Beautiful Bukhara

After an easy and comfortable 1.5 hour train journey, we arrived in Bukhara and meet our new guide Tulkin, before transferring to the hotel for some sleep.

Oh how accustomed I am now to having the internet almost everywhere, so it was a bit of a shock to the system to find out that this hotel only had wifi available in the reception area!  So, instead of being able to catch up on news in bed when I woke up, I had to get up and shower early to get online – I actually enjoyed a quiet 20 minutes or so before the ‘crowds’ arrived with the company of the hotel kitten who quickly became my best friend 😂 and made it worth my while having to sit in the reception lol.

I also had time to take a quick walk around the local area before the crowds and first impressions where that the area looked like a newly built movie set🤔.  Far more Arabic – like something out of Arabian Nights, Aladdin and any other stereotypical Arabian movie you can think of 🤔.  I was interested to see how that impression changed throughout the day. 

As Tulkin introduced us to his city, he explained that Bukhara is a city surrounded by steppes and deserts which leads to it having 270 windy days in a year!  He also explained that it had been a super hot summer this year with temperatures reaching over 50C – I was so glad I had chosen to come in autumn rather than summer!

As with Samarkand, Bukhara has a long history.  In medieval times, it was the capital of the Samanid Empire and as an important Silk Road city was a centre for trade, culture and religion. The historical centre of the city is a UNESCO listed World Heritage site.

It was also the last capital of the Emirate of Bukhara before being overtaken by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War.

Back with the group and we started on a walking tour which took us back through the market I had walked through earlier – before any of the shops had opened.  It was now bustling with activity and it was clear that a number of people in my group were very keen shoppers and it was a struggle for the guide to keep them moving (despite the promise of free time for shopping later in the day)!

As well as the shop lined streets, we were introduced to “Taks” or trading domes where shops were grouped together according to their guilds (something that is also seen in Europe).  In Bukhara, 3 trading domes remain from the 16th century (although heavily reconstructed) – the money changing dome, the hatmaker dome and the jewellers dome.  The stone work and design go a long way to keeping the interiors cool on the hottest of summer days.

Tulken knew most of the shop keepers so we took a little time to stop and chat as he told us about their wares before dragging the shoppers onwards to the next site.

Now, I don’t want to keep repeating myself, but again, this city was sooooooo clean! 

The first Madrasah we come to for the day was Ulugbek Madrasah, built not surprisingly, by Ulugbek (the great astronomer we met in Samarkand).  It was built in 1417 by the best architects of the time and although it does not have the most decorative of facades it is still pretty impressive.

At the top of the entrance “gate” there is an inscription from the Koran “the pursuit of knowledge is the responsibility of every Muslim man and woman” – this is often considered Ulugbek’s motto.  His love for astronomy is also clear by the astral designs used.

Opposite Ulugbek’s madrasah is the Abdul Aziz Madrasah, built in 1652 almost 250 years later than it’s neighbour.  It’s exterior gate is far more ornate but much of it’s interior has not been restored.

The next site being the Po-i-Kalyan complex which is the highlight of the city.

The complex is dominated by the Kalyan minaret which is believed to date back to 1127 and is apparently 90% original!  It is also known as the Tower of Death as legend say it was the site where criminals were executed by being through off the top!

Fun fact – the word minaret comes from the Arabic word ‘minara’ which means lighthouse.  It is believed that this may also be an adaption of the fire towers of the Zoroastrian era.  (I can’t remember if I have mentioned before but better twice than not at all right?)

On one side of the square there is the Kalan Mosque which dates back to 1514.  It is vast and can accommodate up to 12,000 people!!  This mosque is unique in that it has 288 monumental pylons supporting the multi domed roofs.

The final monument and youngest in the complex is the Mir-I Arab Madrasah, date which was built around 1535 and is one of the few that is not only still operating as a school today, but was one of the only ones that stayed open during the soviet period.

Just passed this complex and we find ourselves outside the “walls” at the Ark of Bukhara or Citadel, which is a massive fortress around part of the city that was original built around the 5th century AD (though what we see today dates back to the 17th century). That said, the Ark in Bukhara is referred to in texts from 960 and at it’s prime up to 3,000 people lived inside it’s walls.

The walls enclosed almost 4 hectares and range from 16-20 metres in height with the citadel once housing many rooms including store rooms, prison cells and once a great library which was sadly destroyed in one of the conquests for the city.

During the Russian civil war, the Ark was badly damaged by Soviet bombing – apparently only 20% survived.  Rumour also has it that the last Emir, as he escaped to Afghanistan with the royal treasure, ordered the Ark be blown up so it could not be desecrated by the Bolsheviks.

Just outside the fortress walls is the Boloi Haouz Mosque, another unique mosque in the city.  Built in 1712, it served as a Friday mosque right up until the Russian rule in the 1920’s.  The mosque has beautifully painted wooden columns lining the front and is again today a functioning mosque.

It is in Bukhara we met up with Ismail Somoni again, the man who is immortalised in all the giant statues around Tajikistan.  Sadly, we meet him in his mouseleum – which is a perfect example of early Islamic architecture (dating back to the 10th century) and one of the oldest mausoleums in Central Asia. It is completely different to all the other mausoleums we have seen which have been very grand – this one is small, completely symmetrical and made of plain fired bricks (as it was built prior to the invention of glazed tiles).  Despite it’s apparent plain appearance, it is actually a complex combination of numerous (16) intricate decorative traditions e.g. Sogidan, Persian and even classical and was innovative use of the dome support. 

Tulkin told us that at that time, people were not allowed to have mausoleums, however Somoni had this built for him to show that he was not under the rule of the Persian/Arab kings.

Also in this small ancient cemetery we visited Chashma-Ayub mausoleum, built during Temur’s reign.  The name translates as “Job’s Spring”, based on the legend that tells of Job (from the bible) visiting the place and making a well by striking the ground with his staff.  Water from the well is still considered healing.  The mausoleum is unique in having a Khwarazm style conical dome.

After a long morning of working we finally made it to lunch a little out of the centre of town at a “noodle centre” – very similar to the Plov centre we ate at in Tashkent.  Here they sell laghman noodles which originated from China, served with Samsa which were delicious meat pies.  It was incredibly busy, filled with locals and I could see why – it was delicious.  As we left, we passed the small area which they made the samsa in massive quantities – cooked stuck to the sides of a stone oven.  

Our final site for the very hectic day was the Bukhara Synagogue – a synagogue I hear you ask?  Yes, indeed – I too was surprised to see a synagogue here Uzbekistan.  Bukharan Jews have a long history in the city and apparently used to pray with Muslims in a mosque before the synagogue we visited was built in the 16th century.

Even up until the 1920’s, 10% of the population of the city were Jewish and there were 13 synagogues but today, there are less than 300 Jews left in the city with two synagogues.  Many left the city over the years whilst some converted to Islam as they did not have equal rights to trade.  (A similar story of conversion that I had heard in Bosnia where non-Muslims had to pay more tax!)

We had already lost some of the group by this time, either to the shops or their rooms but we finally had some free time (👍🏻👍🏻) to wander around before dinner and then a couple of us went for a a drink in a bar overlooking the Po-i-Kalyan complex which was beautifully lit up (as all good Central Asian monuments are lol).

Just a quick side note – I have mentioned before that Uzbekistan has so many more tourists that the other countries we have visited so far on this trip, but what was odd, is that 80% of tourists and tour groups are over 60 🤔🤔🤔!  I know many of those in my group (all of which were in that same age group) said they had come because they saw a programme where Joanna Lumley (a UK actress in that same age group) travelled along the Silk Road.  Is it possible that all of these tourists had seen the same show??

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