Take advantage of the search to browse through the World Heritage Centre information.

Khulbuk – the capital of ancient Khuttal

Date of Submission: 02/04/2021
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Tajikistan
State, Province or Region:
Khatlon region, Vose district, Mekhrobod (Kurbonshaid) village
Coordinates: N37 46 40.0 E69 33 24.4
Ref.: 6521

The Tentative Lists of States Parties are published by the World Heritage Centre at its website and/or in working documents in order to ensure transparency, access to information and to facilitate harmonization of Tentative Lists at regional and thematic levels.

The sole responsibility for the content of each Tentative List lies with the State Party concerned. The publication of the Tentative Lists does not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the World Heritage Committee or of the World Heritage Centre or of the Secretariat of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its boundaries.

Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Khulbuk is located 175 km south of Dushanbe – the capital of the Republic of Tajikistan. On the actual map the domain of Khutal with the capital city of Khulbuk is correlated with the Khatlon region in the Republic of Tajikistan. The city of Khulbuk lies in the valleys of the Surkhob and Yakhsu Rivers in the central part of the Mekhrobod Village (Kurbonshaid), 7 km north-west of the regional center Khulbuk (Vose). In the south and east the territory of the palace complex borders on the Dushanbe-Kulyab-Pamir highway, in the north –  the Bokhtar-Kulyab railway, and in the west – the residential buildings of the village of Mekhrobod (Kurbonshaid). The territory of shahristan is located northeast of the palace. In the southern side, it adjoins the Dushanbe-Kulyab highway, on the eastern – the Surkhob River, on the northern and western – residential quarters of the Mekhrobod Village (Kurbonshaid). The territory of the buffer zone covers the entire historical core of the city of Khulbuk.

The territory of the palace complex includes the Palace of the rulers and adjacent areas. It is a place where the remains of a caravanserai, a palace bath, water pipes and drainage systems were discovered. There is also an object directly related to the ancient city – the burial ground of the Beshkento-Vakhsh culture, dating back to the period of the developed Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC). In the territory of shahristan there is a well-preserved archaeological part of the city with living and industrial quarters, where archaeological research revealed residential rooms, fragments of water supply system, fortifications, etc. The buffer zone includes a part of the territory of the medieval city, which borders on the Surkhob and Yaksu Rivers, the steep edges of the lower terrace, and the archaeological remains of the outer city walls. A significant part of the buffer zone is located under a modern one-story manor-type building, where excavations unearthed the objects of cultural heritage: the remains of the city public bath, the mausoleum of the Khulbuk rulers, the city cemetery of the early Muslim period, city walls, canals, and a medieval bridge over the Surkhob River.

Khulbuk is an archaeological residue of a city with construction, engineering and irrigation systems. The most studied object is the Khulbuk Palace, where excavations have been carried out regularly since 1953. As a result, the Palace complex was almost completely excavated and studied. Systematic excavations of the residential and industrial sectors of the city are in the early stages.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

In ancient times, modern southern Tajikistan was a part of the ancient Bactrian kingdom with the capital city of Bactr (the modern city of Balah in Afghanistan), which in the Zoroastrian Avesta is mentioned as the country of Airyanem Vaejah – "Aryan Expanses". Pliny, Apollodorus, Megasthenes give descriptions of the road leading from Bactria to China along with the "Ant gold" road in the north of India.

The revealed stratigraphy, cultural layers of the city and the objects of material culture testify to a wide trade and economic links within the region and with faraway places. According to historical record, ancient Khulbuk was located on one of the southern routes of the Silk Road, and it had trade relations with China and India in the east, with Egypt and Byzantium in the west. The trade and economic links of Khutal, especially the city of Khulbuk, are mentioned in authentic Chinese, Persian and Arab records.

Ptolemy’s Geographical Guide written around 177 AD is another record which covers an issue of trade routes passing through Khutal. When describing a section of the Central Asian route, he appealed to the message of May Titian, a hereditary merchant who, according to agents, sent them to China (Sery) he also measured the route, i.e. compiled an itinerarium. This message was once used by Marin in his geography.

As reported by these researchers, the path from Balkh went north, and crossing the Amu Darya it passed along the Vakhsh through Khutal to Karategin, Alay Valley and further to Kashgar. According to Ptolemy's text, this was the only trade route running from west to east. This trade route is also described in the late geographical works of the 9th-12th centuries, and reflects the information of the 7th-8th centuries. This path passed through the early medieval cities and regions: Sarmanjan, Chaganian, Khutalyan, Khamovaran, Shuman, Vashgird, Darband, etc.

The most detailed information on these trade routes is provided in the early medieval writings of Chinese travelers and Chinese imperial chronicles. Such as: the journey of Xuan-Jiang (639-645 years), Hoi-Chao (726-727 years), Illustrated treatise on the western region written by the emissaries of Emperor Gao-Tsung (650-685), chronicles "Bei-shi" (ch. 97), "Sui-Shu" (ch. 83), "Tang-Shu" and others.

Among these landholdings, the largest and most powerful kingdom was Ho-to-lo (Khutal), which stretched from east to west and from south to north to 1000 li. The kingdom covered most of northern Tokharistan, up to the Shugnan domain in western Pamirs. There were four salt mountains here, famous Khutal horses, and red leopards, it was a place where gold was mined from the Vakhsh and Pyanj Rivers. The study revealed that a new rise and intensity of the southern route of the Silk Road came up in the 7th century: it passed through the Pamirs along the Vakhan and the Pyanj Rivers, then led to the territory of Badakhshan and further to China.

The Arab geographer and historian Ibn Khurdodbeh writes about the luxury and grandeur of the cities of Khutal in The Book of Travels and States in 846-885. It should be noted that while compiling his book, he referred to the sources of the mid-8th and early 9th centuries AD. Another anonymous work The Book of the Borders of the World in Persian found in Bukhara in 1892, in treatise 26 "On Transoxiana, its regions and cities" mentions about Khatlon, cities, people, craft, wealth and beautiful horses. "Khulbuk is the capital of Khatlon, the place of the kings' reign. The city is located at the foot of the mountains, it is overcrowded and there are many streets."

In the 9th-11th centuries, the formation of the Tajik state of the Samanids and their far-sighted peace-loving policy, brought along new economic and cultural growth in Central Asia, including Khutal.

The most significant medieval monument directly related to the Silk Road is the capital of the ancient Khutalyan – the city of Khulbuk, located on the southern route of the Silk Road. It lies on the main trade route running from south to north. This road went through Pargar to Khulbuk, then Munk, and further through Baljuan to Kangurt, Tamliyat, Stone Bridge, Vashgird, and then a direct road led to the domain of Akharun and Shuman and to Chaganian. Lapis lazuli and gem stones mined in Badakhshan, salt, precious metals mined in Khutal, and famous Khutal horses were exported to China, Persia, Egypt and Syria following the southern route of the Silk Road.

Khulbuk was the central political, economic, cultural and commercial center of Khutal in all historical periods, from ancient times to late Middle Ages.

Khulbuk is one of the most prominent architectural and archaeological monuments of the Samanid era in the 9th-11th centuries AD, it was the administrative, trade, political and cultural center of Khutalyan and for more than three centuries remained to be a capital city.

Archaeological work at the site of Khulbuk has been carried out for over 70 years. The research was started in 1952 under the guidance of B.A. Litvinsky. From 1957 to 1994 E.G. Gulyamova was the permanent leader of the Khulbuk expedition. The archaeological expedition revealed a large number of ceramic, glass, bronze items, women's jewelry, ivory items, as well as many Chinese, Indian and Arab coins, indicating the trade relations of Khutal with other states. Khulbuk played an important role in the history of the Eastern world, both in cultural, political and economic life.

The peculiarity of the Khulbuk architecture lies in an amazing harmony and proportionality of symmetrical composition, free and bold use of architectural forms and elements. Iwan and courtyard layouts, a three-part scheme: an administrative reception room and a living room, combination of premises and corridors, structures of walls and ceilings inherent in brick-pakhsa architecture – all this is organically merged into a single architectural ensemble.

Khulbuk lied in convenient and strategically advantageous place. The city was located on the first flat terrace of the Surkhob River and occupied more than 100 hectares. Currently, almost 70 hectares have been preserved. The palace complex, built on the southwestern outskirts of the city, is situated on the remains of the second terrace of the Surkhob River. This terrace, which was an oval elevation about 300 m long and 50-60 m wide, stretching far into the valley and rising 10-15 m above the city, and on three sides surrounded by the Surkhob River, protected the city and palace by natural barriers. In the north they were covered by foothills, in the southeast there is an imposing Khoja-Mumin salt hill, which is one of the most important reserves of the entire world salt reserve.

The archaeological excavations on the palace of the rulers of Khutal discovered the genius of Tajik architects, the choice of a place for the construction of the city and its planning considering the defensive properties of the area while preserving the natural landscape. Archaeologists and architects who studied the building techniques of Khulbuk noted that the palace complex in terms of its general composition have no parallels among famous buildings of a similar purpose, which for the monumental architecture of that time looks more like an exception than a rule.

The site of Khulbuk is notable for the uniqueness of engineering, architectural, reclamation structures, the period of the functioning, accessibility, visual appeal, majesty. It includes all the techniques and forms of representative-residential, domestic and industrial-craft life and architecture of Central Asia in the 9th-12th centuries. Its peculiarity is emphasized in the complex synthesizing local and Islamic traditions. Another exceptional element of the Khulbuk Palace decor is the genre painting that flourished in the early Middle Ages. The exchange of goods brought along cultural exchange. On the walls of the premises appeared the works of local artists who went through a course in the Chinese schools of painting. The depicted two musicians playing a bow-instrument (one on a harp, the other one on a violin) with the most ancient subtext of a quatrain in Tajik is a vivid example of the above-mentioned statement:

"Lab-sh hame h-vashmaza,

Abra-kamoni hamza,

Tirash hadangi gamza,

Chashmakosh haloki dilho..."

“Her lips are delicious,

Her eyebrows are like a hamza bow,

The arrows of which are her flirtatious looks,

And her eyes are death for hearts..."

Hamza was the leader of the rebel local population who fought against the governors of the Caliph (797-828). In order to see a complete geographical map of the Silk Road in various historical periods of its existence from China to Italy and its individual regions, it is important to study its lateral internal routes. The southern route of the Silk Road passed through the territory of Tajikistan, which had numerous branches, and finally ended up on the main one.

Information about the city of Khulbuk, studied by Tajik and foreign archaeologists, from 1953 to 2020, is stored in the archives of the Ministry of Culture and Ahmadi Donish Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan. The scientific reports prepared by experts were published in the collection "Archaeological work in Tajikistan" and other periodicals in Russian, Tajik, English, and German.

The conducted research confirmed the location of the city of Khulbuk on the Silk Road, where it played a vital role as a transit city connecting the southern route with the northern one. If the geographer Ibn Khordadbeh in his treatise "The Book of Ways and States" (9th century) describes one of the branches of the Silk Road, going from Khutal to the main road in the Shugnan region (the Pamirs), then another author Muqaddasi describes the road leading from Khulbuk through Shuman, Butaman, Ustrushana to Khujand, that is, to the northern route. It is highly probable that further research of the region's monuments and the study of written sources will discover new facts about the role of the Silk Road in the synthesis and enrichment of the cultures and civilizations of the peoples of Central and Western Asia.

It should be particularly noted that from the first days of state independence, the government of the Republic of Tajikistan, especially the Leader of the nation, respected Emomali Rahmon pays special attention to the construction of not only internal and international roads, but also the revival of ancient cities located on trade routes. At present, the Dushanbe-Kulyab-Khorog-Kulma-Karokorum highway is at the completion stage. The ongoing construction of Dushanbe-Darband-Jirgatal-Osh (Kyrgyzstan) road,  and completed Dushanbe-Aini-Istaravshan-Khujand, Dushanbe-Aini-Penjikent roads is an evidence of how the republic is renewing those caravan routes that existed and connected different peoples and cultures on over a thousand years, and especially the Silk Road, which gives a new impetus to the relations between the peoples of the region.

Criterion (ii): Khulbuk is a World Heritage site since it is an integral monument demonstrating the formation, functioning and development of a sustainable territorial settlement system and integrated unity as a strategically important city in the Samanid state.

Criterion (iii): Khulbuk is the only city in Central Asia which was not impacted by later restructuring. Therefore, it makes possible to see the most complete and comprehensive idea of ​​the history, art, material and spiritual culture of the population of Khutal in a particular historical period.

Criterion (iv): Khulbuk is a unique open-air museum. An analysis of the compositional peculiarities of the layout indicates the use of a proportional construction of both individual rooms and a general plan, divided into three equal parts. This allows us to consider the construction of that time as the art of architectural design, which is extremely important for understanding and generalizing the construction practice of the early developed Middle Ages in terms of overall and specific methods. Khulbuk is the most complete repository of information about history, culture, architecture, urban planning, irrigation system and decoration of palace complexes.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The city of Khulbuk is currently a single complex object, consisting of the Palace of the rulers of Khutal, a city, a medieval bathhouse, a mausoleum, an underground mausoleum, a sagana and a beautiful museum built specially for this complex. This interrelation has been shaping for a long time and has gone through several historical periods. Constant anthropogenic influence began already in the early medieval period, and then it continued and intensified in the Middle Ages. It was a period when the city particularly expanded and approached the foothills. Despite the fact that currently it is located in the center of a large, actively developing region, it has preserved its historical values.

Khulbuk is an outstanding monument not only of the Tajik people, but of the entire Central Asia – as an integral part of world culture. Being a scientific, historical and cultural object the city is protected and maintained by the staff of the Khulbuk historical and cultural reserve and representatives of the local khukumat. The work on restoration and conservation of architectural monuments of the nominated site was performed by experts from the "Scientific Research and Production Organization for Restoration and Conservation" and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Tajikistan with full consideration and compliance with the standards for conservation and restoration work.

Comparison with other similar properties

The city of Khulbuk is a historical, architectural and archaeological site, it is a complex monument that meets all three of the listed parameters in terms of its uniqueness. Its specifics lie in engineering, architectural, reclamation structures; the period of functioning; accessibility, entertainment, grandeur. There are all the techniques and forms of representative-residential, household and industrial-craft art and architecture of Central Asia in the 9th-11th centuries. Thus, the classical palace-iwan system of Khulbuk buildings differs from the palaces of the Samanids, Amman, Ohaidir, Quseir Amra, the palace of Khorezmshah, etc. only in details.

There are unique elements of architectural forms and techniques, in particular, different types of bricks: hexagonal, trapezoidal, rectangular and square. In the art of the Middle East there are no direct analogies to relief ganch borders with images of animals and birds running one after another – roosters or pheasants; feline predators chasing gazelles; dogs, foxes, hares which repeats the cycle of the eastern horoscope. Khulbuk is included in the State Catalog of Historical and Cultural Monuments of the Republic of Tajikistan (Decision of the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan No. 358 as of August 31, 2018) and has a various degree of preservation. Khulbuk has a high social and cultural significance and plays an important role in the spiritual and ethical education of society in the modern world.