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In Search of Nasir Khusraw – Persian Philosopher and Poet

In Search of Nasir Khusraw – Persian Philosopher and Poet

A view of the Mir Qa'la [Fortress] at the town of Kabodian
A view of the Mir Qa’la [Fortress] at the town of Kabodian
Huw Thomas, co-author of the Odyssey Guide to Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, goes in search of the birthplace of Nasir Khusraw.

Nadir Khusraw [1004 – 1077] is recognized as one of the great poets of the Persian language and as an important Muslim philosopher. He was one of the greatest travellers of the eleventh century. His Safarnama describes his travels from 1054 to 1052 from his native Balkh [in what is now northern Afghanistan] to the Fatimid court in Cairo – where he confirmed his conversion to the Ismaili interpretation of Islam – and back through Mecca to Khorasan [in modern Iran] where he became head of the Ismaili missionary activity [da’wa] in eastern Iran. His poetry, mostly in the qasida form, is known as Diwan, totally more than 15,000 lines of evocative poetry. In about 1057, under threat of death for his Ismaili missionary activities he was forced to leave Khorasan and seek exile in the valley of Yumgan in what is now Afghan Badakshan. His modest grave is there.

tajik map

The Ismailis of the Pamirs hold that they were converted by Nasir Khusraw and he is responsible for the spread of their faith in the region. In Tajik Badakhshan there are several shrines to Nasir Khusraw, of which the most important is in the village of Porshinev, some ten kilometers north of Khorog, the capital, on the river Panj.

Where he was born is less certain, but there is a strong tradition that it was in the city of Kabodian in the south of Tajikistan.

My search for his birthplace came in rather a roundabout way. In 1999 I had the good fortune to be appointed as the first Programme Director of Aga Khan Health Service in Tajikistan. I served until 2003. This gave me the opportunity to work with local and expatriate advisers, and travel in the Pamirs. I developed a deep respect for the Ismaili community and its values.

In 2005 I started visiting Tajikistan again to do research for the first guidebook in English, solely devoted to Tajikistan. My travels took me to the deep south of the country, then and now little visited by tourists. It is dominated by the great Vakhsh river, meandering through irrigated, fertile fields with a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, cereals and cotton. It is the breadbasket of Tajikistan. There is a rich sense of antiquity, built in many layers. Alexander the Great passed through, as did Genghis Khan, Babur and the Bolsheviks. The most magnificent Buddhist findings in Central Asia come from this area, as does the Oxus Treasure in the British Museum.

The Vakhsh River Valley
The Vakhsh River Valley

In summer it is known as ‘Duzakh’ or Hell, with temperatures rising to the 50s. In spring, the broad Vakhsh river valley is a delightful place, with its channels interspersed with islands covered in mature trees, and with meadows of spring flowers. The friendly and hospitable villagers often wear traditional dress. There is a good road south from Dushanbe, the capital, passing

through small villages and mud brick houses. They look ancient, but they are not. This area saw some of the fiercest fighting in the civil war from 1991 to 1996, most villages were burned down and what you see now is rebuilt.

My journey took me to the town of Kabodian. The name comes from Kaboti Shahnor or Kabot the Builder, a mythological king in Firdousi’s Shahnameh, who is claimed to have lived here. The main place of interest is the Mir Qal’a, a fortress with origins going back into Achaemenid times. On my first visit I found a private house claimed to be the birthplace of Nasir Khushraw. The owner is the elderly and courteous Nasratullo Hakimov. The actual birthplace is now covered

Local children in the courtyard of Nasratullo's house.
Local children in the courtyard of Nasratullo’s house.

by a nondescript shed, but there is a magnificent plane tree, that could have been there when the great poet was born. [There was another until recently, but it fell.]

A modern shed under which it is thought is the site of the building in which Nasir Khusraw was born
A modern shed under which it is thought is the site of the building in which Nasir Khusraw was born

I returned in 2014 with my partner, Mari. My guide doubted its existence, but we found it again. A very frail Nasratullo was still there, with his beloved tree.  Soon after we arrived we were joined by lots of local people, who welcomed us most warmly. Mari took photos of delightful children.

We were invited for a special meal with Kholmurod Ochildiev and Dilafruz Ochildieva. They told us they loved having foreign visitors, but few stayed to enjoy their hospitality.

Nearby are the magnificent ruins of Khoja Mashad, a mosque and madrassa, reputedly built by birds in 24 hours in the 9th century. A twin domed structure, it has superb brickwork, which would once have been adorned with writings from the Qur’an in gold. Set in fine gardens much of it has been restored and some left just as it was after the troops of Genghis Khan had tried to burn it down. Nasir Khusraw is reputed to have studied here from 1026 to 1033.

Brickwork at Khoja Mashad
Brickwork at Khoja Mashad
Khoja Mashad
Khoja Mashad

If visitors to Tajikistan have time, before journeying on to the Pamirs, it is worth a detour south to visit the impressive sights and antiquities. These include the extensive national park of Tigrovya Balka, where tigers roamed until the last one was shot in 1954, but include a wide range of other wildlife;  Chahma Chehel-o-Chahar, an oasis of 44 springs reputedly flowing since Hazrat Ali, son in law of the Prophet ventured this way on his travels and touched the ground 44 times; the Temple of Oxus at Takht-i Sangin on the banks of the Amu Darya, where Alexander the Great may have worshipped [nearby was found the magnificent Oxus Treasure]. Journeying south, it is worth a stop at Kabodian to clamber over the Mir Qal’a fortress and perhaps pay brief homage at the reputed birthplace of Nasir Khushraw, one of the greatest travellers of his time, and a very influential Muslim poet and philosopher.

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