Life at the ‘Roof of the World’: Meet the Isma’ilis

Our Blog
A guest blog from Sam Mills
For anyone harbouring ambitions of travel to the Pamir Mountains, a little bit of homework is essential.  For these mountains offer more than just fine views. Instead, they shelter a community every bit as intriguing as the remarkable landscape they call home: the Isma’ilis of Badakhshan.

Meet the Isma’ilis


A subset of Shi’a Muslims, the Isma’ilis number somewhere in the region of 20 million, dispersed across 25 countries in Asia, East Africa, Europe and North America.  Like the Shi’as, they believe that the right to lead the Islamic community rests with the direct descendents of the Prophet Muhammad, or Imams. Where most Shi’ites maintain that the line ended at the twelfth Imam though, the Isma’ilis acknowledge an unbroken series of 49, continuing to this day.

Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains are home to what is perhaps the most intriguing Isma’ili group of all.  This wild, inhospitable territory provided welcome refuge to a people hardened by centuries of abuses and forced into flight, its freezing winters and treacherous passes discouraging conquest and punishing intruders.  Yet the jagged peaks of the so-called ‘Roof of the World’ sheltered more than just the Isma’ilis. Far from the great centres of Islamic power folk religions flourished, reflecting the principles and traditions of both the Zoroastrians who had formerly inhabited the region and the Sufi mystics who had ventured there as missionaries.

Such characteristics have seeped into Isma’ili practice and are readily observable throughout the Pamir region.  Small shrines line the Wakhan Corridor, the skulls of Marco Polo sheep left as offerings. Houses meanwhile have a distinctive layout, with five pillars representing each of the five key figures in Shi’ism (Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hussein and Hassan) and the Chorkhona, a skylight made of four concentric squares representing the four elements in Zoroastrianism, fire, air, water and earth.

The Aga Khan


Yet just as this community has developed a unique set of traditions, it has also retained a truly surprising sense of internationalism, reflected in their dedication to their spiritual leader, living Imam, the Aga Khan.  In many ways, the ubiquity of this bizarre figure in the remote Pamirs represents the most fascinating aspect of the community.

For this man is so much more than a spiritual leader.  He is a business magnate, named on the Forbes list of the 10 richest monarchs in the World, with interests in hotels and media and a reputed worth in 2010 of over $800 million. He is also a former Olympic skier, world-renowned race horse breeder and is the son of British aristocrat and member of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Bright Young Things’ Joanne Yarde-Buller.

Badakhshan: A Distant Land


Now in Badakhshan his face is totally inescapable, his photo displayed in pride of place in almost every Pamiri home.  This makes for a truly strange experience for the traveller in this remote mountain region. You travel for days by jeep, cross raging mountain torrents and negotiate countless terrifying precipices, venturing further and further into the unknown until you are confronted, in a land more distant than any you may ever have encountered, by the kindly face of a globe-trotting, horse-breeding superstar, more suited to the streets of Zurich and Lisbon than the dusty Wakhan.

Explore the Pamirs


If you want to follow in Sam’s footsteps across the Pamirs, we can help you on one of our tailor-made tours. There is no better way to visit Badakshan and the mountains beyond. Why not get in touch?

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