Hisor Fortress, Tajikistan
A visit to Hisor Fortress from Dushanbe may seem like something you should do, but I would suggest understanding the history of the site first.
A small band plays on the square outside Hisor Fortress. Around them, a circle has formed with people clapping and cheering.
Within the circle, there are people dancing and shouting out lyrics (which may or may not be correct). And at the centre of it all is the couple of the day – the newlyweds – with the groom in a dark suit, white shirt, and red tie, and the bride in all white with a head covering and a veil that flows almost to the ground.
Hisor Fortress, about 25 kilometres outside the capital Dushanbe, is one of Tajikistan’s most important landmarks. It was here long before Dushanbe was founded and was at the centre of the region’s main settlement for about 2000 years.
Now, though, it has become a backdrop for weddings, with multiple ceremonies held on the weekends at the specially-built wedding centre, and the imposing fortress entrance used for the official photos.
I watch as the newlywed couple leave the band and walk up the steps towards the gate of Hisor Fortress.
Several photographers and videographers – not all hired professionals, I assume – follow the couple and take snaps. A flower girl in a pretty white dress also follows, waiting for the moment she will be included in the photos.
You wonder how much any of them care about the significance of the building that will be in the background of the photos of these treasured memories. Is it just a pretty backdrop or is there a deeper meaning to why they have chosen this location?
Hisor Fortress history
I ask this question because there is a debate about Hisor Fortress (often written as Hissar Fortress) and, more specifically, what has become of it today.
It’s not clear exactly when Hisor Fortress (Hissar Fortress) was first built or by who, but archaeologists say something was probably constructed here about 2000 years ago.
The reason it’s hard to know for certain is because the settlement of Hisor and its fortress have been destroyed so many times over the centuries as each new conquerer and empire came through.
Each of them would then rebuild their own version of the fortress – perhaps using some elements of the previous one, perhaps not.
Each time, Hisor Fortress would look a bit different, reflecting the architectural styles of that particular empire, and adapted to the new fortification requirements.
What you find here today when you visit Hisor is another one of these reconstructions, completed only recently by the government of Tajikistan.
It is a mix of sections that have been added or renovated over the years. The oldest part is the arched gate at the front, which is from about the 16th century. The rest of it is supposed to resemble how the fortress looked in about the 18th century.
Only a tiny part of the original fortress site has anything on it, though. If you look at a satellite image from above, you’ll easily be able to see the shape of the original fortifications and where the outer wall would have been. Most of that now is just a dusty emptiness.
The buildings inside the fortress site, once you go through the main gates, are all very new and are just there as souvenir shops and other facilities for all the domestic visitors and small number of international tourists.
What do you think of Hisor Fortress?
So, this brings me to the debate about whether it is worth visiting Hisor Fortress, or whether there are better things to do in Dushanbe.
What we see today is just the latest iteration, so some people don’t like it because it is ‘new’ and, to them, that means ‘fake’. I can see that point of view but am not sure I completely agree with it.
Each time the fortress was rebuilt, it was also new for those people. The important thing from a heritage perspective is that the same site has been used for some form of fortification for thousands of years.
What this reconstruction has tried to do is give a sense of what has always been here and a version of what it would’ve looked like at some point (in this case, the 18th century).
Probably the biggest problem, something you may have to make up your own mind about, is that it wasn’t rebuilt to be actually used for defence, it was done to be somewhere that people would visit.
(Maybe not international tourists, I get the impression that wasn’t the main aim, but certainly residents of Dushanbe, who come out for the wedding celebrations, as a family outing, or just to hang out somewhere different.)
So perhaps that takes away from its heritage value and makes it more of a theme park reconstruction than a historical restoration?
Regardless of your opinion on that, parts of Hisor Fortress are still very photogenic, particularly closer to sunset when the site gets a beautiful orange glow.
Things to see at Hisor Fortress
The fortress may be the focus but it’s actually not the only thing to see around Hisor Fortress. There are a few other important landmarks in the complex.
You can look for them yourself, or you can take this tour from Dushanbe that will show you everything (plus some bonus stops on the way).
Opposite the fortress gate, across the square, are the remains of a caravanserai that was built in 1808. A caravanserai is a type of inn, usually used by travellers, and that’s what this one was made of.
Although the building has been significantly damaged, you can still make out the various rooms and see how the inn would have been laid out.
The old madrasa
Next to the caravanserai is the old madrasa, which was built in the 16th century. A madrasa is a religious school and this one has a large open courtyard with cells along three of the walls.
Each of these cells would have been a classroom and/or a bedroom for the students. They were in used until teaching stopped here in 1921.
These days, about half of the cells are used as rooms for a museum that you can visit, which tells you about the site and the madrasa itself.
The new madrasa
As you come out of the old madrasa, look to your left and you’ll see the new madrasa.
It was built between the 17th and 18th centuries but was badly damaged, unfortunately. All that’s left from the original structure is the two-storey facade that you can see.
Makhdumi Azam Mausoleum
The Makhdumi Azam Mausoleum is not obvious and you may not notice it unless you go looking for it. But head down the street between the madrasas, away from the fortress and you’ll see it on the left.
The masuoleum was built in the 16th century and it’s not clear exactly who it was for because the name ‘Makhdumi Azam’ just means ‘Great Master’, but most likely it was for a man called Khoji Mohammed Hayvoqi.
Although it hasn’t been renovated, the rough atmosphere of the mausoleum’s interior actually makes it feel like one of the most authentic parts of the complex at Hisor, and it’s worth visiting.
Ultimately, you’ll decided whether you want to visit Hisor Fortress from Dushanbe when you’re in town… but I don’t think you will be disappointed either way.
It’s certainly not one of the highlights of the country, yet it’s a significant site with a lot of important heritage. And the wedding celebrations are rather fun too!
Where is Hisor Fortress?
Hisor Fortress is about 6 kilometres south of the centre of the city of Hisor.
You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Hisor Fortress?
If you have a car, it is a simple drive from Dushanbe and will take just less than an hour.
By public transport, it’s a little complicated. Firstly, you need to get the share taxi #8 or bus #8 from central Dushanbe to Zarnisor Bazaar on the outskirts of the capital.
From Zarnisor Bazaar, catch the share taxi that has a sign for Hisor, which will take you to the centre of the city.
From there, you’ll need to take another share car to the fortress. In total, it should cost about 1.5 + 3 + 2 = 6.5 somonis (US$0.65).
Another option is to take a tour, which will cost more but make all the logistics much easier. Here is a good private tour that will take you to a few bonus sights too.
When is Hisor Fortress open?
Hisor Fortress is open every day from 08:00 – 18:00.
What is the entrance fee for Hisor Fortress?
You need to pay to get into Hisor Fortress and the Old Madrasa. Together, the cost should be about 10 somoni (US$1).
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