Tajikistan is a landlocked mountainous country situated to the north of Afghanistan, to the north-west of China, to the south of the Kyrgyz Republic and to the east of Uzbekistan. At 143,100 square kilometres, it is similar in size to Tunisia or Greece. High mountains, arid plateaux, and glaciers cover more than 90 per cent of the country. With a predominantly agrarian population, Tajikistan has some of the most densely populated arable land in the world. Few passes cross the mountains and many are closed by snow for several months each year. This has always made travel between different regions difficult and even modern transport networks suffer disruption, creating a significant obstacle to communication as well as social and economic integration.
Tajikistan has four main natural zones. The largest and highest is the Badakhshan region in the east, consisting of the Pamir mountains and plateau, with an average height of 4,000m and individual peaks higher than 7,000m. Badakhshan borders China and Afghanistan but its main valleys have created traditional routes linking it to central Tajikistan in the west and Afghanistan in the south, fostering social exchange between the communities of these regions. The second natural zone is located in the centre of the country and stretches from Badakhshan to the Uzbek border in the west. It is dominated by three mountain ranges – the Turkestan, Zarafshan, and Hissar – each running along an east-west axis at altitudes ranging from 2,000m to 3,000m. In the centre-east of this zone is the Qarateghin valley, where the Gharm and Tavildara areas are located. In the centre-west is the Hissar valley where Dushanbe is located and whose communities are closely linked with the south and with Uzbekistan to the west. The third zone, in the south-west, corresponds to the Khatlon province. It is located between the Hissar range and the Amu Darya/Panj river. It borders Afghanistan in the south-east and Uzbekistan in the west. A north-south mountain chain divides this zone into the Qurghonteppa region to the west – with its Kofarnihon and Vakhsh river valleys – and the Kulob region to the east. The fourth zone is in the north of the country, in the Zarafshan and Syr Darya river valleys, forming what used to be the Leninabad province, which was renamed Sogd in summer 2000. (To avoid confusion, it will be referred to as Leninabad throughout this publication.) The northern area lies mostly in the fertile and densely populated Ferghana valley, which extends into the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan. Its main city is Khujand. This zone was historically part of the ancient 'silk road' trading routes and supported an urban culture linked with other regions and peoples, which enabled a unique fusion of Iranian and Turkic cultures.
The physical geography of Tajikistan supported the development of many culturally distinct groups, most of whom are a part of the Iranian cultural world and are predominantly Sunni Muslims. One distinction has been between the peoples of the plains in the north, who in ancient times were a part of the rich urban-based culture of Transoxiana, and the people of the mountains in the centre, east and south-west, who were comparatively isolated and developed strong localised identities. There was relatively little interaction between the peoples of these regions until the Soviet era. The communities of the north-western plains had extensive contact with the Tajik centres of Bukhara and Samarqand, as well as with their Uzbek neighbours. The Tajik peoples of the mountains have, in modern times, distinguished between Kulobi, Qarateghini, and Hissari people. In the Badakhshan region there are eight distinct peoples belonging to the Eastern Iranian language family who are collectively referred to as Pamiris and are typically part of the Shi'a Imami Ismaili branch of Islam. They have ties with other Pamiris across the borders in Afghanistan, China and Pakistan. Approximately 25 per cent of the population in Tajikistan belong to ethnic Uzbek communities, many with their own distinct local identities, who form the largest bloc of non-Iranian peoples. There are also long-established communities of Arabs, mostly in the south; of Jews, mostly in urban areas; of Kyrgyz, mostly in the north; and – since the Soviet period – of Russians and other Slavic people as well as Armenians, Germans and Tatars, many of whom left during the upheavals of the late 1980s and early 1990s. There is also an extremely marginalised community of Central Asian, Tajik-speaking Roma (Gypsies), called the Luli or Jugi with roots in India.
The origins of the Tajik political nation are often traced back to the Samanid Empire (875-999 AD), which at its height stretched from the plains of southern Kazakhstan to the Hindu Kush and from the Pamirs to northern Iran. The Samanids were the last Iranian dynasty to rule Central Asia and were overthrown by the Turkic Karakhanids. After this period, local rulers established small but semi-independent principalities in the mountainous regions that had little contact with the larger states on the plains. By the early nineteenth century there were two main regional powers on the plains: the Emirate of Bukhara in the west and the Khanate of Kokand in the Ferghana valley. Both were absorbed into the Russian Empire towards the end of the century, although the Bukharan Emirate – which had authority over the central and southern zones of Tajikistan – retained nominal autonomy until it was fully integrated into the USSR in the 1920s. It is notable that there is no history of protracted conflict between the peoples of these different regions and no pre-Soviet tradition of inter-communal animosity.