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