National Geographic Photo Story: A Journey Through Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains

In the heart of Central Asia lie the dramatic Pamir Mountains; while the topography of this lofty region poses unique challenges to daily life, new initiatives including those by the Aga Khan Development Network have helped to bring fresh opportunities to some of Tajikistan’s remotest communities. Please click on Pamir Mountains or on photo below to read Christopher Wilton-Steer’s piece in the National Geographic.

National Geographic Photo
Please click on image to read Pamir photo story in the National Geographic.

Date posted: April 21, 2022.


Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos. Simerg’s editor may be reached at

Insights from Around the World: The 1992-97 Civil War in Tajikistan and the Architecture of International Involvement in the Peace Process

“Given the great moral authority of His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan over the Ismaili population of Badakhshan, Special Envoy Piriz-Ballon [of UN Secretary General Boutro Boutro Ghali], and Special Representative Gerd Merrem [of Germany] consulted him on issues related to the peace process. His visits to the country, informal mediating role and moderating influence significantly contributed to the success of the peace process. The Aga Khan Foundation made major contributions to alleviating the humanitarian crisis, particularly in the eastern part of the country [i.e Gorno-Badakhshan, see map, below].” — Vladimir Goryayev (note: words in square brackets inserted for clarity — ed.)

Introduced by MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor, SimergBarakah, and Simergphotos)

Some readers, and especially those engaged in the research and study of Tajikistan, may already be familiar with the details of the civil war that broke out in 1992 following Tajikistan’s withdrawal from the Soviet Union on September 9, 1991. The civil war was at its peak during its first year and dragged on for five years, with different interest groups vying for control of the new state. An estimated 20,000 to 100,000 people were killed by June 1997 and about 10 to 20 percent of the population were internally displaced. The war devastated the country.

Very little, however, may be known about the peace process that was underway during this period of civil unrest. In the Accord issue of April 2001, published by Conciliation Resources, numerous authors take an in-depth look at what was an exceptionally well-coordinated peace process that involved local civil society, the international community and a newly established Commission for National Reconciliation. The 100 page PDF publication, “Politics of Compromise: The Tajikistan Peace Process” edited by Kamoludin Abdullaev and Catherine Barnes may be downloaded by clicking HERE.

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Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas.
Map of Tajikistan with surrounding countries from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas. Click on map for enlargement.

In a chapter entitled “Architecture of International Involvement in the Tajik Peace Process,” from which the quote on Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, at the beginning of this post is taken, author Vladimir Goryayev examines the role of regional intergovernmental organisations, international NGOs, regional peacekeepers, and the UN’s special envoys, departments and humanitarian agencies played in the peace process. He concludes by setting out the widely acknowledged strengths of the Tajik model of international involvement as well as some lesser known problems with it. Please click HERE to download Vladimir Goryayev PDF article or read the article by visiting THIS PAGE.

Date posted: March 1, 2022.


Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.


Featured photo at top of post

Aga Khan in Tajikistan, the Ismaili, simerg,
Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, pictured in Tajikistan during his first historic visit to the country in May 1995. Photo: The Ismaili, Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Visit to Central Asia, 22-31 May 1995.

How a Small Ismaili Village of 20 Houses on the Roof of the World is Affected by Climate Crisis

Introduced by MALIK MERCHANT
Publisher/Editor SimergSimergphotos and Barakah

High up in the small town of Bulunkul, one of the most remote areas inhabited by Ismailis (read Pilgrim Journey — the sacred wonders of Pamirs and also How to self-drive the Pamir Highway), the clear view of the Milky Way is unparalleled, and wolves prey on the livestock tended to by semi-nomadic herders like Bulbulov Doniyor. But melting glaciers and increasingly extreme weather patterns are rewriting the rules of play for this village in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan where, in winter, the weather temperature can drop down to -60°C. 

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Partial map of Tajikistan to illustrate the location of Bulunkul. Distance from Khorog to Bulunkul, 123 km. Map Credit: Indyguide article How to self-drive the Pamir Highway

Last winter, wolves descended from the mountains and went straight for Doniyor, instead of the sheep. In a three part series supported by the Pulitzer Center, Klas Lundström, a staff writer for the Swedish newspaper Tidningen Global, tells the stories of the people living through the climate crisis. Begin reading the series on the website Inverse by clicking on Part 1: In Tajikistan, a deadly new type of climate crisis has already arrived.

Read the remaining two parts of the three part series by clicking on Part 2: 76 degrees below zero: Living through Tajikistan’s climate apocalypse AND Part 3: At the Roof of the World, solar power is a necessary evil — “We are waiting for another way of life”.

Bulbulov Doniyor. In 2020, Covid-19 struck and the herders’ usual trading routes closed. Photo: Fredrik Lerneryd/Inverse. Please click on photo for Part 1 of article.

Date posted: January 30, 2022.


Before leaving this website please take a moment to visit Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also, visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

Transforming Rare and Endangered Ismaili Texts Into Accessible Digital Resources: Projects at British Library and Princeton University Library

Prepared and compiled by MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor, BarakahSimerg and Simergphotos)

This is the first in a two-part series on projects that are underway to preserve and digitize Ismaili texts that are in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration. We begin the short series with initiatives undertaken by Endangered Archives Programme with respect to rare Ismaili and other Central Asian texts at Semyonov’s Memorial Library in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where the material is “becoming progressively worse because of inadequate care.”

Our second part will focus on documents from Badakhshan in Tajikistan and Afghanistan dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries that relate to Ismaili Imams, Nasir Khusraw and others, as well as property documents. They are being digitized through a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant, with the support of Princeton University Library.

Endangered Archives Programme: Preserving Endangered Archives on Ismailism and Central Asian Cultural Heritage at Semyonov’s Library in Tajikistan

NOTE: The material published in this post is taken from the website of Endangered Archives Programme. We would like to credit the British Library Board for the copyright material; it is reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

The Endangered Archives Programme captures forgotten and still not written histories, often suppressed or marginalised. It gives voice to the voiceless: it opens a dialogue with global humanity’s multiple pasts. It is a library of history still waiting to be written. — Lisbet Rausing, Co-founder of the Programme


The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and gives access to the world’s most comprehensive research collection. It provides information services to academic, business, research and scientific communities. The Library has a collection of over 170 million items includes artefacts from every age of written civilisation. The Library keeps the nation’s archive of printed and digital publications, adding around three million new items to its collection every year.

The British Library administers the Endangered Archive Program (EAP), whose key objective since 2004 has been to facilitate the digitisation of archives around the world that are in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration, and make it available to as wide an audience as possible. The British Library is responsible for managing and monitoring the research grant scheme, and ensuring the material digitised through the programme is consistently catalogued and discoverable online.

Archive types digitised so far through EAP include rare printed sources, manuscripts, visual materials, audio recordings running into more than 10 million images as well as 35,000 sound tracks. The continually expanding online collection is available freely through local archival partners, the EAP website and it is discoverable via the British Library catalogue, for research, inspiration and enjoyment. Generous funding from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, has enabled the British Library to provide grants to more than 400 projects in 90 countries worldwide, in over 100 languages and scripts.

One such very important project relates to the preservation of rare collection of materials on the Ismailis at Semyonov’s Memorial Library in Tajikistan.


While travelling across Near East and Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Professor Semyonov and other Russian Oriental scholars collected valuable materials about the history and culture of the Ismaili people and, therefore, made a significant contribution to the study of Islamic philosophy, theology, and anthropology. The Ismaili people were not well known to many researchers and wider audiences and continue to be often misunderstood both in terms of their religious tenets and historical background.

Semyonov’s Library has not received sufficient funding to modernize its facilities….A large number of materials are in exceptionally vulnerable conditions and in danger of perishing if not digitised and properly cared for

The rare collections at Semyonov’s Memorial Library, which has been operating since 1958, sheds light on the rich culture and history of the Ismaili people, including their early stages of development in the pre-industrial periods, and provides invaluable materials for scholars and students of Ismailism, Islam, and Muslim cultures.

Physical conditions of the materials differ according to their age but overall, the physical condition of the whole collection of Semyonov’s Library is becoming progressively worse because of inadequate care.

Since the independence of Tajikistan from the Soviet Union in 1991, Semyonov’s Library has not received sufficient funding to modernize its facilities (e.g. to change window frames to prevent accumulation of dust and dirt inside the building). Manuscript cleaning and treatment technologies are outdated. None of the materials at the library have been properly digitised; the staff scanned some materials using regular office scanners, but the scanned copies are of poor quality. Moreover, some manuscripts have been badly eaten by insects and are damaged around the edges because the library cannot afford to buy special insect repellents.

In addition to insufficient government funding, less attention was paid to the rare collections at Semyonov’s Library by donor agencies despite the fact that the collections are an important cultural, historical, and intellectual heritage. Manuscripts located at the library are mainly from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Newsletters, periodicals, and other publications are from the early 20th century. A large number of materials are in exceptionally vulnerable conditions and in danger of perishing if not digitised and properly cared for.

In 2014, a grant was given to Dr Sunatullo Jonboboev to investigate the potential to digitise the endangered archives at Semyonov’s Memorial Library for a future major project. This was in alignment with the University of Central Asia’s mission to help the different peoples of Central Asia to preserve and draw upon their rich cultural traditions and heritages as assets for the future.


An outcome of this project was that the University of Central Asia and Semyonov’s Memorial Library within the Institute of History and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan, signed an agreement to work together to preserve the endangered archives of the library.

Over the course of the project, the team developed an electronic catalogue for the library, which comprises of 8611 library holdings — valuable books, manuscripts, guides, dictionaries, encyclopaedias on Central Asian cultures and languages, articles and monographs. From the total holdings of the library, 396 books are in Arabic and Persian; 112 manuscripts; 284 lithograph; 413 books in English; French and German. The holdings in Russian, 7802 items, have been also catalogued, which consist of 6021 reference books, dictionaries and brochures; and 1781 journals. The team also organised the library’s holdings, re-shelving, labelling, cleaning and in addition partly repaired 2170 books.

It has become possible, for the first time, to develop an electronic catalogue for the full collection of the library, many of which are rare and valuable books and manuscripts, due to the support of the project. The catalogue is divided into three separate catalogues: in Russian, Persian and English. The links to the PDF catalogue files are provided below:

(1) Catalogue translated from Persian and Tajik (PDF document 613KB); and

(2) Russian catalogue (PDF document 7,871KB)

Date posted: September 14, 2021.


Next: Badakhshan Collection, Princeton University Library.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

Plov (Pilaf) Rice – King of Meals in Tajikistan – is Now on UNESCO’S Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

It is said that Avicenna, the famed Muslim philosopher, medical expert and scientist, whom Ismailis like to claim as their own, created the first ever recipe for the Pilaf (Pilau, Plov, Palov, Oshi Palav etc.). He was born in Bukhara in modern day Uzbekistan. Now more than a 1000 years later, the much beloved Central Asian dish has been recognized by UNESCO as part of Tajikistan’s and Uzbekistan’s intangible cultural heritage. Read this story and also try out a pilaf recipe from Khorog, Tajikistan, which is provided below.


Osh, generically known as plov (pilaf),is a rice dish made with shredded yellow turnip or carrot, and pieces of meat, all fried together in vegetable oil or mutton fat in a special qazan (a wok-shaped cauldron) over an open flame. The meat is cubed, the carrots are chopped finely into long strips, and the rice is colored yellow or orange by the frying carrots and the oil. The dish is eaten communally, often with one’s hands in the traditional way from a single large plate placed at the center of the table. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

Material for this piece  was compiled and adapted
by Abdulmalik Merchant, Editor, Simerg.

UNESCO’s Plov Inscription

Tajikistan’s “Oshi Palav” and Uzbekistan’s “Palov” (versions of the dish commonly called Plov in Central Asia) were both inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity when UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage met at its 11th annual session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa Conference held from 28 November to 2 December 2016.

Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had separately applied to UNESCO in 2015 — within a few weeks of each other — to have the plov recognized as part of their nation’s intangible cultural heritage. Readers will be interested to learn that UNESCO has inscribed numerous foods, including beverages such as coffee, as well as festivals such as Nauroz in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Across Central Asia, the deceptively simple plov dish is based around lamb, rice, onions and carrots simmered in broth, and accompanies every meaningful life-cycle event. Food historians have noted that versions of plov are spread across Asia. The Turkish pilav, Persian polow and Indian pilau –- and even Spanish paella — are all related, with versions including dried fruit, paprika, garlic, tomato, beans and spices.


Preparations for Plov (pilaf)…cleaning and cutting carrots. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

With regard to Tajikistan’s application for inscription of the Palav as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, the UNESCO committee noted that the ‘Oshi Palav’ is a traditional dish of communities in Tajikistan and recognized it as a part of their cultural heritage and practice that aims to bring people of different backgrounds together. The dish is prepared to be enjoyed at regular mealtimes as well as social gatherings, celebrations and rituals. Known as the ‘King of Meals’, the Palav is based on a recipe using vegetables, rice, meat and spices but up to 200 varieties of the dish exist.

The importance of the dish to communities in Tajikistan is indicative in sayings such as “No Oshi Palav, no acquaintance” or “If you have eaten Oshi Palav from somebody, you must respect them for 40 years”!

Groups of men or women prepare the dish either in their homes or at tea houses while socializing or playing music and singing. Knowledge and skills associated with the practice is transmitted on an inter-generational basis in families, in addition to cooking schools from master to apprentice. Once an apprentice masters Oshi Palav, the apprentice hosts a dinner for the trainer and guests during which the trainer receives a skull-cap and traditional dress while the apprentice receives a skimmer (a tool for cooking Oshi Palav) symbolizing the apprentice’s independence.

Frederik van Oudenhoven happily displaying “With Our Own Hands” that he co-authored with Jamila Haider. Photo: Facebook page, PamirFoodandLife. The magnificent volume is now out of print, but may be obtained through resellers at Amazon.

Frederik van Oudenhoven happily displaying “With Our Own Hands” that he co-authored with Jamila Haider. Photo: Facebook page, PamirFoodandLife. The magnificent volume is now out of print, but may be obtained through resellers at Amazon.

Readers of this website may recall an award winning book called “With Our Own Hands – A Celebration of Food and Life in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and Tajikistan” which we featured and also offered for sale last spring. It quickly sold out and the book is now out of print.  A recipe from the book for the Plov that is prepared in Khorog, Tajikistan, is reproduced below. The Pamiri people living to the south of the Panj River in neighbouring Afghanistan use a slightly different recipe for their Palao, as it is known there, and making a good Palao is considered the most essential culinary skill a woman should possess to be a good wife!

A Note on Rice

“Rice was, and in some places still is, a food reserved still reserved for the most esteemed guests. No matter how many other dishes are prepared for the guests, if there is no rice the meal will still be considered poor…..Like salt, rice could not be produced from the soils of Western Pamirs…Shali was the name of the rice that was most commonly brought, a delicious variety that was exchanged for large quantities of Pamiri wool. It was so valuable that in the Wakhan valley, dropping even a single grain of rice was likened to dropping the relic of a saint.” — excerpt from With Our Own Hands, p. 287.

Plov – How it is Prepared in Khorog

(Material and recipe adapted from “With Our Own Hands,” pp. 607-609)

Plov in the Tajik Pamirs is a much loved rice dish for celebrations and offering to guests. Good quality rice that doesn’t absorb too much moisture is an important part of this dish. The plov cooked with ozgensky rice (from the city of Uzgen in the Fergana Valley of Southern Kyrgyzstan) is truly delicious. Orgencky rice is sometimes available in the Khorog market but more common, due to its affordability, is the poorer quality Chinese rice.


Plov is one of the most popular dishes at the bazaar in Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in Tajikistan. Khorog, with a population of approximately 32,000, is mostly inhabited by Ismailis. Photo: “With Our Own Hands,” page 607.


4 cups rice; 1 cup chickpeas; 1 small cup vegetable oil; 2 onions; 1-1.5 tbsp. cumin; 6 carrots; 2–3 cups mutton; 8 cups water; 1 head of garlic; and salt to taste.


  • Soak the chickpeas overnight;
  • wash and drain the rice, chop onions, cut the carrot into strips and the meat into bite sized pieces (meat is often left in the bone);
  • Heat the oil in a kazan (or large cooking pot, something like a wok, see photo) and cook the meat for 20-30 minutes with the lid closed then add the onions and salt towards the end;
  • Add the carrots, chickpeas and sprinkle cumin over the top. DO NOT STIR;
  • Cover the pan and cook for another 7-10 minutes;
  • Add 8 cups of water (less if rice needs less water to cook) and then pour in the rice;
  • Make sure the rice is spread evenly over the other ingredients, but STILL DO NOT STIR;
  • Place the unpeeled head of garlic on top of the rice. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes;
  • Now heap up the rice towards the centre of the pot (that is, it is still on top of the other ingredients);
  • Make several holes through the (heaped) rice down to the bottom to allow the steam and flavours from the meat and vegetables to circulate through the pan;
  • Keep the garlic head on top of the rice;
  • Put the lid on and seal well, with a cloth if necessary. Simmer for another 20 minutes, without opening the lid; and
  • Finally, mix all the ingredients and serve on a large plate with the garlic, accompanied by a fresh salad of spring onions, tomatoes, green chili and salt.


Plov in Uzbekistan


The finest Plov in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

There is a saying in Uzbekistan that guests can only leave their host’s house after palov has been offered. Palov is a traditional dish made and shared throughout rural and urban communities of Uzbekistan. It is prepared with ingredients such as rice, meat, spices and vegetables and in addition to be enjoyed as a regular meal, is served as a gesture of hospitality, to celebrate special occasions like weddings and new year, to help those in need who are underprivileged, or to honour loved ones who have passed away. Palov may also feature at events alongside other rituals taking place such as prayer and performances of traditional music. It is a dish that is cooked by men and women regardless of age or social status. Knowledge and skills associated with the practice are handed down from older to younger generations formally and informally using a master-apprentice model or by demonstration and participation within families, peer groups, community-based establishments, religious organizations and vocational educational institutions. The making and sharing of the traditional dish acts to strengthen social ties, promote values including solidarity and unity and assist in the continuity of local traditions that form a part of the community’s cultural identity.

Date posted: Saturday, January 7, 2017.
Last updated: January 8, 2017 (9:15 EST).

FORTHCOMING (week of January 9, 2017): Shariffa Keshavjee of Nairobi, Kenya, reflects on the highly acclaimed and award winning book “With Our Own Hands.”


Material for the post was compiled from numerous sources including:

1.Tajikistan inscription details at:
2. Uzbekistan:
3. For complete list of  inscriptions, click
4. Also read “All You Need is Plov — Central Asians vie for ownership of a much-loved dish” by   clicking
5. For pilaf’s Avicenna connection, please see
6. Please also see our piece The Story of a Beautiful and Intriguing Cookbook from the Pamirs, “With Our Own Hands”


We welcome your feedback. Please click on Leave a comment.

Simergphotos: Tajikistan Landscapes Through the Lens of Muslim Harji

“The Qur’an refers very often to nature as a reflection of Allah’s power of creation, and it says, look at the mountains, the rivers, the trees, the flowers, as evidence of Allah’s love for the people whom He has created. Today, I look at the environment and I say to you, I believe Allah is smiling upon you, and may His smile always be upon you.” — Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, Badakhshan, 1995.

PLEASE CLICK: Photo Essay: Tajikistan Landscapes Through the Lens of Muslim Harji

Please click on image for Tajikistan Landscapes.

Please click on image for Tajikistan Landscapes.

His Highness the Aga Khan on Lake Sarez: Mitigating a Catastrophic Risk if the Lake’s Natural Dam Would Break


Please click on image for enlargement

Lake Sarez in the Pamirs of TajikistanLake Sarez, deep in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, was created 90 years ago when a strong earthquake triggered a massive landslide that, in turn, became a huge dam along the Murghob River, now called the Usoi Dam. The resulting lake is perched above surrounding drainages at an elevation greater than 3000m, and is part of the watershed that drains the towering Akademi Nauk Range (see the regional image, below). The lake is 61 km long and as deep as 500 m, and holds an estimated 17 cubic km of water. The area experiences considerable seismic activity, and scientists fear that part of the right bank may slump into the lake, creating a huge wave that will top over and possibly breach the natural dam. Such a wave would create a catastrophic flood downstream along the Bartang, Panj and Amu Darya Rivers, perhaps reaching all the way to the Aral Sea. Currently, central Asian governments, as well as the World Bank and the UN are monitoring the dam closely, and have proposed gradually lowering the lake level as a preventive measure. Image: NASA Earth Observatory; digital photograph  was taken in the spring of 2001 from Space Station Alpha and is provided by the Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory at Johnson Space Center.


“…From a global perspective, it is here, in Central Asia, that one of the most unusual water situations exists. I am referring to Lake Sarez. It is some 60 kilometres in length, containing some 17 cubic kilometres of water, is at 3200 meters altitude and has a natural dam of 550 meters, the highest of any dam in the world. For years it has been seen as a major hazard to millions of lives in this country [Tajkistan] and in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. It is clear that if the rock dam, caused by an enormous landslide following an earthquake in 1911, were to break as a result of another such event; or if another earthquake were to cause landslides to fall into the lake, raising the level of the water and causing a massive spill across the top of the dam, the consequence would be a major catastrophe. It is estimated that 5 million lives could be at risk. Fear of this happening has dominated the thinking of government officials and the population living in the area around and below Lake Sarez for years.

Lake Sarez

“More recently the World Bank, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), USAID and the Swiss Government have expended time, thought and resources to develop a credible protective response that can alert downstream populations as quickly as possible. In simple terms, this is risk management. The question I wish to raise today is whether we are not perhaps also facing a question of opportunity management. Thousands of cubic meters of consumable water are trapped at high altitude. Is this not a situation which could be turned into a force for development, rather than a threat of tragedy? Studies are presently underway to test this idea, in particular in regard to the use of the Sarez Lake waters for hydro energy and irrigation for the area they now threaten, and probably much more. Any wisdom that this conference could bring to bear on these issues would be an extremely valuable outcome…” — Excerpts from a speech made by His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Ismaili Imam, at the Dushanbe Fresh Water Forum (Dushanbe, Tajikistan), August 30, 2003.



In 2004, a special satellite equipment and early warning system for monitoring the situation around Lake Sarez was installed by a World Bank project working on risk mitigation in the area, a step to ensure early warning for the vulnerable population in the region.

According to an interview with IRIN (Humanitarian News and Analysis), Rustam Bobojonov, a coordinator of the project said that “the equipment is for monitoring the situation around Lake Sarez, the dam and the Bartang valley, including seismic activity, landslides, water, wind speed and so on. It is aimed at ensuring early warning for the Tajik government, including the emergency ministry, international community and the residents of all the villages in the Bartang Valley about the possible risk.”

The total cost of the project was at US$4.5 million out of which the Aga Khan Foundation contributed US$1, with the Swiss Government providing another US$2.9 million.


Background Article

“…Below the Usoi dam there are more than 30 small villages in the Bartang Valley, with a total population of about 7,000 mountain Ismaili people. Most villages (kishlaks) are sited on alluvial cones near to the river and use all available gently sloping land. Many of the villages are subject to floods, landslides, mudflows, and avalanches annually…”


Please click on map for enlargement.

FAO Map Tajikistan and Lake SarezPlease click on map for enlargement. This map has been adapted from the original map produced on the website of FAO.

(Map shown above and the following article have been adapted from the website of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, see link below)

Lake Sarez, high in the Pamir Mountains is close to 3,000 m above sea level and its location is one of the most remote in the world. It formed following a very large landslide, set off by an earthquake in the winter of 1911. The landslide, with a volume of some 2-3 km3 , plunged down a mountain side to form a dam between 500 and 600 metres in height and two kilometres wide to block the Murgab River. This river is a tributary of the Bartang River which, below the confluence with the Murgab, flows for 120 km through a gigantic mountain gorge to join the Pianj River, itself a tributary of the Amu Darya. The Amu Darya is one of the two major rivers that drains into the Aral Sea 2,000 km below the dam site. The Pianj and Amu Darya rivers form part of the frontier between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and further downstream their combined waters flow through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The fallen mass of rock and earth was named the Usoi Dam after the village that it completely annihilated. The dammed waters of the Murgab River produced Lake Sarez, named for a village that was submerged by the rising waters. Initially, the level of the lake rose at a rate of about 75 metres a year.

Today it is more than 60 km in length and has a maximum depth in excess of 500 metres. Its total volume is about 17 km3. The lake surface is close to 3,200 m above sea level and surrounded by peaks rising to more than 6,000 m. The Usoi dam is the highest dam, natural or man-made, in the world. Set in the heart of the Pamir Mountains, the lake itself and its surroundings form a magnificent mountain landscape.

It is also located in a region that has been central to major political and military tensions for more than 200 years. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the three rival empires, Czarist Russia, Great Britain, and China competed on a gigantic and heroic scale that became known, following the writing of Rudyard Kipling, as the ‘Great Game’. Much earlier a main branch of the Silk Road passed through the Pamir and carried Marco Polo and his uncles to the court of Kublai Khan. The present republics of Central Asia were moulded by Soviet Russia from a series of Khanates, together with territories of no clear political allegiance. Currently, with a massively disturbed Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and India, all virtually within walking distance, and with Iran, Iraq, and Turkey as neighbours with more than a passing interest, political instability may seem the order of the day. The Pamir Mountains, in general, represent one of the most active seismic regions on the world’s geophysical map.

Lake Sarez, therefore, is a focal point for a great amount of concern. A disaster of significant proportions could be triggered in several ways. A major earthquake could shatter the Usoi dam and send an enormous flood wave down the Bartang Valley and into the Pianj and Amu Darya rivers; the dam could collapse under the pressure of the water as the lake continues to rise; the piping of water through the dam, which is occurring today, could enlarge and cause the dam to collapse; or collapse could be induced by the continued rise of the lake level and eventually over-topping it. Finally, another large landslide, caused either by an earthquake, or the spontaneous failure of the mountain wall above the lake, could fall into the lake and generate a giant wave to over-top the dam. Even if the dam was not broken by such a wave, the wall of water rushing down the Bartang Valley could set off fast moving mudflows and trigger secondary landslides by under-cutting the talus slopes along the valley sides. This could be sufficient to eliminate all the thirty villages in the valley, and even more as the disturbance entered the Pianj Valley.

It has been estimated that, in the worst case, the lives of five million people could be affected. Furthermore, the torrential flood waters could extend as far downstream as the Aral Sea itself, with the additional danger of disturbing the toxic sediments that have been exposed as the sea has dried up.

The problem is rendered the more complex by a number of other factors. The vicinity of Lake Sarez is extremely remote and physical access along the Bartang Valley is a challenge. The final approach to the dam involves a difficult ascent on foot along steep mountain slopes, with a gain in altitude of more than 1,000 metres. This would render road construction, if heavy equipment would be needed, extremely expensive and technically difficult to maintain. The regional approach also constitutes a challenge; there are two main roads into the upper Pianj Valley and Khorog, the regional capital. One of these is very long and involves transit through a small part of the territories of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and a high altitude section (above 4,000 m) across the Pamir Plateau. The other, more direct, requires passage of the Pianj gorge, with very unstable slopes and a narrow road bed subject to rockfall, mudflow, landslide, and avalanche. Both roads are closed by heavy snow for several months of the year. The difficulty of access alone would appear to eliminate large-scale engineering solutions, such as reinforcing the dam artificially, or attempting a controlled partial drainage and lowering of the lake level.

Lake Sarea and the Usoi Dam

The naturally formed Usoi dam separates the Sarez (right) and Shadau (left) lakes. Photo: Wikipedia.

Below the Usoi dam there are more than 30 small villages in the Bartang Valley, with a total population of about 7,000 mountain Ismaili people. Most villages (kishlaks) are sited on alluvial cones near to the river and use all available gently sloping land. Many of the villages are subject to floods, landslides, mudflows, and avalanches annually; while these natural hazards are individually of small magnitude, compared to that posed by a potential failure of the Usoi dam, they are frequent in occurrence and constantly restrict access to the valley and would constrain any needed evacuation. Any landslide-induced flood wave capable of over-topping the dam would place all or most of the villages at risk. Soviet and Tajik scientists became aware of the threat posed by Lake Sarez some decades ago. Early warning and lake-level monitoring systems were established. The warning signals, however, were only directed to Moscow and Dushanbe. Thus, in the event of a medium- or large-scale flood, any secondary warning to reach the Bartang villages from either Moscow or Dushanbe would likely arrive after the event, if at all. With the collapse of the USSR even this approach to early warning and lake-level monitoring ended.

Then followed the civil war of 1992-1997 when the problem of Lake Sarez was put aside. Over the last three years, the dangers posed by Lake Sarez have begun to be taken seriously. Various reconnaissance visits have been made to the lake and dam and to the Bartang Valley. Several high-level planning meetings have been held: in Dushanbe, Geneva, and Washington, DC. The involved Asian republics, and especially Tajikistan, appear to favour a development approach based on the assumption that the worst case scenario (total collapse of the Usoi dam) was credible. A major investigation was mounted during June 1999. This was financed primarily by the World Bank, with additional support from the UN disaster relief organization, Focus Humanitarian Assistance (one of the Aga Khan family of organizations), and the government of Tajikistan. An international group of engineers, geophysicists, geologists, and geographers visited Lake Sarez and examined all the approach routes. There was unanimous agreement that the prospect of a worst case scenario was sufficiently remote that it should be accorded a low level of priority. However, there was strong support for installation of monitoring and early warning systems. Unlike the earlier Soviet approach, the new approach would relate to all the villages in the Bartang Valley and ensure the direct input of the local people. Concurrently, it was recommended that computer mapping and simulation of the potential impacts of various levels of natural disaster be undertaken. It was also pointed out that further, and much more detailed, studies should be undertaken of the cultural and socioeconomic situation of the local people. Sites for safe havens should be located and equipped, and a full accounting made of the attitudes of the local people toward the various levels of possible danger. One additional, and very important point, is that steps should be taken to ensure that the likelihood of actual large-scale disaster (worst case scenario) not be over-stated, so that the risk of any government-ordered forced evacuation of the Bartang Valley could be avoided. By February 2000 it appeared that, under the leadership of the World Bank and with contributions from several major donors, the recommendations of the June 1999 reconnaissance team were to be acted upon (United Nations, 2000). A year later, at time of this writing, significant planning progress has been made. Thus, the case of Lake Sarez, while representing one of the largest ever potential disasters based upon a natural situation in a high mountain region, embraces many complex inter-relations between highlands and lowlands. Ultimately, the challenging task of seeking collaboration amongst several independent countries on the use and management of a large international river, the Amu Darya and its headstreams, will have to be faced. Given the international rivalries prevailing in the region, this might well be the single most difficult task. Nevertheless, while the magnitude of the problems emanating from the potential instability of Lake Sarez may be an order of magnitude, or more, higher than other mountain hazards in the same region, their identification, evaluation, and treatment should provide a formula for ways in which other hazardous situations could be approached.

Date posted: October 31, 2015.



  1. For complete speech of His Highness the Aga Khan, please visit
  2. Please visit for images of Lake Sarez
  3. For complete background article, please visit and enter Lake Sarez in the search box.

@Simergphotos: The Ismaili Centre in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Through the Lens of Canadian Photographer Muslim Harji

PLEASE CLICK: Dushanbe’s Ismaili Centre Through the Lens of Muslim Harji

Happy Children Faces at the Dushnabe Ismaili Centre. Please click on image for Muslim Harji's Photo Essay.

Happy young faces at the Dushanbe Ismaili Centre. Please click on image for Muslim Harji’s Photo Essay.

Please click on image for Muslim Harji's Photo Essay.

Please click on image for Muslim Harji’s Photo Essay.

Date posted: September 27, 2015.

@Simergphotos – An Ismaili Wedding in Badakhshan Through the Lens of Muslim Harji

Muslim and Nevin Harji have just returned from a remarkable trip to Badakhshan, which is located in one of the most remote corners of the earth, in the midst of the magnificent Pamir mountains. The Harjis were fortunate to be invited to an Ismaili wedding in the small village of Namadgut (near Ishkashim). The whole village consisting of forty Ismaili families was involved in the preparation and celebration of the wedding. We continue our special series on Badakhshan with this special photo essay An Ismaili Wedding in the Pamirs Through My Lens by Muslim Harji.  

A bride-to-be is pampered with a manicure and pedicure before her wedding in a small village in the Pamirs.   Please click on image for Muslim Harji's photo essay.

A bride-to-be is pampered with a manicure and pedicure before her wedding in a small village in the Pamirs. Please click on image for Muslim Harji’s photo essay.


Visions of Badakhshan on Simerg

Letter from Publisher

Muslim Harji's portrait of an Ismaili girl in the Wakhan Corridor of Badakhshan. She is seen Little Suranoor having breakfast before getting ready for school in the Village of Namadgut.

Muslim Harji’s portrait of an Ismaili girl in the Wakhan Corridor of Badakhshan. Little Suranoor is seen having her breakfast before getting ready for school in the Village of Namadgut.

By Abdulmalik Merchant

When my parents visited me in Voorhees, New Jersey, during the spring of 1995, we would together walk to the main library twice a week. The short walk passed by scenic ponds and streams. There was a scary component to it though — encounters with scattered groups of unfriendly geese.

Once in the library, our focus was to read the Sunday newspapers from nearby cities that made their way into the magazine and newspaper section by Monday.

During one such visit, my dad found himself staring at the Baltimore Sun’s wonderful two page spread of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s first historic visit to Tajikistan, that had taken place a few days earlier. The June 4, 1995, story gave a moving account of the visit by the paper’s correspondent Kathy Lally. It was obvious that she was well acquainted with the Ismailis, and also understood the emotions of the Ismaili people, who had greeted their Imam for the first time in centuries. To my delight, an on-line version of the report did become available, and I reproduced it on Simerg, with the Sun’s permission, some 5 years ago under the title A Western Correspondent’s Account of the Aga Khan’s Historic First Visit to His Followers in Gorno-Badakhshan.

The photo was taken during Didar (Invitation) – a celebration that takes place on 28th of May every year to commemorate the anniversary of the Aga Khan’s visit to the village in the 1990s. During the celebrations the villagers dress up, dance outdoors to the accordion and drums and sing ginane (religious songs), which tell of him being their Noor (light). The photograph was taken as these girls, dressed in bright atlas silk fabric with crowns on their heads, were going out to dance. Photo: Matthieu Paley. Copyright.

The photo was taken during Didar (Invitation) – a celebration that takes place on 28th of May every year to commemorate the anniversary of the Aga Khan’s visit to the village in the 1990s. During the celebrations the villagers dress up, dance outdoors to the accordion and drums and sing ginane (religious songs), which tell of him being their Noor (light). The photograph was taken as these girls, dressed in bright atlas silk fabric with crowns on their heads, were going out to dance. Photo: Matthieu Paley. Copyright.

Two decades are not long in the life of a community, and for each of these past twenty years, since Mawlana Hazar Imam’s first visit in May 1995, the Ismaili community of Gorno-Badakhshan has commemorated the historic visit with a celebration known as “Didar” (a Glimpse, of the Imam) or “Noor” (the Light, that the Imam represents). The happiness of this annual event was captured by world-renowned photographer Matthieu Paley in the picture above where Ismaili girls are proudly displaying a framed decorated photo of their beloved Imam.

Subsequently, in addition to many other Badakhshan pieces, we published Ismaili Portraits From Tajikistan, by Khorog’s most distinguished and beloved ‘foreign’ permanent resident, Dr. Ali Rajput of Birmingham, England who in his personal capacity has served the jamat in Badakhshan in numerous ways.

Another piece that we were fortunate to publish was a personal account from Gulnor Saratbekova entitled  “Shukr Mawlo, Shukr Mawlo” – When Hope is All You Have Left, describing the dangerous and nervous state of affairs during the prolonged period of civil strife and unrest in Tajikistan in the early 1990’s. Her gratitude, shukr, in this piece is of course to Mawlana Hazar Imam who through the work of his Imamat institutions averted a serious famine that the jamat and other countrymen faced during the Civil War. I would strongly recommend that readers visit the links mentioned for some historical memories.


Scenic Badakhshan. Please click on photo for an incredible collection of photos of Badakhshan. Photo: Muslim Harji.

Scenic Badakhshan. Please click on photo for an incredible collection of photos of Badakhshan. Photo: Muslim Harji.

Now, Simerg is happy to present a photographic series dedicated to Badakhshan and Central Asia by none other than Canadian photographer Muslim Harji of Montreal. While he admires and cherishes the memories of the beautiful landscapes of Badakhshan that he captured with his lens, what he has come away most from this visit is the hospitality and warmth of the Ismaili people of Badakhshan. Harji’s incredible photo essays about his journeys to Jerusalem, Dubai, Iran, Turkey, South and South East Asia, have been seen by thousands on this blog, and we are delighted to add this new one to Simerg’s superb photo collection. Please click The Ismailis of Badakhshan Through My Lens by Muslim Harji.

With Tajikistan and Badakhshan now more accessible than ever before, and with so many exciting Imamat projects underway in that part of the world, we hope that Harji’s story will inspire the professional and youth of the jamat to visit this remote and beautiful region. By the way, there is an incredible array of well-organized professional tours to the region that are led by highly experienced non-Jamati operators in North America and Europe.