Ancient Settlement of Paykend


In Bukhara oasis today there are about 300 sites of ancient settlements and mounds, all covering up the remains of vanished towns and villages. Many of them are still waiting for their explorers, while some others, such as Varakhsha, Vardana and Paykend have been excavated and well studied, turning out to be real monuments to ancient civilizations.

At a distance of 60 kilometers southwest of Bukhara lie the ruins of the town of Paykend, which had been flourishing within fifteen centuries till the sands of the Kyzylkum Desert swallowed it up. This town was a large Silk Road center of crafts and trade. Under a layer of sand archeologists found the remains of a town dating to the 6th – 3rd centuries BC. The oldest structure here was the citadel, towering over the town. Strong 30-meter-thick outer walls with turrets surrounded the citadel. Paykend was founded in the floodplain of the Zerafshan River as a fortress on the border with Iran. In the citadel the archeologists found the remains of a fire temple. It was probably the temple Ferdowsi wrote about in his ‘Shahnameh’ This epic says that legendary Khosrov built a fire temple in Paykend and in that very temple there was kept the holy Zoroastrian book Avesta written in gold.

At the beginning of our era the fortifications were repeatedly reconstructed. The evidence to that are the changed shapes of embrasures in the towers. There survived outer walls and ten double-deck Sogdian watchtowers. In the 5th century Paykend became a ruler’s residence with a palace and a new city wall surrounding a large shahristan residential area.The remains of the residential area clearly show a regular layout. Archeologists excavated a house of a rich townsman. It consists of a main hall with pillars and paintings imaging a god-worshipping procession, as well as utility rooms and living chambers.

Later the famous historian Narshahi wrote: ‘Paykend was reputed as a town. All his residents were merchants who traded with China and the Levant. That is why they were very rich. All the kings who came to this region made Paykend their residence’. However, it was not only transit trade but also export of the goods manufactured in the town itself that ensured its prosperity. In the ruins of the town there were found glassblowing and pottery shops with almost intact ceramic jugs and bowls, as well as various bronze articles and evidence of bronze smelting industry. Coins of Tan’s China and Sassanid Iran, as well as Arabian felses, found during the excavations, prove the town’s trading connections with other countries.

In 706 Kuteiba ibn Muslim, the governor of the Umayyads in Khorasan, crossed the Amudarya River and headed for Paykend. On learning it, the town’s residents reinforced the fortifications and got ready to the siege. Arabs managed to capture the town only after they undermined the fortification wall. The traces of such undermining are still visible on the site. Historical sources say that Kuteiba seized a lot of trophies here; among them were golden and silver containers and a silver idol. Plunder, fire and destruction accompanied Arabian capture of Paykend. They destroyed the fire temple and the palace, of which only ruins of the walls and the colonnade remained. Almost all the defenders of the town were slaughtered. The survived civilians were taken prisoners. But soon Paykend’s merchants returned from abroad, ransomed their wives and children and reconstructed the town.

In the 8th century new Islamic culture came to take place of Sogdian civilisation. Soon Paykend became a new religious center. Written sources say that Paykend had a central mosque. Next to the mosque there evidently was a minaret whose base, discovered during the excavation works, was eleven metres in diameter – larger than the diameter of the famous minaret Kalyan. The remains of another mosque have been excavated at the intersection of two town’s streets. Certain differences from pre-Islamic architecture can be traced in the townsfolk’s new dwelling houses: now they had bathrooms, toilets and washbasins. The homes of the rich were decorated with patterned plastered panels with paintings. Archeologists also found a drugstore, probably the first ever in Central Asia. Alongside with glass jars for bloodletting and a small bowl with wax residues they found two documents in Arabic, with a list of names and the date: June 30, 790. In the craftsmen quarters there were found little bronze perfume jugs, lamps, two-lid box, a lot of glassware and glazed ceramic dishes. One of the jugs was decorated with a touching inscription in Arabic, ‘Eat and drink as you please’.

There were also excavated the ruins of two large rabat areas built in the 8th – 9th centuries. Here were caravanserais with lodgings for merchants and large fenced yards for camels.

Early in the 11th century the Zerafshan River changed its course and its water stopped reaching the town. Early next century Bukhara’s ruler Arslankhan of the Karakhanid dynasty tried to build a canal to supply the town with water. But man’s struggle with the moving sands of the desert was not successful and soon people had to leave the town.

Paykend has been researched for a few decades already. During the excavations over 5000 valuable artifacts have been found so far. They are exhibited in the historical museum of Paykend, located nearby. Yet the ruins of the town still retain many secrets of its centuries-old history.