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October 9, 2014 / oneworld82

Bukhara – A city of knowledge

When I decided to visit Uzbekistan,  my only certainty was that I would go to Bukhara and Samarkand. That’s because most tourists go there, and that’s because usually you see pictures of these two cities on websites and travel magazines. Little I knew about this splendid city, this Medioeval center of religious, scientific, and architectural studies. As Wikitravel puts it:

“According to the legend Bukhara was founded by King Siavash, a legendary Persian prince from the beginnings of the Persian Empire. After the treason of his stepmother Sudabeh, who accused him that he wanted to seduce her and betray his father, Siavash went into exile to Turan. Afrasiab, the King of Samarkand, married his daughter Ferganiza(Farangis) to him and granted him a vassal kingdom in the oasis of Bukhara. Later, Siavash was accused that he wanted to overthrow King Afrasiab and was executed in front of his wife. Siavash’s father sent Rostam, the legendary Persian hero to Turan and Rostam brought Ferganiza (Farangis) and their son Kai Khosrow back to Persia.

At the time of the Arab conquests, Bukhara was ruled by the Sogdian dynasty of the Bokar-kodats. Arab armies first appeared before Bukhara in the caliphate of Moawia, after Obayd-Allāh b. Zīād b. Abīhe crossed the Oxus (53-54/673-74). Bukhara was ruled by a woman, Katun, as regent for her infant son. She had to submit and to pay a tribute of a million dirhams and 4,000 slaves. Permanent Arab control in the city was established by Qotayba b. Moslem Baheli, who after arduous campaigns in Sogdia (87-90/706-09) overcame the resistance of the Bukharans and their Turkish allies and placed an Arab garrison in the city, forcing every home owner to share his residence with Arabs. In 94/712-13 he erected the first mosque in Bukhara within the citadel, on the site of a former Buddhist or Zoroastrian temple. In 166/782, the governor of Khorasan Fażl b. Solayman Ṭusi built walls to protect Bukhara against Turkish attacks.

In the 3rd/9th cent. the notables of Bukhara asked the Samanid ruler of Samarqand and Farḡāna Nasr b.Ahmad for help, who in 260/874 sent his younger brotherIsmail to the city. Bukhara enjoyed a period of prosperity lasting for 150 years and under the patronage of the Samanid amirs served as a cultural center for Arabic learning and Persian literature. A passage by Taalebi, the famous scholar of Nisapur, praises Bukhara in the era of the Samanids as “the focus of splendour, the Kaba of the empire, the meeting-place of the unique figures of the age, the rising-place of the stars of the literary men of the world, and the forum for the outstanding per­sonages of the time”. Geographers from the Samanid period mention the division of the city in a citadel (ko­handez), the town proper (sahrestan) and a suburb (rabat). The citadel contained the palace and the original mosque of Qotayba b. Moslem. To its east, dividing it from the sahrestan, was the Rigestan, an open, sandy space, where Amir Naṣr b. Aḥmad (301-33/914-43) built a palace and where the dīvāns of the administration were situated. In this century, an outer wall with eleven gates was built. The city had clearly expanded, though geographers still critize it as an unsanitary and crowded place.

In 389/999 Bukhara was occupied by the Ilak (Ilig) Nasr b. Ali. For the next 150 years it was part of the western Qarakhanid khanate, ruled by descendants of the Ilak Nasr. Under the loose, decentralized rule of the Turkish tribesmen, Bukhara lost its political importance. The reign of Arslan Khan Moḥammad b. Solayman (495-524/1102-30) brought peace to the city. He also rebuilt the citadel and city walls, and erected a new Friday mosque and two new palaces.

Bukhara was con­quered by Gengiz Khan in 616/1220. All inhabitants were driven out and the city was burned., but in the time of Ögedey Qaan (626-39/1229-41) the city was prosperous again. Ögedey placed the administration of all the settled regions of Central Asia in the hands of a Muslim merchant trusted by the Mongols, who resided in Ḵojand and reported directly to the supreme khan. The revival of prosperity of Bukhara may have been due to his efforts. He was succeeded at Bukhara by his son Masud Beg, who remained in authority until his death in 688/1289, despite feuds among the Mongol successor states and repeated shifts in their borders within Central Asia. Masud Beg was buried in the madrasa that he had built at Bukhara. The skilled craftsmen inhabiting Bukhara were apportioned among the four divi­sions of the Mongol empire), each belonging to one of Gengiz Khan’s sons and his descendants; each division was entitled to revenues from the portion of the population assigned to it.

The Khanate of Bukhara came into existence after the conquest of Samarkand and Bukhara by Muhammad Shaybani. The Shaybanid Dynasty ruled the khanate from 1506 until 1598. Under their rule Bukhara became a center of arts and literature. Bukhara attracted skilled craftsmen of calligraphy and miniature painting , poets and theologians. Abd al-Aziz Jhan (1533-1550) established a library “having no equal”. The khanate of Bukhara reached its greatest influence under Abdullah Khan II, who reigned from 1577 to 1598.

The Khanate of Bukhara was governed by the Janid Dynasty (Astrakhanids) in the 17th and 18th cent. It was conquered by Nadir Shah of Iran in 1740. After his death the khanat was controlled by descendants of the Uzbek emir Khudayar Bi through the position of “ataliq” (prime minister). The khanate became the Emirate of Bukhara in 1785.”

As you can imagine, this Central Asian city has seen it all. That and remarkable conservation efforts made sure that the city is in incredible conditions. It’s another city/museum.

Kalta Minar Minaret

Char Minar

There is so much to see in Bukhara that I do not know where to begin. This city was not one important stop along the Silk Road, but also one of the most important centers of Islamic culture and Mediaeval science, with scholars like the geographer Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and the mathematician al-Khwārizmī (Algorismi, discoverer of the algorithmic process and writer of Al-Jebr, the very first treaty on Algebra) calling it home. This incredibly well-preserved city boasts more than 140 buildings protected by UNESCO. Madrasas are the ubiquitous sight in a city that feels like an open-air museum and university.

Lyab-i-Hauz is the central square, with a nice pond flanked by chaikanahs and restaurants in the middle. The beautiful Nadir Divanbegi Madrasah sits on one end of the square, and a beloved statue of Nasreddin – a Seljuk satirical Sufi – is located in front of it. Nasreddin is a truly beloved character, and locals line up day and night to take a picture next to this statue.

Nadir Divanbegi Madrasah

Kukeltash Madrasah

Nadir Divanbegi Madrasah

Kukeltash Madrasah

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The old city is an intricate maze of narrow streets and covered bazaars; just walking around is fun, because every corner hides a beautiful building, a house with a nice courtyard, or beautiful handicrafts sold as souvenirs.

Labi-havz

Labi-havz

Labi-havz

Labi-havz

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Taki-Sarrafon Bazaar

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Taki-Zargaron Madrasah

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Bread

Bread

The sight that perhaps captured me is the ensemble formed by theand the Kalon Mosque and Minaret (the latter built in 1127). This incredible part of Bukhara is just as stunning as the Registan in Samarkand. Green/blue tileworks and blue domes – the quintessential Central Asian and Persian decorations – are at their best in this perfectly-preserved corner of ancient Bukhara. Get there, sit, and stare in pure awe. DSC_0536

Mir-I Arab Madrasa

Mir-I Arab Madrasa

Mir-I Arab Madrasa

Mir-I Arab Madrasa

Kalon Minaret

Kalon Minaret

Mir-I Arab Madrasa

Mir-I Arab Madrasa

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From there it’s not a long walk to the Ark – the old walled citadel home to the emir of Bukhara and greatly damaged by Frunze’s army during the Bolshevik invasion. The walls are just as impressive as Khiva’s. Inside, the coronation room and the ancient mosque are among the very few remains of the city.

Ice cream for the walk

Ice cream for the walk

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Ark fortification

Ark fortification

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Ark entrance

Ark entrance

Juma mosque inside the Ark

Juma mosque inside the Ark

Coronation Hall

Coronation Hall

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In front of the Ark sits Registan Square (Registan is a Tajik work that means “sandy place”), where executions and parades used to be held; across the street the Friday Mosque is a testament of central Asian architecture, with high, wooden pillars that give the building a marked decadent soul. In a park only 10 minutes away behind the mosque lies another great site: the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, built at the beginning of the X century CE. It’s stunning to see how refined the architecture in the region was a millennium ago – and how well preserved all these buildings still are.

Friday Mosque in front of Registan Square

Friday Mosque in front of Registan Square

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Ismail Samani Mausoleum

Ismail Samani Mausoleum

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Bukhara’s most famous and photographed building, though, is the Char Minar, a great example of Tajik architecture. It is not as impressive as other monuments found in the city, but the perfect geometry and unique architecture of the building make it one of the best sights in town.

Bukhara, just like Samarkand, is a city predominantly populated by ethnic Tajiks. The Tajik border is not far away from here, and most of the people naturally speak Tajik (although almost everyone speaks Uzbek and Russian as well). The ethnic diversity of Uzbekistan, albeit not as apparent as Kazakhstan’s, is remarkable. Tajiks are not Turkic people (like the Uzbeks and the Kazakhs); they are Persians, deriving from the same Arian people from which modern-day Iranians and Afghans come from. Uzbeks used to be one and the same with the Kazakhs, people who inhabited the steppe but that at a certain point in history decided to become sedentary. They have marked Central Asian traits, Mongolian-like. Russians, quite pervasive in Kazakhstan, are more limited in number in Uzbekistan and mostly concentrated in Tashkent.

Bukhara (and to a lesser extent Samarkand) used to host a thriving Jewish community as well (almost completely gone these days). These rich trading cities at the center of routes leading from China to India, the Middle East, and Europe offered attractive opportunities for skilled, entrepreneurial Jewish traders, artisans, and jewelers, who gave life to an important community that it’s unfortunately gone. The historic Jewish neighborhoods, though, are still there, with their narrow alleys and cramped buildings. It’s certainly interesting walking around the non-touristic part of Bukhara – you get a real insight into how Uzbek’s neighborhood life looks like.

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Bukhara’s sights are best seen in a couple of day. There is a lot to see, to absorb. Sure, with a good guide and an early rise it’s certainly possible to hit all the major sights in a day; but that would detract from the opportunity of just walking around town, exploring aimlessly this beautiful, ancient city getting lost in space and time. One of the best memories I have of this trip is being sit at a restaurant on the Lyab-I Hauz for dinner having beef shashlik (oh my, the most delicious thing my palate ever tasted!), drinking a good local beer, and enjoying the evening breeze that chilled the summer nights away after the scorching heat of the daytime. The sun, yes: I traveled in the second part of August, when it’s still definitely summer in this part of the World. The sun is strong, but the air is dry, so walking around during the day is actually not as bad as in places like Bangkok or Dallas; just drink plenty of water and you’ll be perfectly fine.

Also, one mention about the food: in Layb-havz there is a good restaurant with al fresco dining, live music, and reasonable prices. There I had shashlik – the most amazing way to grill meat you can imagine. Don’t miss it.

Most amazing beef shashlik!

Most amazing beef shashlik!

Chicken shashlik and cabbage salad

Chicken shashlik and cabbage salad

My bill: $20

My bill: $20

Also, the best (and possibly only) way to explore many of these cities is on foot. Be sure to bring good hiking shoes with you – that will help you prevent blisters and it will make your trip much easier and more enjoyable.

In Bukhara, I stayed at one of the many charming B&B in town. I opted to stay at Rustam & Zukhra, a clean. centrally-located guesthouse with a very hospitable family, clean rooms, great breakfast, and good atmosphere.

My next stop would be Samarkand. The easiest way to get there is by shared taxi – that will set you up for about $20 per person and the ride won’t be, overall, too uncomfortable.

My taxi to Samarkand

My taxi to Samarkand

All in all, Bukhara was an AMAZING place to visit. The shear number of historical buildings (and the excellent state of them) was mind-blowing. You can really breathe history here, just like you could in Rome or Paris. Definitely a place not to miss.

2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. PedroNY / Oct 9 2014 12:32 pm

    Wonderful post, thank you for sharing, very enjoyable read about this city and part of the world.

    Cheers,

    PedroNY

  2. asthaguptaa / Oct 13 2014 5:00 am

    Wow! A stunning place! Lots of reasons to follow you – I can’t stop myself :))
    Hoping you drop by my blog some time too!

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