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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 13:39 GMT
Alexander's dream city, 2,300 years on
Tajiks cooking up plov, a favourite rice dish
Tajikistan is known for its ancient traditions
By Roger Hearing in Khojand, northern Tajikistan

I haven't been in many road accidents but from limited experience I have noticed that there can be a moment of extreme, almost absurd, clarity just before the crunch.

I had just such a moment last week as our small taxi skidded off the corniche in Khojand beside the Syr Darya river, taking a rainwashed corner far too fast, and upending in a drainage ditch.

What I noticed at the time was that we appeared to be heading towards a castle. There were walls, turrets, towers and a gate - I remember that clearly - and then we hit the bottom of the ditch.

I was hurled forward onto John, our engineer, the windscreen fell out and there was a tinny thump as I crashed my head on the roof.

We scrambled out, I wiping a little blood from my head and John cradling a sprained arm.

After some recuperation, he and our producer gathered our things and continued in another taxi the few hundred yards to our hotel.

Brush with history

I wasn't in the mood for getting straight back into one of Khojand's creaky Ladas, and opted to walk, and it was then that I confirmed through the cold drizzle, my vision - a castle.

The drainage ditch in which we had landed was on the edge of a small park, and further up there were two towers on either side of a gate, and perhaps 30 metres of crenellated wall on either side of them.

It was all far too clean and neat to be original, but it was clearly an attempt to reproduce something that had once been there.

Tajikistan

Khojand may look and feel like a post-Soviet backwater - it gives the strong impression of having gone firmly to sleep 30 years ago, and deeply resenting being roused now by the increasing number of journalists for whom it has become a stopping point on the way into Afghanistan.

But it has a past.

The reconstructed walls and gate in the park are, supposedly, on the site where Alexander the Great laid the foundations for a city 2,300 years ago.

It was one of many cities he named Alexandria, but this one was called Eschate - the furthest.

It was on the edge of the world as far as he was concerned. It still feels a bit that way.

Great city

He wanted a strong base beside the river he knew as the Tanais to keep out the hostile tribes from the mountains and, according to my copy of Arrian's history of the Campaigns of Alexander, he felt that "without doubt both the number of its inhabitants and the splendour of its name would one day turn the new settlement into a great city".

I can't help feeling that if he saw it today, Khojand with its sweeping empty avenues and its air of interminable slumber, would leave the Macedonian conqueror a bit non-plussed.

Defaced Lenin statue
Khojand has been kinder to Lenin than most post-Soviet cities have

He might also be a little miffed that these days another giant dominates his foundation rather more than he does - quite literally, because a statue of Vladimir Lenin, the largest in Central Asia, looms over Khojand from the opposite river bank.

Silver and grim, in that familiar "here's my left shoulder" pose, his narrowed eyes gaze out over a city that was known as Leninabad (Lenin City), until the Soviet collapse.

The fact that he hasn't been toppled, like almost all the others in the region, says more about the sleepiness of Khojand than about its politics.

"That's the sort of thing they do in the capital, Dushanbe," I was told when I asked why he hadn't been removed.

A place apart

Khojand, you see, is in Tajikistan, but not exactly of it.

The majority of people in the district are ethnic Uzbeks.

It was only some ruthless line re-drawing on a Soviet bureaucrat's map that put it in Tajikistan.

Khojand is just a few short hours by road from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, but the daunting Fan mountains lie between it and the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

All of which led to another rude jolt from Khojand's slumbers during Tajikistan's civil war in the late '90s.

If I'd looked left instead of straight on when we were crashing our car last week, I'd have seen the side of a large hotel marked by hundreds of bullet-scars.

Behind the reconstructed castle is a military base, held briefly and defended fiercely by a local warlord in 1998 with some support from a population not entirely happy with rule from the far south.

And the same geographical and ethnic distinctions and rivalries make Khojand the best way into Tajikistan for journalists hoping to get across the Tajik frontier into Afghanistan.

No flights

Neighbourly loathing is such here in central Asia, that there are no flights between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

There are, weather permitting, planes between Khojand and Dushanbe.

So going in, or, as we were, coming out, heavily laden pick-ups with over-expectant representatives of the international media come most days, rumbling into town over the ugly metal bridge that spans what Alexander hoped would be a useful barrier against barbarians.

The new barbarians demand rooms and bottled water and telephones - or in our case first aid - before moving into or away from a conflict Alexander would surely have well understood.

And Alexandria the Furthest has to get used to being not as far as it would like from the latest international crisis.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Roger Hearing
"Khojand may look like a post-Soviet backwater .. but it has a past."
See also:

27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Tajikistan
06 Oct 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Fear and famine in Tajikistan
19 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Tajikistan's new-found fame
08 Nov 98 | Asia-Pacific
The battle for Khojand
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