Tajikistan: Nation Building in Tajikistan in the 1990s: Why Tajik Government Has Decided to Embrace the Samanids as the Symbolic Embodiment of the Tajik Nation?

Dilnoza Rakhmatboeva, Graduate of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. 

Tajik people belong to the Persian speaking Tajik ethnic group, which shares culture and language with Iran and Afghanistan. Many centuries ago, it was a part of the Samanid Empire; in the 20th century, Tajikistan became the part of the Soviet Union (Tajik SSR). The Soviet Union collapsed, and as a new sovereign state, Tajikistan got its independence on the 9th of September, 1991. As a new state, Tajikistan had to “consciously or unconsciously” decide what symbols to use to signify itself, not only individually but also collectively.[1]

Samanid Empire
Samanid Empire

As Beeman, the author of “Ferdowsi and Tajik National Identity” points out, the process of selection of the national symbols always involves a “degree of fictionalization” of historical and cultural facts.[2] But why does a nation need any symbols? From the constructive point of view, a nation uses symbols to make its citizens feel important and be a part of a whole entity and to solve social and political problems.[3]

The USSR Collapse and the Civil War

In the case of Tajikistan, after the collapse of the USSR, the bloody civil war, the long negotiations between the Islamic opposition and the government, the citizens lost their belief in the prosperous future of the country and lost their trust in the new government. Communism was gone, everything they believed in and worked for faded. Therefore, there was an important need to find something and/or someone ideal, which could fit into the Tajik culture, history and unite the people once again. Moreover, it was crucial to make people feel important and not “used” by communism. The strategy was to show them that Tajikistan and Tajik people have existed for a long time, show them how important they were and are in the region, and make them feel part of a big and important empire.  Historians, scientists, and the government looked to the past, because there was no one in the present, who could unite Tajikistan, and who could foster the compromise between the government and the Islamic opposition. The national glory and unity of the Tajik people could be found in history. Specifically, the Samanid era and Ismoili Somoni, one of the amirs of the era, became such unifying symbols.


With the collapse of the USSR and its decreased dominance in the Central Asian region, legacy of the Samanid dynasty and amir Ismoili Somoni was rehabilitated and rediscovered. The “Somonization” process took, and continues to take, place in Tajikistan. In October 2000,  Tajikistan introduced its new national currency – “Somoni”. The highest mountain in Tajikistan, widely known as “The Peak of Communism” was renamed into “The Ismoili Somoni Peak”. The largest airline-company in Tajikistan is named “Somon Air”; there is a city in the southern Tajikistan named “Ismoili Somoni”; several streets in Khudjand and Dushanbe are named after Ismoili Somoni; several hotels carry the name of Ismoili Somoni; there is a school of Ismoili Somoni, and private and state companies are frequently called after Ismoili Somoni. Such a symbolic use of the historical figure’s name demonstrates a process of Somonization of the whole country and nation.

Why Samanids?

The Samanid dynasty, which existed from 819 to 999 on the territory of Central Asia and Greater Khorasan, was the golden era of the Tajik people: then, they developed stronger ties and finally united as a nation; they made the first steps to building a national identity.  Ismoili Somoni and the whole Samanid Empire played an important role in concentrating present day Tajik Identity.

The Samanid period is considered to be the beginning of the Tajikistan nation-state within the Greater Iran. Therefore, the inheritance of the Samanids was re-injected into the Tajik identity, which helped to “nurture” it.[4] Particularly, Abu Ibrahim Ismail ibn Ahmad, also known as Ismoili Somoni (849-907), the Samanid amir of Transoxiana and Khorasan was chosen to embrace the Samanids as the symbolic embodiment of the Tajik nation. His time in power is seen as one of the golden years and Samanid dynasty as a powerful force. (Encyclopedia Iranica) Nizam al-Mulk in his famous work- Siyasatnama, stated that Ismail,

“Was extremely just, and his good qualities were many.

He had pure faith in God (to Him be power and glory)

and he was generous to the poor – to name only one of his notable virtues”[5]

The government and the Tajik Islamic opposition could find a compromise in the notion of the Samanid Empire and Ismoili Somoni. In particular, they agreed that the Samanids were the spreaders of Islamo-Persian (not Islamo-Arab) culture and Islamic religion in the Central Asia. As it has been mentioned in several historic and scientific works, the Samanid dynasty greatly supported Sunni-Islam (practiced religion in Tajikistan) and suppressed Ismaili Shiism. Furthermore, the Samanid dynasty also positively developed and empowered various ethnic groups under the common culture and identity as Tajiks to take pride in their “cultural heritage” and as well as “identifying themselves as members of the world of Islam”.[6]

Why embrace the Samanids as the symbolic embodiment of the Tajik nation?

Ismoili Somoni was used by the government of Tajikistan as a representational way of giving the Tajik nation an understandable visualization of its own cultural history, and helping to resolute pervasive vagueness in Tajik people’s sense of picturing itself in the present world and in its own historical past. Tajikistan and its people have been facing this vagueness of identity when they were trying to re-build a new nation on its former USSR territory.[7] Tajikistan is the smallest country in the region that had lived through a five-year long civil war. The country is landlocked with the “bad neighbors”, isolated and poor. Geographical division plays its role: 93% of the country’s territory comprise high mountains that split the country into three parts. These parts are for “all intents culturally separate”.[8]

There are several reasons why the government of Tajikistan decided to embrace the Samanids as the symbolic embodiment of the Tajik nation. First, the government of the Samanid dynasty resided in Bukhara, which is now considered to be the territory of Uzbekistan. Through such symbolism, the Tajik leaders aimed to show once again that the cultural centers of Bukhara and Samarkand used to be the territory of the Tajiks. As we can see in present world, religious practices identify states and nations; therefore, Samanids were the ideal symbols of the Tajik national identity, due to the fact that the Samanids practiced Sunni-Islam, not Shiism. In addition, the Samanids were known for their cultural and scientific development. Finally, Samanid civilization had spread on the geographic region encompassing all of the territories Tajik government and citizens see as their “cultural realm”.[9]


[1] Beeman, W. “Ferdowsi and Tajik National Identity”. Tehran, 21-28 August 2000.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Darke, H. “The Book of Government or Rules for Kings: The Siyar al Muluk or Siyasat-nama of             Nizam al-Mulk”. Routledge. 2001. PDF.

[6] Bashiri, I. “Factors Affecting Tajik Identity”. 1998. <http://www.angelfire.com/rnb/bashiri/Identity/identity.html&gt;.

[7] Beeman.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.