930 when the first soviet was established in the village of Naumetkan in Yaghnob. In 1929, the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was created. The Yaghnob valley was in the territory of the Tajik SSR and is about sixty miles from Dushanbe which was designated the capital of the Tajik SSR. With the Soviet political apparatus developing at closer proximity to the Yaghnob valley, further attempts were made to sovietize the Yaghnobi, including the establishment of two largely unsuccessful collective farms in the 1930s (Gunya, 2002). In spite of the increasing Soviet control over the Tajik SSR, the Yaghnobi continued to remain relatively isolated and autonomous because of the absence of roads through the high passes into the Yaghnob valley.

During 1970 and 1971 the Soviet authorities forcibly deported the entire population of the Yaghnob valley to the cotton plantations in the area of Zafarbod on the northwest border between the Tajik and Uzbek SSRs. The deportation was both politically and economically motivated. The fact that the Yaghnobis’ remote location had allowed them to effectively resist Soviet authority, coupled with the pressing economic need for laborers in the cotton fields motivated the government to force the Yaghnobi people from their mountain homes at gunpoint and fly them by helicopter to grow cotton in irrigated desert land (Donovan, 2007). The population of the Yaghnob valley at that time numbered between three and four thousand. Due to the harsh desert climate with temperatures over 105 degrees Fahrenheit, inadequate housing,  lack of sanitary drinking water, and exposure to tuberculosis, between 400 and 700 Yaghnobis died during their first year in Zafarabod (Loy, 2005). During the first few years some of the Yaghnobi fled back to the Yaghnob valley only to be deported again.

In 1990, the Dushanbe based Council of Ministers passed a resolution to reestablish all villages from which people had been deported. Tajikistan became an independent country in 1991. Since independence, the government of Tajikistan has promoted national awareness of the country’s Sogdian heritage as part of an effort to construct a new national identity. Although the Yaghnobi are now permitted to return to live in the Yaghnob valley, only about three hundred have done so since all of the homes had been destroyed and the valley is completely lacking any kind of infrastructure or economic base. About 6,500 Yaghnobis remain in Zafarabod, the largest Yaghnobi population center. In spite of the suffering and hardship they have experienced they have retained much of their culture and continue to speak Yaghnobi as their first language.


Belyakov, Dmitri. 2003. Poteryavshiiya Narod. Ezhenedel’nii Zhurnal. http://supernew.ej.ru/058/life/04/index.html23
(November 23, 2005.)

Bielmeier, Roland. 2006. Yaghnobi, in Encyclopedia Iranica. http://www.iranica.com/newsite/articles/ot_grp10/ot_yaghnobi_20060303.html

Bosworth, C. Edmund. 2005. Orushana, in Encyclopedia Iranica. http://www.iranica.com/newsite/articles/ot_grp8/ot_osrusana_20050606.html
(October 13, 2007.)

Vaissiere, Etienne De La. 2004. Sogdian Trade. in Encyclopedia Iranica. http://www.iranica.com/newsite/articles/ot_grp7/ot_sogd_trade_20041201.html

Dien, Albert E. Year unknown. The Glories of Sogdiana. Web site: The Silk Road Foundation. http://www.silk-road.com/artl/sogdian.shtml, Accessed 10/14/07

Donovan, Leslie. 2007. Causes and Consquences of 1970-1971 Forced Migration of the Yaghnobis in the Tajik SSR. MA Thesis. California State University Dominquez Hills.

Gunya, Alexei. 2002. Yagnob Valley: History, Nature and Chances of a Mountain Community. Moscow: KMK Scientific

Loy, Thomas. 2005. Jaghnob 1970: Erinnerungen an eine Zwangumsiedlung in der Tadschikischen SSR. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag

Lurje, P.B. 2003. How long was Sogdian spoken in Transoxiana? : A Toponymical Approach. Proceedings of the 5th European Conference of Iranian Studies. http://www.societasiranologicaeu.org/Sito%20Conferenza/pap&part.html

Negmatov, N. 1999. Ustrashana, in Srednjaja Azija v rannem srednevekov’e, ed. G. Brykina, M. “Nauka” Publishing House: Moscow? http://www.kroraina.com/ca/h_ustrushana.html

Raspopova, V and G. Shishkina. 1999. Sogd, in Srednjaja Azija v rannem srednevekov’e, ed. G. Brykina, M. “Nauka” Publishing House: Moscow? http://www.kroraina.com/ca/h_sogd.html

Whitfeld, Susan. 2005. “From Plov to Paella,” Index on Censorship 1: 125-30


1. Tim Stalcup - December 17, 2008

Wow! Your tremendous research is truly enlightening. Thanks for going to the effort to study about these people. So many in my American culture view ourselves as the top of the human race. Your history lesson here reminds me once again of the humanity of all people. It is good to be reminded of the reality of all other people groups. We all are descendants of the same parents and are all accountable to the same Creator. It is sad to consider how some peoples have been abused as slaves as the Yaghnobi were in the 1970s. I would love to someday meet these people and perhaps have an opportunity to help translate the Words of their Creator into their own language. Thanks again for the article.

2. آستان - December 18, 2008

Hello Tim,

It’s great to see that another man has been infected by yaghnobimania :) I’d like to add just one comment to you (or a question) – I think you mean by the translation of the “Words of the Creator” the Bible. Please be careful with this, the Yaghnobi people are Muslims so if you want to translate some Holy Words into Yaghnobi, please translate Quran, by the translation of Bible you will interfere to religion of those people and it would not be considered right in their eyes, in some aspects this may lead to radicalism of younger generation. Spreading the Evangelium is one thing, native religions is the second.

3. ravi - May 26, 2009

My name is Ravi.
I am from India.

I am currently living in Eastern Canada.
In the course of researching some old Sanskrit texts I just came across a surprising similarity between Sogdian and Sanskrit/Telugu.

I listed some of the words on my blog.

I wanted to ask you if you have any familiarity with either Telugu or Sanskrit?

4. Appeal to Tajikistan to take good care of these people « Bookofezekiel3's Blog - March 19, 2010

[...] But in 1970-71, Moscow “forcibly deported the entire population of the Yaghnob valley to the cotton plantations in the area of Zafarbod on the northwest border between the Tajik and Uzbek SSRs,” an action students of the region say was motivated by both politics and economics. [...]

5. Doro - August 10, 2010

very informative article. Thank you for doing a research on Yaghnobi people, the only descendants of Sogdians who have kept their language to this day. I am from Tajikistan myself (city of Istaravshan, mentioned in the article). I would like to add that traces of Zoroastrian traditions are not only present among Yaghnobis, but throughout the whole Central Asia. For example role of fire during wedding ceremonies, certain positioning of fire ovens in houses (fen-shew if you may call it), or using lit candles to drive away negative spirits in the house hold There are also names that has remained from Avestan times, that people still proudly name their babies… Anyway, thanks again for the info, and peace!

Bahrom - August 10, 2010

Doro, thank you for the added information!

6. Leda Tilton - August 12, 2010

Fascinating article. I’ve always been interested in the peoples of Central Asia as to their religion, culture, customs, music, tales and language and the tremendous influence it has had on the world.

7. Perata Sercazzo - December 31, 2010

Leda Tilton may be fascinated by the peoples of Central Asia, but she evidences clear disinterest in proper grammar. Holy moly. Her last six words should read “they have had on the world.”

8. آستان - January 18, 2012

Bahrom, at the end of the first paragraph you write: “The dialect of Sogdian spoken in Ustrashana in the eighth century has been identified through lexical and phonological similarities as the language from which modern Yaghnobi has descended.” Where have you taken this information from? I have red some documents of Ustroshana (three texts from Chilhujra and some coin-legends) and I haven’t identified any difference from standard Sogdian. Please can you help me where can I confirm your data.

Bahrom - January 23, 2012

I see that I did not cite a reference for this. I will need to do a little research to see where I got that information, since it was based on someone else’s research, not my own.

آستان - January 23, 2012

I will be really happy to find some clues to prove the Ustroshanian dialect – there are only hypotheses that there may be a dialect variation in Sogdian, but no one has shonw proofs (there is another dialect of Sogdien identified in Bokhara, but its dodumentation is much more better prooved). I would like to see the connections between Ustroshanian and Yaghnobi for my thesis on historical grammar of Yaghnobi…

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