After a brief, winding trek up the hillside along a main thoroughfare, visitors to the northern Tajikistan town of Istaravshan reach an imposing, modern bricked gate leading to the remains of the ancient Mug Tepe citadel. The fortress represents a centerpiece underpinning Tajikistan’s claims to a proud historical legacy ranging back to the First Persian Empire and beyond.
But the heritage site today is in dismal condition.
Cyropolis, as classical authors knew the place where Istaravshan now stands, was founded by Achaemenid emperor Cyrus the Great as one of several defensive bulwarks against nomadic peoples inhabiting the steppes east of the Caspian Sea. Those defenses were not enough, however, to hold off the invading armies of Alexander the Great, who reduced Cyropolis to ruins when its residents put up fierce resistance.
Tajikistan’s government has for decades talked about honoring the country’s Persian past. But if the state of sites like those in Istaravshan is anything to go by, officials are better at talking up history than they are at preserving it.
It was not always that way.
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