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Bukhara's said to have around 140 architectural monuments, largely dating from the 9th to the 17th centuries. But many of Bukhara's mosques, madrasahs and bazaars look quite new, thanks to the local passion for restoration and renewal, and many are now repurposed as ‘workshops’ and craft shops.

Shopping is the order of the day here. But the vaunted Turkmen carpets were disappointing (I’m happy to expand on the subject of carpets if anyone is interested) and the pretty pottery Wendy bought turned out to be fragile.

The city centre is now reminiscent of those designer warehouse shopping towns one sees in the US and now in increasingly in Europe. All the facades facing the: “Lyabi-Hauz, a delightful pool of water surrounded by ancient mulberry trees, where you can sit at café tables and let the evening drift by” have been renovated with new brick and glass so it’s not quite Geneva Modernist but neither is it very ancient.


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Bukhara today


In medieval times this was a great centre of Islamic theology.  Burnes reported that: "The priests of the present day assert that, in all other parts of the globe, light descends upon earth; but, on the other hand, that it ascends from the holy Bokhara!" and:

There are about 366 colleges at Bokhara, great and small, a third of which are large buildings that contain upwards of seventy or eighty students. Many have but twenty, some only ten. The colleges are built in the style of caravansarais, a square building is surrounded by a number of small cells, called "hoojrus," which are sold, and bear a value of sixteen tillas, though in some it is so high as thirty...

...In the colleges people may be found from all the neighbouring countries except Persia; and the students are both young and aged.
After seven or eight years' study, they return to their country with an addition to their knowledge and reputation; but some continue for life in Bokhara.
The possession of a cell gives the student a claim to a certain yearly maintenance from the foundation, as well as the revenues of the country.
The colleges are shut for half the year by order of the King, to enable their inmates to work in the fields, and gain something additional to their livelihood.
What would the fellows of Oxford and Cambridge think of mowing down wheat with the sickle?... 

...The students may marry, but cannot bring their wives to the college.
In the season of study, the classes are open from sunrise to sunset; the professor attends constantly; and the scholars dispute in his presence on points of theology, while he guides their debates. One person says, "Prove there is a God!" and about five hundred set arguments are adduced: so is it with other matters.
The students are entirely occupied with theology, which has superseded all other points: they are quite ignorant even of the historical annals of their country.
A more perfect set of drones were never assembled together; and they are a body of men regardless of their religion in most respects, beyond the performance of its prayers; but they have great pretensions, and greater show.

Travels into Bokhara Sir Alexander Burnes 1832


Although there remain some old mud brick buildings reported by Sir Alexander Burnes, it has become something of a modern tourist Mecca, a city-museum.


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Madrasahs - there were once over 300 in Bukhara in the mid-19th century - it was a University Town
But forget physics; astronomy; medicine; history or geography (all once areas of Islamic leadership)
Just 'prove there's a God' and pray to Him five times a day - just like a 14th century Christian monastery


Among the iconic structures of the city is the marvellous 48m high Kalyan Minaret, built in the 13th century.


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B&W Photographs: Paul Nadar 1890

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The Kalyan Minaret and Mosque entrance, seen from the other direction, as is the street to the markets - 1890 and 2018
- the Uzbekistan Album has several more 'then and now' comparisons


The Kalyan Minaret had seen better days by Soviet times so in the 1920’s restoration began. Yet by the 1960’s it was still at risk of falling down.  To forestall this its foundations were renewed and reinforced. After Independence in 1997, to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of Bukhara, the minaret was thoroughly reconstructed and restored and is now often used in travel brochures to represent the city.

Adjoining the Minaret is the huge rectangular Kalyan Mosque completed in 1514 but also subject to ongoing restoration. An open central courtyard is surrounded by pillar-domed galleries (288 domes). Like all such domes each has echoing acoustics, as hand clap demonstrates.  It’s said to have accommodated up to 10,000 worshipers.


The greatest of the public buildings is a mosque, which occupies a square of 300 feet, and has a dome that rises to about a third of that height. It is covered with enamelled tiles of an azure blue colour, and has a costly appearance. It is a place of some antiquity, since its cupola, which once was shaken by an earthquake, was repaired by the renowned Timour.
Attached to this mosque is a lofty minaret, raised in the 542d year of the Hejira {= 1164 CE}.
It is built of bricks, which have been distributed in most ingenious patterns. Criminals are thrown from this tower; and no one but the chief priest may ever ascend it, ..(and that, only on Friday, to summon the people to prayers,) lest he might overlook the women's apartments of the houses in the city.

Sir Alexander Burnes Travels into Bokhara (1832)


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The Kalyan Mosque


An earlier mosque on this site was destroyed by Genghis Khan who was not Muslim but had an ancient Mongol animist religion based on ancestor worship. So, unlike the Spanish for example, he'd no interest in converting the conquered and generally tolerated the religions of his ’slaves’ (conquered peoples) provided that they did not question his overlordship. Yet like the Spanish he systematically put resisting dynastic and religious leaders to the sword, for the same totally practical reason: to eliminate potential leaders of resistance. Thus he destroyed the mosque and murdered its mullahs but spared the beautiful nearby Minaret. 

The ancient city’s citadel 'The Ark of Bukhara' is another ancient pile.  The royal palace was once on top and we were shown the cells below where the British 'spies' Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly were held before being put to death in 1842.

The narrow, steeply sloping entrance and gatehouse may well have afforded protection against Elephants, but not against 20th century weapons. This was put to the test after the Russian Revolution when revolutionary 'Young Bukharans' – modelled after the 'Young Turks' - protested against Emir Alim Khan.   In Tsarist times the Emir had been a Russian vassal, allied against Britain, and had been allowed to continue ruling Bukhara with little interference. So he'd remained a medieval ruler, used to absolute monarchy.

Advised by a conservative Sunni Islamic clergy he responded to those questioning his divine authority by calling for jihad against the ‘Bolshevik Infidels’. Many thousands were put to death by his followers, including many Russian émigrés.

In response, on 28 August 1920, the modern Russian Army arrived to unseat him. They attacked the ancient Ark, very promptly destroying its defences and causing massive damage, although given its condition in the 1890 photograph (see above) the damage may have been hard to discern. Anyway, like everything else in town it's been rebuilt since. The Emir fled, initially to Dushanbe and then to Kabul in Afghanistan, and four years later, after remnants of the Emir’s supporters had been defeated in a local war, the Bukharan People's Soviet Republic was proclaimed. Western critics condemned Russia and commiserated with yet another deposed monarch.

The Arc now houses several interesting museums. But disappointingly there are no ancient guns protecting the ramparts. Presumably the Russians had made short work of those.


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The Ark of Bukhara; one of the museums inside; views from the battlements


A short walk away is the Bolo Hauz (Bolo Lake) Mosque, built in 1712 as a royal chapel for the Emir. It’s also known as the ‘Forty Pillars Mosque’ because if one stands in the right place its 20 tall carved wooden columns can be seen reflected in the rather algal octagonal pool in front of it. Bukhara has always had problems with insufficient water. Burnes reported that the drinking water was foul public bathes were expensive.  So only the wealthy could use them regularly. Today the water comes in a canal from the dwindling Zarafshan River (mentioned earlier) and is only plentiful during the spring melt in Tajikistan.


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Bolo Hauz (Bolo Lake) Mosque - the Royal Chapel


Even older than the Kalyan Minaret is the very fine Samanid mausoleum built between 892 and 943 CE and still in excellent condition. Its design reflects a period of Persian revival in that it is made to resemble a Persian Chartaqi, or Zoroastrian fire temple, and combines ancient Zoroastrian motifs with newer Islamic motifs, introduced from Persia and Arabia.


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Samanid Mausoleum


It was once the centrepiece of a large royal graveyard that is now a Russian (or Chinese) style people's park, complete with a funfair. The mausoleum owes its unique survival, among the now lost sarcophagi of that once morbid place, to its construction using kiln fired terra-cotta (bricks and tiles) and to having been buried in silt for over a thousand years due to flooding of the graveyard. Not, as our guide told us, due to being buried in sand by the faithful as Genghis Khan approached, although local Muslims did attempt to bury a mosque.  Given his preservation of the Kalyan Minaret, the mosque would certainly have been more at risk than this beautiful building. Nevertheless few ancients ever got to admire it as the mausoleum remained buried in mud until rediscovered in 1934 Russian archaeologist V.A. Shishkin. Excavating undamaged it took a team of archaeologists over two years. Meanwhile the surrounding park was landscaped to show it off to best affect. As it’s a royal burial chamber it’s again a holy place to Muslims.

Those of you who have read our Indian travels might be interested to know that the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a key player, with Ghandi and Lord Mountbatten (or at least his wife) in the Partition of India and Pakistan, and Pakistan’s first Governor General in 1947, is modelled after this building.

On balance, Bukhara was very enjoyable. We had several pleasant meals in nice restaurants including plov (oily rice with meat and carrots) a local favourite, trying different venues around town before venturing into a back street where a place upstairs offered a wonderful sunset looking over the rooftops, as well as a glimpse of what the city once looked like before all the renovations.


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Behind the scenes: from the restaurant and the courtyard our hotel room opened onto
There are more images in the Uzbekistan Album - Click Here...


It was here, in our quite new hotel near the Lyabi-Hauz, that we abandoned a couple of bottles of wine thinking that they may be useful to one of the local crafts-persons as wood stain.

Throughout the trip there had been limited places with a licence to sell alcohol and while these typically had a dozen different brands of vodka and beer there was often a very limited choice of wine. As we like to have wine with meals this was problematic – like buying a pig in a poke – sometimes it turned out to be quite pleasant; sometimes desperation won; but this time…

We would have to resort to fruit juice spiked with vodka. Great idea, until I forgot which water bottle had the vodka.

The next leg of the journey would be a 450km drive through the desert, following the Silk Road to Ancient Khiva.




# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.

A very interesting part of the world.

Richard Walker
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