The region’s civilizations stretch back to at least the fourth millennium BCE, and include the Bronze Age Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex, the Andronovo cultures, and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sarazm.
The region’s oldest documented history goes back to about 500 BCE, when most, if not all, of current Tajikistan was part of the Achaemenid Empire. Some scholars have also proposed that in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, portions of current Tajikistan, particularly regions in the Zeravshan valley, were part of Kambojas before being absorbed by the Achaemenid Empire. Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the area, it became a member of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, a successor state to Alexander’s empire. Northern Tajikistan (the towns of Khujand and Panjakent) was a city-state that was conquered by Scythians and Yuezhi nomadic tribes about 150 BCE. The Silk Road ran through the area, and trade ties between Han China and Sogdiana thrived during the voyage of Chinese explorer Zhang Qian under the reign of Wudi (141–87 BCE). Sogdians had an important role in enabling commerce and also worked as farmers, carpetweavers, glassmakers, and woodcarvers.
The Kushan Empire, a confederation of Yuezhi tribes, seized control of the area in the first century CE and reigned until the fourth century CE, during which time Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Manichaeism were all practiced. Later, the Hephthalite Empire, a group of nomadic tribes, came into the area, and in the early eighth century, Arabs introduced Islam. Central Asia maintained its position as a trade crossroads, connecting China, the northern steppes, and the Islamic heartland.
From 650 to 680, it was briefly ruled by the Tibetan empire and the Chinese, and then by the Umayyads in 710. From 819 to 999, the Samanid Empire reestablished Persian sovereignty of the area and expanded the towns of Samarkand and Bukhara (both of which are now part of Uzbekistan), which became Iran’s cultural capitals, and the region was known as Khorasan. The Kara-Khanid Khanate invaded Transoxania (modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and southwest Kazakhstan) and reigned from 999 until 1211. Their presence in Transoxania marked a decisive transition from Iranian to Turkic supremacy in Central Asia, although the Kara-khanids were eventually absorbed into the region’s Perso-Arab Muslim culture.
The Mongol Empire seized control of almost all of Central Asia with Genghis Khan’s conquest of Khwarezmia in the early 13th century. The Mongol Empire disintegrated in less than a century, and modern Tajikistan fell under the control of the Chagatai Khanate. Tamerlane established the Timurid dynasty and conquered the area in the 14th century.
During the 16th century, Tajikistan was ruled by the Khanate of Bukhara, and when the empire broke apart in the 18th century, it was ruled by both the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Kokand. The Emirate of Bukhara remained unbroken until the twentieth century, but for the second time in world history, a European force (the Russian Empire) started to capture portions of the area throughout the nineteenth century.
During the Imperial Era of the late nineteenth century, Russian Imperialism led to the Russian Empire’s invasion of Central Asia. Between 1864 and 1885, Russia progressively gained control of the whole area of Russian Turkestan, including Tajikistan, which had previously been ruled by the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Kokand. Russia was interested in obtaining a source of cotton and tried to convert agriculture in the area from grain to cotton in the 1870s (a strategy later copied and expanded by the Soviets). Despite the fact that Tajikistan’s land was either controlled by the Russian Empire or its satellite state, the Emirate of Bukhara, by 1885, Tajiks felt little Russian influence.
The Jadidists established themselves as an Islamic social movement across the area in the late nineteenth century. Although the Jadidists were not inherently anti-Russian, the Russians saw the movement as a danger. Between 1910 and 1913, Russian soldiers were sent in to restore order amid uprisings against the Khanate of Kokand. In July 1916, protesters assaulted Russian troops in Khujand over the prospect of compulsory conscription during World War I. Despite Russian forces swiftly retaking Khujand, fighting in Tajikistan persisted throughout the year in different places.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, rebels known as basmachi fought a fruitless struggle against Bolshevik troops across Central Asia in an effort to preserve independence. After a four-year battle in which mosques and villages were burnt down and the populace was severely repressed, the Bolsheviks won. Soviet authorities launched a secularization drive, discouraging and repressing the practice of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and closing numerous mosques, churches, and synagogues. As a result of the war and Soviet agricultural policy, Central Asia, including Tajikistan, experienced a famine that took many lives.
The Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established as a constituent republic of Uzbekistan in 1924, but in 1929 the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic (Tajik SSR) was established as a separate constituent republic, with the predominantly ethnic Tajik cities of Samarkand and Bukhara remaining in the Uzbek SSR. Collectivization of agriculture and a fast increase of cotton output occurred between 1927 and 1934, particularly in the southern area. The Soviet collectivization program resulted in peasant violence and forced relocation across Tajikistan. As a result, some peasants rebelled against collectivization and resurrected the Basmachi movement. During this period, there was also some small-scale industrial growth, as well as the expansion of irrigation infrastructure.
Two waves of Soviet purges ordered by Moscow (1927–1934 and 1937–1938) resulted in the expulsion of approximately 10,000 Tajik Communist Party members at all levels. Ethnic Russians were brought in to replace those who had been expelled, and Russians soon controlled party posts at all levels, including the top position of first secretary. Between 1926 and 1959, the percentage of Russians in Tajikistan’s population increased from less than 1% to 13%. Tajikistan’s First Secretary of the Communist Party of Tajikistan from 1946 to 1956, Bobojon Ghafurov, was the only Tajikistani politician of note outside the nation throughout the Soviet era. Tursun Uljabayev (1956–61), Jabbor Rasulov (1961–1982), and Rahmon Nabiyev (1982–1985, 1991–1992) succeeded him in office.
Tajiks were first recruited into the Soviet Army in 1939, and about 260,000 Tajik people fought against Germany, Finland, and Japan during World War II. During World War II, 60,000 (4%) to 120,000 (8%) of Tajikistan’s 1,530,000 people were murdered. Following the war and Stalin’s rule, efforts were undertaken to develop Tajikistan’s agriculture and industries. During the 1957–58 Virgin Lands Campaign, Nikita Khrushchev focused emphasis on Tajikistan, whose living standards, education, and industry fell behind those of the other Soviet republics. Tajikistan had the lowest household saving rate in the USSR in the 1980s, as well as the lowest proportion of families in the two highest per capita income categories and the lowest rate of university graduates per 1000 inhabitants. Tajik nationalists were demanding more rights by the late 1980s. True upheavals did not occur inside the country until 1990. The Soviet Union disintegrated the next year, and Tajikistan proclaimed independence.
The country very quickly devolved into civil war, with different groups battling each other; these divisions were often defined by clan affiliations. During this period, approximately 500,000 people left due to persecution, increasing poverty, and better economic prospects in the West or other former Soviet republics. Emomali Rahmon was elected president in 1992, beating former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullajanov with 58 percent of the vote in a presidential election held in November. The elections were held soon after the war’s conclusion, when Tajikistan was completely destroyed. Over 100,000 people were killed, according to estimates. There were about 1.2 million refugees both within and outside the nation. Under the supervision of Gerd D. Merrem, Special Representative to the Secretary General, a truce was negotiated between Rahmon and opposition groups in 1997, resulting in what was generally seen as a successful United Nations peacekeeping effort. The truce ensured that the opposition would have 30% of cabinet seats. Elections were conducted in 1999, despite opposition parties and international observers calling them rigged, and Rahmon was re-elected with 98 percent of the vote. Rahmon was re-elected in 2006 (with 79 percent of the vote), and he started his third term in office. Several opposition parties boycotted the 2006 election, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) condemned it, despite claims by Commonwealth of Independent States monitors that the elections were legitimate and transparent. In October 2010, the OSCE again chastised Rahmon’s government for its media control and repression. According to the OSCE, the Tajik government blocked Tajik and international websites and initiated tax checks on independent printing facilities, causing a number of independent publications to cease printing operations.
Until the summer of 2005, Russian border soldiers were stationed at the Tajik–Afghan border. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, French soldiers have been stationed at Dushanbe Airport to assist NATO’s International Security Assistance Force’s aviation operations in Afghanistan. US Army and Marine Corps troops visit Tajikistan on a regular basis to undertake joint training operations lasting up to several weeks. The Indian government spent $70 million to rebuild the Ayni Air Base, a military airfield situated 15 kilometers southwest of Dushanbe, and completed the renovations in September 2010. It is currently Tajikistan’s major air force base. There have been discussions with Russia about using the Ayni facility, and Russia maintains a huge base on the outskirts of Dushanbe.
Tajik officials were concerned in 2010 that Islamic militarism in the country’s east was on the rise following the escape of 25 militants from a Tajik prison in August, an ambush in the Rasht Valley that killed 28 Tajik soldiers in September, and another ambush in the valley in October that killed 30 soldiers, followed by fighting outside Gharm that killed three militants. The country’s Interior Ministry claims that the central government still has complete control of the country’s east, and the military operation in the Rasht Valley was completed in November 2010. Fighting, however, flared once again in July 2012. Russia deployed additional soldiers to Tajikistan in 2015.
Tajikistan’s national security suffered a major blow in May 2015 when Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, head of the Interior Ministry’s special-purpose police unit (OMON), defected to the Islamic State.