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The Pamiris: People on the Roof of the World

The majestic Pamir Mountains of Gorno Badakhshan in eastern Tajikistan lend their name to a fascinating ethnic group who lives there: the Pamiris. Culturally and linguistically tied with the Wakhi people in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor and Pakistan’s Upper Hunza Valley, and the Sarikoli of Xinjiang in China, the Pamiris are thought to be of Persian origin, and are distinct from other groups in Tajikistan. The Pamiri languages belong to an Eastern Iranian language, and there are a number of sub-dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible: a speaker of the Shugnan dialect could not converse easily with a Wakhi speaker, for example. Pamiri is primarily a spoken language, Tajik being the language of literature and everyday written communication.

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The majority of Pamiris are Ismaili Shias, followers of the Aga Khan who is an important spiritual leader. But Pamiri traditions pre-date Islam, and many of the beliefs are rooted in Zoroastrianism and shamanic practices. In settlements and remote mountainsides, look out for holy shrines marked with the horns of a Marco Polo sheep or special stones, sacred springs and trees with ribbons tied to their branches, each one denoting a wish or prayer. Occasionally you might even see the remains of a fire ritual — the burning of aromatic herbs and animal fat — a tradition long lost in other parts of the world but remembered in the Pamirs.

The Pamiri people have their own, distinctive styles of dress, and it’s a way of of differentiating one community from the next. The styles of hats are especially varied: you can spot someone from the Wakhan, as opposed to from Ruhshon or Shugnon, based solely on his head wear.

Wakhi Old Lady

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When you visit Gorno Badakhshan, you might well be welcomed into a Pamiri home and enjoy traditional Pamiri hospitality. The design of a Pamiri huneiuni chid (house) dates back some 2,500 years, and the architectural symbolism has its roots in Zoroastrian philosophy, as well as Ismaili Islam. The roof is made of four concentric squares, each one an element. The beams are set atop wooden pillars, one of which should be carved from a sacred juniper tree. Interior decorations in red and white — the colours of the sun, and of light — are popular and auspicious.

Wedding day

If you are welcomed into a Pamiri home, remove your shoes at the door before you step across the threshold. Expect to be plied with hot tea, bread, jam, yoghurt, and other snacks, and to be received by many members of the family, both men and women. Here in the Pamirs, a guest is treated like a king.

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