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Samarkand is the beauty of the earth, but Bukhara is the beauty of the spirit
Bukhara! For centuries it had glimmered remote in the Western consciousness: the most secretive and fanatical of the great caravan-cities, shored up in its desert fastness against time and change. To either side of it the Silk Road had withered away, so that by the nineteenth century the town had folded its battlements around its people in self-immolated barbarism, and receded into fable.
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
Travel writers, chroniclers and historians are in agreement: Bukhara the Holy, Bukhara the Noble, the Dome of Islam, the Pillar of Religion, the beauty of the spirit, the most intact city in the hoary East, the most interesting city in the world.
The riches of Bukhara span a thousand years. Boasting a different mosque for every day of the year, drawing the finest minds of the East with its cultural and commercial vitality, the city well deserved the title Bukhara the Holy. Everywhere else, it was said, light shone down from heaven; in Bukhara the light shone up.
Central Asia’s holiest city, Bukhara (population 270,000) has buildings spanning a thousand years of history, and a thoroughly lived-in old centre that probably hasn’t changed much in two centuries. It is one of the best places in Central Asia for a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan. Most of the centre is an architectural preserve, full of medressas, minarets, a massive royal fortress and the remnants of a once-vast market complex. Government restoration efforts have been more subtle and less indiscriminate than in flashier Samarkand, and the city’s accommodation options go from strength to strength.
Whether you are drawn to the Ark, the city's medieval mud-brick citadel, and the grisly history of its Registan and zindan, or to the majestic beauty of the Kalyon Mosque and the buildings of Lyabi Hauz reflected in the gently shifting waters of the tank, everything you see is a treat for the eyes. Many people will quite understandably spend their entire stay wandering the labyrinthine streets of the Old Town, savouring each sight and sound and smell.
Bukhara is the undisputed pearl (or perhaps that should be sapphire, given that its dominant colour is blue) of Uzbekistan. Samarkand and Khiva both have their charms, but they seem but pale mirages when you are standing alone on a late autumnal afternoon staring up at the Kalyon Minar, the most prominent sight on Bukhara's skyline, and with the vast and unbelievably sumptuous 16th-century Kalyon Mosque at your side.
Those who do venture a little further outside the city will not be disappointed, however. The Bakhauddin Naqshbandi Complex outside the modern city's confines is considered amongst the holiest sites in central Asia, and huge numbers of visitors come both on pilgrimage and to admire the mazar. Close by is the Sitorai Makhi Khosa, the summer palace of Alim Khan, which gives a poignant insight into the last days of the Bukharan emirate before the Bolsheviks took control, and also the town of Gijduvan, famous for its handmade and finely painted ceramics.
Until a century ago Bukhara was watered by a network of canals and some 200 stone pools where people gathered and gossiped, drank and washed. As the water wasn’t changed often, Bukhara was famous for plagues; the average 19th-century Bukharan is said to have died by the age of 32. The Bolsheviks modernised the system and drained the pools. You’ll need at least two days to look around. Try to allow time to lose yourself in the old town; it’s easy to overdose on the 140-odd protected buildings and miss the whole for its many parts.
An oasis in the enveloping Kyzylkum desert, Bukhara sits 250km downstream of Samarkand on the Zarafshon River. The heart of the shahristan (old town) is the pool and square called Lyabi-Hauz; the landmark Kalon Minaret is five minutes further, the Ark five more. Further west are Samani Park and the main farmers market, Kolkhoz (Dekhon, Markazi) Bazaar. The bulk of the modern town lies southeast of the historical centre.
The majority of sights lie scattered around the old town (shakhristan) and are thus most easily reached on foot. The classic itinerary starts at the Registan and proceeds through the heart of the old bazaar quarter to the area around the Lyab-i Hauz square. Bukhara's range of interesting sights requires at least two or three days to do the city justice and is the Central Asian city that most rewards the inquisitive traveller prepared to veer off the main tourist routes and immerse himself in the old town.
I could have spent months in Bokhara, seeking out fresh memories of the prodigous past, mingling with the bright crowds in the bazar, or simply idling away my time under the apricot trees in the clear warm sunlight of Central Asia.
Fitzroy Maclean, Eastern Approaches
The founding of Bukhara is cloaked in mystery, the creation myths as rich and elaborate as the facade of Lyabi Hauz. The famed Persian epic, the Shahnama, tells us the city was founded by Siyavush, a Persian prince from the Pishdadian Dynasty. Accused by his wicked stepmother of seducing her, he was forced to undergo a trial by fire but emerged from the flames unscathed and crossed the Amu Darya in search of new lands and fortune. In Samarkand he wed the princess Farangis, daughter of King Afrosiab, and her dowry included the vassal state of Bukhara.
The story did not end there, however, as Siyavush was later accused of plotting to overthrow Afrosiab. Afrosiab had him executed in front of Farangis and his head was buried beneath the Ark's Kalyon Gate, a permanent reminder to the citadel's residents to remember their place and not to threaten the sovereignty of Samarkand.
Situated at the crossroads between Merv (now in eastern Turkmenistan and one of the largest cities in the ancient world), Herat and Samarkand, Bukhara was in a prime location to benefit from Silk Road trade. It was already flourishing by the 6th century bc when it was sacked by the Achaemenids, becoming a satrapy ol the Persian Empire. The evident wealth of Bukhara would in many ways prove a curse, attracting the unwanted attentions of Alexander the Great in 329bc, then the subsequent invasions of the Seleucids, Graeco-Bactrians and the Kushans.
Bukhara became a centre of worship for the Iranian goddess Anahita, and devotees flocked to the city each year to exchange the idols they believed would ensure the fertility of their fields. The city also attracted Nestorian Christians and Manicheans, followers of a gnostic religion originating in Sassanid-era Babylonia, who were persecuted elsewhere in the Sassanian Empire but able to flourish in Bukhara.
When Arab invaders came to Bukhara in the 7th century, the residents were initially able to spare themselves by paying an annual tribute. Relations deteriorated, however, when 80 Bukharans were kidnapped and committed mass suicide en route to Medina, depriving their captors of slave profits they felt to be rightfully theirs. The crusading Qutaiba ibn Muslim arrived in ad709 and violently asserted direct control. The religious diversity for which the city was famed was quashed almost overnight and by the time Bukhara became the capital of the Samanid state in the 9th century, the city was known as Bukhoro-i Sharif (Noble Bukhara) and "The Pillar of Islam'.
The 9th and 10th centuries were a golden age for Bukhara. The Samanid ruler Ismail ibn Ahmed maintained the political stability required for trade to flourish, and with his wealth he patronised some of the greatest intellectuals and artisans in the Islamic world. The scientist, philosopher and physician Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna), the Persian poets Ferdowsi and Rudaki, and the chronicler al Beruni all thrived in the city and completed their most important works here.
The fall of the Samanids resulted in 200 years of attacks on Bukhara. The Karakhanids invaded in ad999, the Karakhitai attacked in 1141, the Khorezmshah in 1206 and, most catastrophically of all, Genghis Khan and the Mongol horde rode into town in 1220. Every one of Bukhara's 30,000 troops was slaughtered, the city was torched, the civilian population (including women and children) killed or enslaved, and the Great Khan himself stood in the Namazgokh Mosque and proclaimed himself the 'Scourge of God'. The city was utterly decimated and when the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta visited nearly 150 years later, he described it as still lying more or less in ruins.
Bukhara's revival came in the 16th century when it became the Shaybanid capital. Abdulla Khan united the Uzbek clans to resist the Shi'ite Safavids (Bukhara's rulers were Sunni), and artisans captured from the Safavid city of Herat (now in western Afghanistan) were instructed to rebuild Bukhara.
Bukhara once again became a regional religious centre, but this time to espouse Islam. Within the confines of the city were some 150 madrassas and nearly 300 mosques, each more ornate and better endowed than the last. By the late 18th century, Bukhara was struggling economically as trade took a back seat to religion and goods formerly traded along the Silk Road were now being transported along maritime routes, skipping central Asia entirely. Bukhara's rulers became known for their barbarism and for their religious extremism; the most notorious of them was 'the Butcher' Nasrullah Khan, who murdered 31 relatives (including three brothers) to ascend to the throne in 1826, and later cut his chief advisor in half with an axe. A succession of British and Russian officers, diplomats and spies trooped through Bukhara in this period, including Alexander 'Bukhara' Burnes, and it is Nasrullah Khan who was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of the British officers Conolly and Stoddart.
Russia gained trading concessions in the Bukharan emirate in 1868 and though the khan remained nominally independent, Bukhara was essentially a Russian protectorate. The Trans-Caspian railway arrived in 1888, physically linking the city to Russia.
The emirate of Bukhara finally ended with the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolshevik governor of Tashkent, Kolesov, came to Bukhara to request a peaceful surrender from Alim Khan, but the emir arranged a violent mob to slaughter both this emissary and the Russian detachment that followed. Ethnic Russians living in the city were also killed. Some 15 unfortunate Bolshevik spies were caught and dispatched, one by one, but this was to be the emir's swansong: in 1920 General Mikhail Frunze marched his troops into the city. Large parts of Bukhara were destroyed during four days of fighting, the emir fled to Afghanistan, and by the end of it the Bolshevik flag flew from the Kalyon Minar.