When Tajikistan became independent in 1991, it had no history as a nation state. Before being overrun by the Tsar’s armies in the nineteenth century, the area that now comprises Tajikistan belonged to a variety of emirates and principalities. Most prominently, the Emirate of Bukhara vied for control of the region with the King of Afghanistan and the Khan of Kokand. Of course, none of those places were based in the current territory of Tajikistan, whose crazy-quilt borders, along with those of the neighboring states, were drawn to deliberately destabilize Central Asia by Stalin in the 1920’s. Along with the jigsaw shape of the country, Stalin’s machinations insured that Tajikistan and the Tajiks therein had no common heritage or heroes upon its independence, as the historic seats of Tajik power and culture were outside of the new nation’s borders. Enter Ismoil Somoni:
The Ismoil Somoni statute in downtown Dushanbe
Ismoil Somoni was an emir who unified a goodly chunk of Central Asia around 900 A.D., and was the first local ruler in the region to be de facto independent of the Arab caliphate, in this case from the Abbasids in Baghdad. Upon Tajikistan’s independence, while groping for a unifying figure, the Tajik leadership seized upon Somoni. Somoni was refashioned by the Tajik political class, changing from an obscure leader from a millennium ago, known mainly by scholars, to the proud ruler of a proto-Tajikistan, free from outside control. Part of this nationalistic transformation of Somoni included the construction of the enormous Somoni statue in downtown Dushanbe.
Close up of the Somoni statute, notice the symbols of independent Tajikistan held by the old ruler
According to one journalist,
The Somoni monument, which cost $20m, was inaugurated in 1999, when the state budget was $250m. Symbols are highly valued in central Asia, and the cult of this long-lost dynasty is taken seriously in Tajikistan and beyond.
Signs of Somoni are everywhere in Tajikistan, as the national currency is named after him and he appears on its largest bill, the 100 somoni denomination (which is worth about $23). One of Dushanbe’s main streets, and the one on which the U.S. Embassy is located, is now Avenue Ismoil Somoni. Restaurants, shops, you name it, are now called Somoni. Even my credit card from Orienbank features the iconic Somoni statute.
The Visa Classic from Orienbank
Has all this nation building by creating a national mythology worked? That’s hard for me to gauge not speaking the language and being so new to the country. Maybe to an extent it has worked, the country has been relatively peaceful for over a decade. But when I see Lenin statues throughout the countryside and hear taxi drivers wax nostalgia for Soviet times, I wonder.
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