The Long Lost Mountaintop City of Karon in Tajikistan

High on the windswept mountain of Zogik, close to Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, is one of the most mysterious ancient sites in Central Asia. Some journalists are even referring to it as the ‘Machu Picchu of Tajikistan’.

As with many of archaeology’s greatest finds the backstory to the discovery of this spectacular set of ruins is something less than an Indiana Jones adventure story. Back in 2012, a local Tajik landowner stumbled on several unusual structures on the mountain and then called in a locally respected archaeological researcher, Yusufsho Yukubov to examine the various man-made features detected at the site.

Though situated only 5 km from the town of Kalai Khumb, the ancient settlement of Karon is constructed at an altitude of 1700m on the mountain of Zogik. This extreme isolation explains Castle Karon’s long exclusion from the known history of the region for so long despite being near to several townships.

Incredible as it may sound, this city which once spread across around 100 hectares and includes many water, wind and fire temples, a ruined five-domed church, windmills, halls and a large sports complex has long been missed by experts hunting for traces of archaeological sites in satellite images.

It has been somewhat astonishing for local people to realise that this vast complex of buildings as well as burials and mines, remained unknown until just a few years ago and yet lay so close by. The site is positioned very strategically commanding excellent views across the river Panj towards the countries border with Afghanistan.

Seven years after the initial discovery, Yukubov and his team of archaeological explorers are still excavating the site and finding new ruins. As the anthropological work progresses, so too does the sense of excitement as it becomes clear to all involved that Karon is a uniquely crucial ancient settlement of astonishing size and complexity. Perhaps most surprising for the scientists is the profound antiquity, revealed by analysis of the architectural style of the construction. The older sections of the monumental buildings date to at least the second millennium BC. Somewhat surprisingly for a completely forgotten city, it also now seems that parts of the citadel might still have been in use up until just 500 years before the present day.

While there is tentative evidence on site indicative of blood sacrifices linked to Mithraism, it appears the city was dominated by the Zoroastrian religious system, with many temples dedicated to this ancient system of worship. One water temple, dedicated to a river deity, is the only one of its kind ever found in Central Asia. The archaeologists have even found a fragment from the holy book of the Zoroastrians the Avesta.

To visit Karon requires hiking up a perilous pathway roughly hewn into cliffs above the Pamir Highway. This is not for the faint of heart as an off-road vehicle can’t navigate the steep turns with gently manoeuvring through a problematic multi-point turn around each corner. A glance out the window reminds passengers what could happen if the driver takes one of these tight turns just a little bit too fast.

The higher sections of the site aren’t visible until you are close; to the casual observer, the citadel looks like a grassy hilltop, with a few exposed rocky areas. It is only at the end of a gravel footpath that the visitor can finally see that layers of the sandy soil have been removed to reveal imposing buildings, staircases exposed, divided up by a network of streets, and even an altar niche with remnants of its original paint. Against the backdrop of muscular hills, it’s no wonder comparisons have been made between Karon and Machu Picchu. Yukubov excitedly showed me the latest find: a stone vessel large enough for a child to sit inside. It’s pristine, unweathered. If you wanted to fill it with grain or wine for storage, you could.

The city of Karon would have once functioned as a gateway along the caravan trail to Khorog for the flow of Silk Road merchants. The roving merchants would have paid their customs taxes at the gates before entering the city for a welcome break at the site safe from brigands and wild animals. The extreme elevation of the location ensured an optimal view free from obstructions across the valleys, and the terrain ensured that any attack would be quite easily repelled.

Karon was a city carefully divided into four sections, a considerable part of this was an extensive polo field with the ground carefully flattened down for play. As with many of the great ancient civilisations such as the Romans and Greeks, the population resident at Karon loved to be entertained. The city’s stadium measured approximately 300 metres by 50 metres and allowed more than 10,000 spectators, a figure equal to six times that of the nearby modern town of Kalai-Khumb. Today the external walls of this stadium still stand including a raised platform that would have been for the ruler of the city to watch the games.

Not far from the ruined stadium are the remains of an astonishing fire temple constructed to be resistant to the earthquakes that sometimes plagued the region. The combination of volcanic stones, with clay mortar and wood, allowed for a degree of movement during shaking. The building would have once been reminiscent of a Babylonian ziggurat on a cross-shaped base, Yukubov initially assumed the structure to be a type of burial mound. But there’s no chamber for a body inside. In fact, it’s been constructed like a ziggurat, but on a substantial, cross-shaped base. Zoroastrians, as with many esoteric practitioners around the globe, recognise the cross as a symbol of the sun and therefore connect it with the element of fire. This temple includes a ritual water basin supplied by several pipes. Nothing quite like Castle Karon has survived to present times anywhere else in Central Asia.

Karon’s physical appearance changes at the end of the excavation season as the most vulnerable sections need to be re-covered with soil to protect them from degradation caused by exposure to the harsh weather systems, at least until more permanent protective measures can be established. It is believed it may require a decade or two for the entire site to be correctly explored and finds catalogued and interpreted. We can be confident that there is more news yet to come from Karon, it may even come to be considered one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of our time…the Machu Pichu of Tajikistan.

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