Tajik Badakhshan

In 1895 the mountainous area called Badakhshan was divided in two parts during the so-called ‘Great Game’ between Victorian England and Czarist Russia, with the Panj River (the source of the magical Oxus or Amu-Darya River) as the boarder between both parts. Nowadays the left bank region is the north-eastern province of Afghanistan, while the right bank region belongs to Tajikistan and is still known as Gorno- Badakhshan Oblast (GBAO), the Autonomous Region of Gorno- Badakhshan. The high mountains of the Pamirs are mainly situated in Tajik Badakhshan, where only small parts of the fertile river valleys are inhabited. The most important rivers are the Panj, the Shahdara, the Ghund and the Bartang. Tajik Badakhshan is divided in several regions, of which Shughnan is the central one. The capital is Kharagh (Khorog) which has an estimated number of 50,000 inhabitants.The inhabitants are Pamir peoples, divided into different ethnic groups according to origin and language, although they consider themselves as a diverse unity. Most of them are ethnic Tajiks, and can best be described as mountain-Tajiks; they belong mainly to the Nizari Ismailis, Shii Muslims who recognize the fourth Aga Khan and 49th Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni as their spiritual leader; in Afghan Badakhshan settlements of Ismailis are situated along the left bank of the Panj river and in the Wakhan corridor in the eastern part of the province. A wide variety of languages can be found in this relatively small region. The so-called Pamir languages belong to the group of Eastern Iranian languages. Since there were so many different languages, a need existed for a lingua franca. Of old, Persian has been the common language in this region and the main language in some parts of Badakhshan, but in the last decades Russian has become important as well. For centuries, however, Persian has been the main literary language, because the Pamir languages had no script. Therefore much of Badakhshi literature is written in Persian. Persian, or Tajik is the official language of Tajikistan since 1989 and written in cyrillic script. Speakers of the Pamir languages are now busy developing a convenient script.

In the eastern part of Badakhshan, near the Chinese border a totally different ethnic group is living: a small Kirgiz community that has neither language nor religion in common with the other Pamir peoples. They live of yak-breeding on the high plateau of Murgab, where conditions are very hard. Due to the harsh geographical and complicated political circumstances Badakhshan has been an isolated area until now. Our research concentrates on music and poetry of the Ismailis in this area, which resulted in research trips in 1992, 1993 (in Tajik Badakhshan, together with Dr Gabrielle van den Berg, a specialist in Persian poetry and Pamir languages and Mr. Coen van Hall, a Dutch filmer), in 1996 (Afghanistan), in 1998 (Tajik Badakhshan), in 2001 (Afghan Badakhshan) and in 2003 (Afghan Badakhshan), supported by WOTRO and the IIS (Institute of Ismaili Studies).