And yet those ponds of Bukhara are wonderfully beautiful. In the evening, after the muezzin has sounded from the minaret the call to prayer, the men of the city gather around the ponds, which are bordered by tall, silver poplars and magnificent black elms, to enjoy a period of ease and leisure. Carpets are spread, the ever burning chilim is passed from mouth to mouth, the samovar steams away, and lightfooted boys hand round the shallow bowls of green tea. Here the meddahs, or story-tellers, the musicians and the dancing boys assemble to display their craft. And perhaps a conjuror or a juggler comes, performing the most amazing and incredible feats of skill. An Indian snake charmer joins the throng and sets his poisonous snakes to dance, while over all reigns the peace of a Bukharan evening. No loud speech breaks the spell; items of scandal and the news of the day are exchanged in discreet whispers. So it was centuries ago in Bukhara; so it is today. There are things which not even the Soviets can alter.
Gustav Krist, Alone Through the Forbidden Land, (1937)
The pool and the chaihana of the Lyab-i-Hauz is the modern centre of traditional Uzbekistan. A place where the very soul of Central Asia lies mirrored in a piala of steaming green tea or in the reflected symmetry of a resplendent portal, where cloudy eyed white-beards contemplate the march of time and take shelter from a land in transition.
The chaikhana is not only a way of life in Central Asia, it is also an escape and an antidote to life in Central Asia. It is the essential lubricant to friendship, trade and travel. Its professionals are a hard core of regular nine to fivers, equipped with personal teapots, pialas and backgammon sets and brandishing gleaming arrays of heroic Soviet medals. Many took part in the World War II and are a wonderful source of local oral history. In few places does the name Churchill elicit such mad affection. Sadly, in recent years the locals have largely been transplanted by tourists and the wooden tea-beds replaced with plastic seats. In 2010 the entire area was overhauled and the chaikhanas rebuilt.
During the early years of Soviet transformation red posters adorned the walls of the Lyab-i-Hauz chaikhana, one of a series of Red Chaikhanas which Anna Louise Strong noticed on her 1932 trip to Central Asia, wondering with some concern whether it was possible "that the East may lose its leisure, and drink its tea with one lump or two of propaganda?"
The cool waters and bevelled steps of the hauz, or pool, date from 1620. It was the largest of the city reservoirs, fed directly from the main canal or Shah Rud (Royal Canal) which still bisects the old town. From here professional water-carriers would deliver large leather bags of water to wealthy clients. Today the hauz lies idyllic, but during the time of the emirate it was an idyll afloat on a sea of its own filth. Reshta worms, 'blue sickness', water fleas and dead dogs infested the stagnant water supply until the Soviets drained, restored and refilled it in the 1960s. The mulberry trees that line its shore date from 1477.
The photogenic Lyabi Hauz Square is centred on an artificial reservoir (a hauz in Persian) constructed on the orders of the Grand Vizier, Nadir Divan Beghi, around 1620. The surrounding mulberry trees pre-date the construction of the hauz by 150 years, suggesting the square has long been a shaded focal point in the city. Early visitors recall the presence of jugglers, storytellers and dancing boys, musicians and magicians, and even the occasional Indian snake charmer. It's a far cry from the serene, almost sleepy spot we see today.
The reservoir, which measures 42m by 36m and is 5m deep, is fed by an ancient sunken canal system known as the Shah Rud (the Royal Canal). It was built with stone steps to allow the city's water carriers to easily fill their leather buckets, regardless of the reservoir's current water level.
The building reflected in the waters of the hauz is the Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha. Commissioned at the same time as the pool by Nadir Divanbegi (Divanbegi was a government post equivalent to Finance Minister or Grand Vizier), the two are compositely linked. The khanagha consists of a central cruciform local mosque surrounded by a series of four hujra cells set on two floors which would offer accommodation to mendicant holy men. The elegant portal of the khanagha is the building reflected in the surface of the water, and it was constructed as a place where Sufi dervishes could stay and meditate. At the centre of the building is a mosque with a mihrab decorated with coloured stalactites in crimson red, ultramarine blue, a vivid green and gold. Around the mosque are two storeys of hujras (cells) in which the holy men would have slept. Today the high portal sparkles and the richly decorated mihrab is swamped by souvenirs for sale.
The Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah closes the eastern side of the ensemble and dates from the 1630s. When the Imam Kuli Khan passed the newly-built splendour of its facade, he commended the Divanbegi upon the madrassah and his religious propriety. The minister bit his lip, for he had actually built it as a caravanserai and lucrative source of personal income, but the khan had spoken and no-one could recind the words of Allah's chosen deputy. The portal was rebuilt and corner towers added, as befitted a religious seminary, but to this day the madrassah still lacks a traditional layout, equipped with neither mosque nor lecture hall. The famous tympanum mosaic depicts two fantastic but irreligious simurgh birds with two white deers clasped in their talons, flying up a Mongol-faced sun in a heretic frieze, perhaps commissioned in a fit of secularism by a bitter Divanbegi. This is one of the finest examples of figurative tilework in Uzbekistan. It makes for a truly dramatic scene, especially when you consider that it flies in the face of the widely accepted Islamic prohibition on figurative art. The Mongol sun, replete with human face, must have horrified orthodox visitors. Today the madrassah cells overflow with colourful handicrafts, while the courtyard hosts a nightly song and dance troupe. Between the madrassah and khanagha, a statue of Khodja Nasreddin, a semimythical 'wise fool' who appears in Sufi teaching-tales around the world, sits on his donkey.
The Kukeldash Madrassah, lying to the north of the hauz, pre-dates all three of Nadir Divan Beghi's constructions, having been built in the late 1560s by the Kulbaba Kulkedash (foster brother) of Abdulla Khan II. This is the largest in Central Asia (60 by 80 metres) and the religious magnet that spurred the construction of the ensemble. Its construction is linked to the general and statesman Kulbaba Kukeldash who sponsored many civic projects during the rule of Abdullah Khan II. Its heavy brick facade conceals some elegant interior tilework and complicated vaulting systems. The madrassa's most famous student was the 20th-century writer Sadiriddin Aini.
During the Soviet period the madrassa was used for a variety of purposes, including as a hotel and a Soviet-era women's centre, a deliberate slight, one would assume, to those who believed the madrassa to be the realm of men. The Kulkedash Madrassa has now been restored to its original condition, if not its original function, and you can step inside the cool interior to admire the vaulted ceilings, colourful tilework and, of course, the numerous hujras. It houses today two souvenir shops.
To the south of the Lyab-i-Hauz Square spreads the Jewish Quarter of the old town. Jews have been an important minority in Bukhara since their forced migration from Merv and Shiraz in the 14th century, representing one of the farthest-flung corners of the diaspora. Their pivotal role in the growth of international trade, especially with the Russian Volga, and their domination of certain industries such as cold silk dyeing belied their relatively small numbers, but unfortunately for the Bukharan Jews economic- prosperity was rarely converted into political or social influence. Compelled to wear square caps of fur and pieces of rope around their waists to remind them that they could be hanged at any moment, Jews were also forbidden to ride within the city walls-a prohibition that even extended to one of the first of the city's rich merchants to buy a motor car, only to find himself compelled by law to leave it parked outside the city gates. Jewish evidence was inadmissible in court (as was women's) and as non-Muslims Jews were subject to an extra infidel tax. But there were few forced conversions and although some Jews, known as chalas, found it expedient to embrace Islam, most kept their distinct cultural integrity. In 1832 Burnes estimated the Jewish population at about 4,000 and described them as a remarkably handsome race, admitting that he had seen 'more than one Rebecca in his peregrinations'.
The main synagogue lies only 300 metres south of the Lyab-i-Hauz in an unassuming, almost underground location that enabled it to escape major Soviet repression. Its Hebrew Torah and seven-branched menorah are decorated by Uzbek khanallas silk and almost all local Jews today speak Tajik and Russian. Those, that is, who have not already taken advantage of Israeli financial support and left for Israel. Further south on the edge of town lies the Jewish Cemetery, where chiselled Hebrew gravestones reflect a lost people and where the stars of Lenin and David mix uneasily.
Lyabi-Hauz complex is associated with a romantic legend. Nadir Divan-Begi, the minister of the Bukhara Emir had decided to get married. He gave his bride only earings as a wedding present which obviously offended her. She was fully aware that her husband was born into a wealthy family and could easily afford a more generous present. But the groom kept silent without saying anything.
In few years time he had built a mosque, madrasah and a number of other constructions. His wife became indignant and told him that it was unfair to spend such huge amounts of money on the construction whilst giving her such a modest wedding present - she obviously hadn't forgotten her wedding slight. Her husband responded: "My dear, look in your jewelry box". When she opened the box she could see only one earring, and thought that she was robbed, when Nadir Divan-Begi explained to her that all the constructions he had built was constructed with the price of this one earring, haven't realized the value of my present, please enjoy something that was built thanks to this earring", he said to his wife. Her face must have been a picture then.
In the tea-houses of the Lyab-i-Khauz, where the lanes opened on a pool ringed with medresehs - religious schools - an immemorial conclave of old men lolled on wooden divans as if nothing had ever changed. Their heads were knotted in pale blue turbans or piled with sheepskin hats. Beards dribbled from their chins like fine wire. They sat at ease cross-legged, or dangled a hedonistic limb over the divan's edge, while the proprietors shuffled amiably between them, pouring out green tea from cracked pots. A gentle euphoria was in the air. Nothing sounded but the clink of china and a genial murmur of conspiracy. A breeze blew ripples over the water. Around them the religious schools looped in high gateways and blind arcades, in whose spandrels flew faience phoenixes. Here and there a facade cast a band of Koranic script into the sky, and under nearby plane trees a statue of Khodja Nasreddin, the wise fool of Sufi legend, rode his mad-faced mule.
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron