The dark heart of the Bukharan emirate rises sheer From the Registan Square, a symbol of the Mangit dynasty reign of terror, described by tsarists as 'a disgusting ulcer on the body of the Russian Empire'. The mud-brick walls of the Ark Fortress grace almost every postcard of Bukhara: it is to this city as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, or Tower Bridge is to London.
The Ark, a royal town-within-a-town, is Bukhara’s oldest structure, it was home to the rulers of Bukhara for over a millenium. The Ark is as old as Bukhara itself. The founding of the original fortress is blurred in antiquity, but it was certainly the focus around which developed the medieval town. Archaeologists believe The Arc to have first been built sometime between the 5th and 6th centuries ad. The original structure covered a roughly rectangular site of some 3ha and included a palace, Zoroastrian fire temple, administrative areas and guardrooms; the main functions of the town all took place within these city walls so that they could more easily be defended in the case of attack.
The first fortress to be documented by local historians was built in the seventh century by the Bukhar Khudat Bidun, but after repeated collapse it was remodelled, on the advice of local soothsayers, to reflect the Great Bear constellation, only then to stand firm. Arabs built the first ever Bukharan mosque here in 713 on the smouldering ashes of a Zoroastrian temple, to assert physically and metaphorically the power of Islam over other faiths and their adherents. Samanids and Karakhanids fortified it from the ninth to the 12th centuries with a series of ramparts, the Karakhitai and Khorezmshah destroyed and rebuilt it three times between them and finally, and indeed rather predictably, the Mongols pulverized it in 1220. The Ark finally began to take its present form in the 16th century under the Uzbek Shaybanids and all its present buildings date from the last three centuries. By this time, the Ark had grown to house not only the emir, his family and retinue, but also the whole range of government accessories, in a complex of over 3,000 inhabitants providing a palace, harem, throne room, reception hall, office block, treasury, mosque, gold mint, dungeon and slave quarters.
The Ark was 80 per cent destroyed in September 1920 by a fire, sparked either by a vindictive and fugitive emir or a merciless Bolshevik bombardment, depending upon your politics. What survived soon became a natural target for waves of Soviet propaganda campaigns and was finally emasculated and pacified into the town's main history museum and archive. But to this day, hidden behind the cluster of restored museum buildings, lie the hearts and bones of the Ark, left to rot in a secret, derelict wasteland. Thankfully, the front part of the Ark has now been restored and reopened to the public, and an ongoing renovation project will bring back to life other parts of the site one section at a time.
Today the Ark is entered from the austere and forbidding western facade. Originally a second, southern Kalon Gate gave direct access to the Friday Mosque and it is here that the mythical Iranian hero of the Shah Nameh, Siyawush, is said to lie buried.
Turn right into a corridor with courtyards off both sides. First on the left are the former living quarters of the emir’s kushbegi (prime minister), now housing an archaeological museum and a nature museum where you can see what healthy cotton looks like (in contrast to the forlorn, stunted variety you’ll see growing in central Uzbekistan).
Second on the left is the oldest surviving part of the Ark, the vast Reception & Coronation Court, whose roof fell in during the 1920 bombardment. The last coronation to take place here was Alim Khan’s in 1910. The submerged chamber on the right wall was the treasury, and behind this room was the harem. To the right of the corridor were the openair royal stables and the noghorahona (a room for drums and musical instruments used during public spectacles in the square below).
Around the Salamhona (Protocol Court) at the end of the corridor are what remain of the royal apartments. These apparently fell into such disrepair that the last two emirs preferred full-time residence at the summer palace. Now there are several museums here, the most interesting of which covers Bukhara’s history from the Shaybanids to the tsars. Displays include items imported to Bukhara, including an enormous samovar made in Tula, Russia. Another room contains the emir’s throne. Outside, in front of the fortress, is medieval Bukhara’s main square, the Registan, a favourite venue for executions, including those of the British officers Stoddart and Conolly.
The present gateway built by Nadir Shah in 1742 consists of two towering bastions linked by a balcony of six porticoed windows. Up to the turn of this century Bukhara's only mechanical Arabic clock hung from the gateway, the desperate work of captive Italian clockmaker Giovanni Orlandi. Orlandi had been abducted to Bukhara from Orenburg in 1851 by a band of Turkmen slave traders, but had temporarily managed to buy his life by offering to make a customized clock and telescope for the gadget-crazy emir. When, however, the emir dropped his favourite telescope from the top of the Bakhauddin Minaret and the infidel Orlandi was discovered drunk with an Armenian acquaintance, he was again sentenced to death. The skin of his neck was cut as a final incentive to embrace Islam and the next day he was beheaded; the final European victim of the mad Nasrullah. To the left of the clock hung a huge six-stranded khamcha whip, symbol of the emir's punitive powers, and to the left was a valuable scimitar, carried off by the Red troops in 1920.
From the stone ramp entrance a narrow, winding arcade known as the dolom leads past a raised booth where the commander of the fortress, the Tupchi Bashi, received the reports of his spies, and climbs alongside the infamous row of cells and torture chambers known as the khanah khaneh, up into the heart of the Ark. Here, it is only the thin veil of time that separates the visitor's footsteps from the ghosts of Burnes, Conolly, Stoddart, Wolff and others lured by the bait of the Game.
At the top of the walkway one reaches the deeply carved 'mushroom' topped stalactite pillars of the court mosque, now a small museum of the calligrapher's art. Exhibits include two pages of a tenth century Koran and examples of the divan poetry of Navoi and Jami. The red subscript of the manuscripts provides a Persian translation of Arabic texts.
Next to the mosque stands the elchi khanah or embassy of the Kosh Begi, which houses a new exhibition of regional archaeology, replacing the former WWII and Soviet History museum, one of many recent recastings of Bukharan history. (A Soviet display depicting the horrors of Bukharan torture has already disappeared from the Ark.) The elchi khana also houses the memorial plaque and mass grave of the 20-strong Kolesov Bolshevik delegation, massacred here on orders from the emir in 1918.
Just next to the chorsu crossroads on the left is the seventeenth century kurinesh khana or throne room, largely destroyed by fire, this three-sided wooden man has witnessed a series of royal coronations, with new emirs traditionally lilted into the marble throne on a carpet, in a conscious throwback to the golden age of Tamerlane.
Court astronomers would determine an auspicious day for the coronation and prisoners were released in a fleeting mood of clemency. The screen in front of the entrance was to ensure that no attendant would ever have to show his back to the emir. Underneath the present restoration work is the old mint and treasury of the emirate and present-day museum storehouse.
Through the chorsu lies the main museum courtyard where an old kori khana on the left has been transformed into a series of interesting exhibition halls. Beyond this ranged the countless harem bedrooms that the emir would have made up at any one lime to minimize the risk of assassination. Paranoia also spread to dining habits it seems; water was brought in from outside the Ark in skins guarded by armed officers, tasted twice by the ajta bachi and only then resealed and despatched to the emir. Food was likewise tasted by the kosh begi and his officers and, after more than an hour of close scrutiny, placed in a sealed box (to which only the prime minister and emir had keys) and despatched to the emir, with the result that "we shall hardly suppose the king of the Uzbeks ever enjoys a hot meal or a fresh cooked dinner" (Burnes). It is perhaps here, buried deep behind two city walls, wrapped in the imposing bastions of a fortress and concealed in a maze of bedrooms, that the root of the emirate's introspection and isolation is most tangible.
The salaam khana or reception hall was where the emir granted his daily public audience. It was also where Conolly committed his tragic error of etiquette and where Wolff's overzealous deferences soon had the court in stitches. The emir soon grew tired of the countless daily 'salaam aleikum' directed at him and an officer was therefore specifically and solely employed to provide the 'aleikum asalaam reply that religious protocol demanded.
The courtyard is now a revealing local history museum. The mesmerizing robe in the first room was the seventh and final robe worn during the coronation ceremony and was worn with the 20-metre turban that traditionally doubled as a shroud, were the emir to die on a journey. Other quirky exhibits include a rare Jewish/Russian/ Uzbek dictionary, an excellent 1938 propaganda poster declaiming the emir's pyramid of power, a water melon spoon with serrated edges, a series of turn of the century dervish robes and a photograph of the first doctor in Bukhara placed above a collection of his gruesome tools of the trade.
The final courtyard looks onto the two-storey nagora khana, or orchestra, where the Bukharan state orchestra broke into a spirited version of God Save The Queen in honour of the Reverend Wolff and also from where a drumbeat would regularly herald the dark spectacle of impending execution. The main courtyard also housed the royal stables and whenever horses were washed clown, water would flow down the still visible channel to drench the wretched souls in the torture cells below. Finally, to the left of the courtyard stands the emir's domed viewing pavilion, from where he and his closely screened-off female retinue would gaze coldly down onto the packed Registan and perhaps even from where they took delight in the last living moments of Conolly and Stoddart.
The Ark is open every day from 9am to 7:30pm Wednesday to Monday and 9am to 2pm Tuesday. The exhibit rooms close at 4:30pm and on Wednesdays. Entry is around US$4 with a guide, US$2 without. The souvenir booths offer some of Bukhara's better-quality books and handicrafts. A guided tour of the Ark is inexpensive and strongly recommended. An excellent aerial view of the Ark rewards anyone brave enough to ascend the rather unstable lift of the nearby water tower/bar. You may be approached by one of the guards to visit the unrestored ruins of the unrestored sections (about 75 per cent of the original area of the Ark is ruined) for a couple of dollars baksheesh.