My travels are picking back up: first stop Dushanbe, Tajikistan

I suppose the best way to pick back up on my travel blog after nearly a year is to simply  write what I had been doing in the meantime and how I found myself in Tajikistan and Iran this summer. The former is quite straightforward to answer. I was in New York reading and writing for my doctoral candidacy exams, which I successfully defended back in May of this year.  These exams are specific to a PhD in the humanities at American universities. As I have always needed to explain to colleagues from around the world, one does not enter an American PhD program with a dissertation topic selected and ready to enter the archives for research. Instead in the American system there are about two to three years of classes and then exams (all programs vary slightly on their requirements). After passing these exams you become ABD, that is All But Dissertation, which means the doctoral student is now a doctoral candidate and can finally write the dissertation proposal and commence on the dissertation project. In my opinion, although this approach adds significantly more time to the program it has ultimately improved my writing, provided opportunities to begin presenting my work at professional conferences, meet fellow scholars, allowed for pre-dissertation fieldwork (to more concretely formulate my dissertation topic), given me extra time to begin teaching and overall better prepared me for working in academia. For the last 10 months I have simply read and read and read (I quite literally worked through a book or two per day) on subjects agreed upon by my three advisors for my exams. After the entire process I now not only feel more confident critically working with the scholarship in my own field of research, but also an ability to access and work with material in adjacent temporal and geographical realms.

And so how I arrived in Tajikistan and Iran: up until April I did not have concrete plans for this summer except working on my dissertation proposal, which I needed to complete before moving to St.Petersburg this fall for dissertation research. Over the spring break as I was sifting through emails, I came across a potential opportunity to study Islamic Art in a short-term summer course held in Iran. It took me less than a minute to send an inquiry email to the organizers and within days I filled out the application and wrote a letter for financial support. Needless to say, I was accepted as a participant and also tahnkfully received a fellowship from the university there. However, how could I go to Tehran, Qom, Kashan and Isfahan and not also visit all of the Sasanian monuments in Fars (a province in southern Iran) which I have so long studied? It would have been impossible. I wrote another grant to spend two weeks bouncing between archaeological sites and who else to do this with besides my best friend, favorite travel companion and esteemed archaeological conservator, Eve. After hours and hours of emails, visa complications and steering around all the ridiculous sanctions I had organized a trip to Iran on paper.

Though before flying into Tehran, I spent ten days in Tajikistan. Originally I had accepted an invitation to present a paper at the 70th anniversary of archaeological work at Panjikent (ancient Panjikent is a Sogdian city that reached its peak in the 7th and early 8th centuries). However, times and dates shifted shortly before because of the consequences of a natural disaster. I had already booked my flights, so I figured I would go in any case to in the very least finally visit ancient Panjikent for the first time. I would also be able to spend some time in Dushanbe and hopefully explore some of Tajikistan’s beautiful mountainous landscape.

Thus after wrapping up meetings and moving in late July I was on a Somon Air flight from Frankfurt to Dushanbe. I arrived in Dushanbe in the dead of night. Luckily with my Russian much improved I quickly found a decent taxi driver and headed to the bed I had booked at a backpacking hostel. For the first few days, I spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the streets of the city, trying local cuisine (I am often too brave with street food) and hunting down quality local handicrafts to bring home. My afternoons and evening were dedicated to writing and editing.

I would describe Dushanbe as a typical Soviet city of Central Asia, though it should come at no surprise since Dushanbe as a city proper is less than 100 years old. Some of the buildings are charming and coated in brilliant easter egg hues, while others are gray and dilapidated.  A few eclectic high rises circle the main square, which is marked with a massive statue of late ninth and early tenth century Samanid Amir, Ismail Samani (though I am still confused by Dushanbe’s connection with this historical figure who famously moved the Samanid capital from Samarkand to Bukhara?). However, the aspect of city planning that particularly impressed me was the number of tree-lined streets, parks and fountains, all of which were filled with business men (and women!) on break, couples holding hands and families with children splashing in the nearest pool of water.

On one of my last days in Dushanbe I took a day trip with some friends I had met at the hostel to Hissor. This location was of particular importance during the period of the Emirate of the Bukhara and includes a fortress, two madrassas, a mosque and caravanserai. The fortress, originally from the 16th century, is highly restored and reconstructed, but nevertheless a curious place to visit with great views to the surrounding buildings and the mountains encircling the city. An unexpected surprise there were the workshops (and simply shops) built into the old fortress. One of the shops had working looms set up for weaving ikat fabrics. I of course could not leave without a new silk and cotton ikat dress with matching pants. This time I choose a large colorful tulip pattern on a silver-gray background. It even had bedazzled rhinestone trimming the collar and ankles.

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