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In the West Pamirs there live several small peoples with the common self-designation pomir, who speak the Pamir languages belonging to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family -- the Shughni, the Bartang, and the Roshani (the Shughni-Roshani Group) together number around 30,000--40,000, the Yazgulami about 2,000, the Wakhis 15,000--20,000, the Ishkashmi, and the Yaghnabi and others 3,000--4,000 all together. No precise data exists regarding the Pamir-speaking peoples since statistics constantly overlooked them in the U.S.S.R. where they were last separately registered in 1939. This is also the case in other countries. Under the U.S.S.R. they were registered as Tadzhik. It is also clear that in a system which made consistent efforts to wipe out ethnic minorities, even a census would not yield absolutely reliable results.

In literature the Pamir peoples are sometimes referred to as the Mountain-Tadzhik whereas the Tadzhik themselves refer to them as the Pomir or the Shughni, according to which group is the most populous. No Pamir people has a written language, the function within the old U.S.S.R. being fulfilled by the Tadzhik language which also serves as a means of communication between the peoples themselves. This form of Tadzhik, Forsi, differs greatly from the literary Tadzhik. The Persian-Tadzhik linguistic influence on the Pamir languages began rather early. It is known, for example, that as early as the 11th century the Islamic faith was propagated here in the Dari, that is, the classical literary Persian language. Via Tadzhik numerous arabisms have established themselves in the Pamir languages.

The Islamic faith, more precisely Ismailite, began to spread in the Pamirs in the 11th century. Marco Polo who visited Wakhan in 1274 noted that the people were Mohammadans. The Islamic faith has left a deep imprint on the culture and way of life of the Pamir peoples.

Alongside the minor Pamir languages several dialects of the Tadzhik and Kirgiz languages are spoken. The upper valleys of the Vakhan, the Shokhodar, the Gunda and the Bartang have developed a peculiar parallelism of Pamir (Iranian) and Turkic place-names due to their heterogenous population and bilingualism. The Kirgiz settled in the Pamirs in the 17th century, possibly even earlier. Historically, Shughni or Ishkashmi have been spoken here.

Anthropologically, the Pamir peoples belong to the local Pamir-Fergana race.

Politically, the Pamir peoples have always been heterogenous. Formerly the Yazgulami, for example, were connected with Darvaz through Vandzh, belonging, as did the latter, to the state of Darvaz. The speakers of the Shughni-Roshani languages constituted the states of Shughnan and Roshan. In the 18th century Roshan became a vassal to the Shughnan, both contending against their closer neighbours, Badakhshan and Darvaz and alternately falling under the supremacy of one or the other. Bartang, at the time, was part of the state of Roshan. Shughnan and Vakhan were constantly at war with each other over Ishkashmi where ruby deposits are to be found. From the late 16th century the small Pamir states were occasionally vassal-states to Bukhara. In the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century the nomadic Kirgiz tribes caused the Pamir peoples hardship, cutting them off from the cultural and trade centres in the Kashgar and Fergana valleys. In the second half of the 18th century Afghanistan's interest in the Pamir began to grow. In 1883 the Emir of Afghanistan, supported by the British, seized Vakhan, Shughnan and Roshan. By the second half of the 19th century Russia had seized most of Central Asia, including the East Pamir. In 1868 Russia established a protectorate over the Bukhara Khanate. In 1895 Russia and Britain came to an agreement over the border in the Pamir, according to which the left banks of the Roshan, the Shughnan and the Vakhan went to Afghanistan. The right banks were ceded nominally to the vassal of Russia, the Emir of Bukhara. The border divided the ethnic territories between two countries. In 1905, real power went to the commander of the local Russian military force. Soviet power was wholly established by the end of 1921. In 1925 a Pamir District was established in Badakhshan, an area that had been left to the U.S.S.R. Later in the same year this area was renamed the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and placed under the jurisdiction of the Tadzhik SSR, with Khorog as the administrative centre.

Outside the ex-U.S.S.R., where at least half of the speakers of the Pamir languages reside, they are also to be found in Afghanistan (Wakhi, Ishkashmi, Shughni, Roshani), China, Pakistan and India. The Munji language, which belongs to the Pamir Group, is spoken in the Afghan Badakhshan, and the Sarikoli language in the Uighur Autonomous Region in Chinese Xinjiang.

The first explorers of the Pamir and Yaghnob areas called these and their inhabitants Ghalchah (R. Shaw. Ghalchah Languages, 1876). This term has been connected with the Iranian word gar -- 'mountain'. V. Bartold explains it as a geographical name Garch ~ Garchistan.

More comprehensive research into the Pamir languages was undertaken in the 1880s and 1890s primarily by western scholars, but later followed by Russians. The first pieces of information concerning the Pamir peoples and languages were, however, brought into Europe by ethnographers and travellers. In Tadzhikistan, academic study of the Pamir languages began in the 1960s. In 1967 the Department of Pamir Languages was established in the Dushanbe Institute for Language and Literature. There are those who believe that the legendary mountain of Meru, mentioned in the Mahabharata (6th c. BC), the abode of gods and demigods, unattainable to man even in his imagination, is the Pamir.

Linguistically 'the Pamir languages' is a tentative term for it is not clear whether they are a genetically separate group descended from the hypothetical Proto-Pamir language, or if they have independently developed from the ancient Common Iranian. The genetic coherence of the Shughni subgroup, however, is beyond doubt:

  • the Shughni language
  • the Bajuvi dialect
  • the Khufi dialect
  • the Roshani dialect
  • the Bartangi language
  • the Oroshori language
  • the Sarikoli language

In comparison with the other Iranian languages the Pamir Group has retained a lot of ancient characteristics of Old and Middle Iranian, brought about by territorial seclusion. The relative homogeneity of the Pamir languages is evident in contrast to other current Iranian languages.

As mentioned earlier, none of the Pamir languages, including Shughni, has a written form and education has been received in Tadzhik. It has been surreptitiously impressed on the Pamir ethnic minorities 'from an upper level' that their languages have no future. The gradual perishing of these peoples and their assimilation with the Tadzhiks has, for example, been glorified by S. Tokarev (1958) as a natural and healthy consolidation and a positive outcome of the national policy of the Communist Party. In the name of learning it has often been suggested that children should speak Tadzhik even during their breaks at school. On the other hand it has been suggested that the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region ought to switch over to Russian at schools since the children do not initially know Tadzhik -- Tadzhik would then be taught to the same degree as all other disciplines.

Local newspapers are in Tadzhik and Russian as are radio broadcasts. Tadzhik is the language of all public meetings.

The extensive propagation of the Tadzhik language in the Pamirs is mainly a phenomenon linked to the Soviet era. In the past Tadzhik was spoken by the men who had seasonal jobs in eastern Bukhara, Afghanistan and Chitral in Pakistan. Women, in general, were monolingual. Before the establishment of Soviet power there was practically no school system in the Pamir and most of the people were illiterate. There had been only one school with 24 pupils and the percent of literacy was 0.02 %.

Of the Pamir languages, the Vandzhi language has become completely extinct. The Vandzhi lived in the valley of the River Vandzh (Vanch) belonging to the Emirate of Bukhara. Forced imposition of the Islamic faith (Sunnite) served to assimilate them with the Tadzhik quicker than any other of the Pamir peoples. Records of the Vandzhi language are very few. In the 1920s I. Zarubin was able to make a list of 50 words in the Vandzhi language.

It should, however, be noted that the Pamir peoples display no special tendency towards assimilation with their neighbours. Mixed marriages to the Kirgiz are rare. The main obstacle to mixed marriages is that the Kirgiz are Sunnites while the Pamir peoples, with the exception of the Yazgulami, are Ismailites. Marriages between the representatives of different Pamir ethnic groups are also very unusual. It happens rarely that a Pamir youth serving in the army brings himself a wife from some distant part. Immigration is restricted by border-zone regulations. It is also relevant to mention that industry is notably underdeveloped in the Pamirs.

Communications have always been difficult in the Pamirs. In the past vehicular transport was made redundant by the absence of roads. Asses and camels, the latter especially in Roshan and Bartang, were used as beasts of burden and pack animals. An uncontestable achievement of the Soviet era is the construction of a road network -- in 1934 the Osh-Khorog motorway was completed, followed by Dushanbe-Khorog in 1940. During World War II the road network was developed still further. Nowadays the roads are supplemented by air traffic.

Since World War II the inhabitants of the high mountain villages have been forced to move down to the new cotton growing regions such as the Vakhsh valley. In these regions the forcibly resettled inhabitants form 40--70% of the population (N. Ginzburg). The resettlements were justified by the difficulties in maintaining socio-cultural and medical services due to lack of roads, as well as by scarcity of arable land and seismically hazardous conditions, (L. Monogarova, N. Ginzburg). The resettling of the inhabitants of the Pamirs began in the late 1940s but reached massive proportions in 1951--54 when whole villages and collective farms were deported to the cotton plantations. N. Ginzburg admits that the resettlement of the Pamir people can by no means be considered a success since less than 20 % of the resettled people remained in the prescribed areas. According to Ginzburg, the reason for this was the Pamir peoples' inability to adapt to the hot climate of the lowlands and work on the cotton farms. In the early 1950s many villages in the Yazgulam valley and on the upper Bartang were emptied but by the end of the decade as the opportunity presented itself, the people moved back home. From many of the cotton farms the whole Pamir population has left to move back to their historical territories sometimes despite repeated deportations. According to N. Ginzburg, the uselessness of resettlement is now fully evident.

In the late 1960s, however, the prevalent opinion was that eradication of a couple of dozen villages that were small or too high in the mountains would be inevitable but the highlanders should not be forced to move to the hot lowland regions. The Bartangi-speaking Ravmed (Ravmid) belonged to the list of the villages to be emptied.

Throughout centuries the Pamir region has been famous for its traditional crafts. Under Soviet rule the persistence of the so-called "feudal practices" was fiercely denounced. In the course of this campaign the trades of weavers, potters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, woodcutters were abolished.

In the 1960s the government imposed taxes on the orchards and as a result the apricot trees, mulberry trees, walnut trees, etc. were cut.

The Soviets also brought along monocultural farming. Some farms specialised in growing tobacco, others in growing herbs for medicine, etc. This has had disastrous effect on the whole region.


  1. Н. С. Гинзбург, Особенности расселения на Памире (в Горно-Бадахшанской автономной области). -- География населения и населенных пунктов СССР, Ленинград 1967
  2. Р. Х. Додыхудоев, Памирская микротопонимия (Исследования и материалы), Душанбе 1975
  3. В. В. Козлов, Этнический аспект демографических процессов в Таджикской ССР. -- Этнография, антропология и смежные дисциплины: соотношение предмета и методов. Сборник статей, Москва 1989
  4. Л. Ф. Моногарова, Преобразования в быту и культуре припамирских народностей, Москва 1972
  5. Т. Н. Пахалина, Памирские языки, Москва 1969
  6. Ю. Г. Рычков, Антропология и генетика изолированных популяций (Древние изоляты Памира), Москва 1969


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