Countries that no longer exist – are you as intrigued by that as I am? The melancholic atmosphere of a land forever gone; somewhere ephemeral, glimpsed through a translucent curtain that is the past, just out of our grasp. DDR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union; they have all existed during my lifetime.
I think we can agree that some countries being gone forever is not a bad thing. Others, well, who knows. When we go back in time (far enough), perhaps we tend to look through rose-tinted glasses, not really taking in cruelty and oppression. Because, let’s face it, throughout history, that has been more normative than exceptional. Also in the now defunct Emirate of Bukhara.
The Emirate of Bukhara
In this post, you can read about Syr Darya and Amu Darya, the two rivers that fed into the tragically disappearing Aral Sea. The Latin name for the Amu Darya was Oxus, and the land between the two rivers was Transoxiana. Such a delightfully mysterious name, I think. Right up there with Samarkand, Manchuria, Bagdad, Zanzibar, Kashgar, Damascus…
Also, in this post, I briefly mention Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, a whimsical travel book I read – and re-read – in my teens, dreaming about visiting just these lands.
And here I am!!
Here in Transoxiana was once a country known as the Emirate of Bukhara. Successor to the Khanate of Bukhara, the emirate was established in 1785.
A caliph is head honcho, religious and political leader chosen by the worldwide Islamic community. The prophet Mohammad was the first, and, as far as I can understand, only one, as it’s hard to see how Sunnis and Shias could have ever agreed on one. An emir heads an emirate like a prince heads a principality. Emirate is a familiar term; Dubai is one of 7 emirates that have joined together in a federation known as the United Arab Emirates (we’ve covered all 7 here.) A sultan has a similar role. Not many of them left today; Brunei and Oman are the only ones I can think of, and a few local sultans within the federation of Malaysia. The difference between a sultan and an emir is a bit obscure to me. Emir means prince, and sultan means power, which leads me to think a sultan trumps an emir. Both seem to be more military/worldly roles. Caliph, then, is the only one with religious connotations. And the khanate? Khan is a pre-Islamic title, first used by Mongols on the steppes, a tribal leader. We all remember Gengis, don’t we? (There could be nuances I may have missed, so I’m leaving the comment section open for once. Spam be damned.)
A caliph is head honcho, religious and political leader chosen by the worldwide Islamic community. The prophet Mohammad was the first, and, as far as I can understand, only one, as it’s hard to see how Sunnis and Shias could have ever agreed on one.
An emir heads an emirate like a prince heads a principality. Emirate is a familiar term; Dubai is one of 7 emirates that have joined together in a federation known as the United Arab Emirates (we’ve covered all 7 here.) A sultan has a similar role. Not many of them left today; Brunei and Oman are the only ones I can think of, and a few local sultans within the federation of Malaysia.
The difference between a sultan and an emir is a bit obscure to me. Emir means prince, and sultan means power, which leads me to think a sultan trumps an emir. Both seem to be more military/worldly roles. Caliph, then, is the only one with religious connotations.
And the khanate? Khan is a pre-Islamic title, first used by Mongols on the steppes, a tribal leader. We all remember Gengis, don’t we?
(There could be nuances I may have missed, so I’m leaving the comment section open for once. Spam be damned.)
After 135 years, the emirate was upended by the Bukharan Operation, a war with the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, spurred on by a secret society known as the Young Bukharians.
Bukharan Operation! That’s another truly fabulous name right there. Worthy of a spy/action flick starring, well, me.
Meanwhile, the real life war lasted a mere 5 days, from 28 August to 2 September 1920, before the territory was absorbed into the Soviet Union as The Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic, as yet another part of that “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”. The Emirate of Bukhara was no more.
Not that the Bukharan PSR lasted long. In 1924, the USSR created new internal borders, and the former emirate became part of the new Uzbek SSR. Today, the territory that once was the Emirate of Bukhara is split between Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The capital city of that former emirate is now one of three world famous landmarks in Uzbekistan.
And that brings us to Bukhara.
The road to Bukhara
Continuing on from Khiva, we travel by car once more.
The road is looong! (But without many winding turns. And we do know where it leads. So there is that.)
The July heat is as oppressive as yesterday. And the day before. Remember I wondered if we would hit 50°C?
That’s 122°F, American friends.
Things to see and do in Bukhara
People have lived in this area long before khanates and emirates and whatnots. For more than 2000 years, Bukhara was an oasis, a refuge, in the middle of the Kyzyl-Kum desert, on the fabled Silk Road. The historic centre is compact, and well worthy of its World Heritage status, which we are reminded of around town.
Bukhara, which is situated on the Silk Route… is one of the best examples of well preserved Islamic cities of Central Asia of the 10th to 17th centuries, with an urban fabric that has remained largely intact… the real importance of Bukhara lies not in its individual buildings but rather in its overall townscape, demonstrating the high and consistent level of urban planning and architecture…
From UNESCO’s inscription
What to see in Bukhara? Our stay is brief, and we spend nearly all of it in the old town. This will not be a comprehensive guide. In fact, let’s call it things to see and do in Bukhara if you’ve only got, say 24 hours. Just enough to get a sense and flavour of the place.
We’ll begin in the centre of the old town, at Lyabi-Hauz.
Hauz, however much it sounds like it, does not mean house. It is a Persian word, meaning pond. And Lyabi-Hauz = By the pond. The pond and surrounding square was built in the early parts of the 17th century.
Bukhara had many such ponds, and just like water fountains today, they served as gathering places, where people would meet to chat and drink. Also, doing a bit of laundry, taking baths… Not surprisingly, the stagnant pond waters were rife with disease. Until the Soviets came along that is, and emptied most of them.
Fortunately, some remain. And it is here at Lyabi-Hauz, by the pond, I spend an inordinate amount of my time in Bukhara. In the shade of 500-year-old mulberry trees, I sip tea, watch people’s comings and goings, scribble a bit in a notebook that is practically falling apart. But mostly, I do nothing at all. Except listen to the rustling of fountains. The gentle breeze stirring through branches. Effortless flow. Tranquility.
Lyabi-Hauz is green and pretty, a good backdrop for a photo shoot.
It’s a nice day for a white wedding
You will no doubt find travel guides and blogs describing Bukhara as a bit overrun with tourists. That may be, but it is not the case the few days we are here. Veering just a block or two from Lyabi-Hauz, it feels almost abandoned in the noonday sun. But come sunset, the town comes to life. Families going out to eat. Teenagers dancing. By the Poi-Kalon, a group of kids is playing football in front of the minaret. A pleasant buzz all round.
Lyabi-Hauz in the balmy Uzbek night. Tourists (speaking mostly in Russian), mixing with two- and four-legged locals.
Surrounding the pond is the Lyabi-Hauz ensemble, comprising architectural masterpieces from the 16th and 17th centuries, the era of the khanate: mosques, madrasas (schools), covered bazaars, and more.
Madrasa Nadrid Divan-begi, by the pond.
Spot the artwork? Animals are rarely pictured on islamic buildings. Practically sinful it is. But rather beautiful, as well, I think. Especially the simurghs, the mythical birds of Persian folklore. Also, notice the sun? Here is a close-up:
The face of the sun is thought to be that of Mithra, the angel of Zoroastrianism. More than 8000 years old, it’s the world’s oldest religion, and it was present here in Bukhara in pre-Islamic times. I wonder if it is still present today.
Near the Madrasa Nadrid Divan-begi, between two covered bazaars, is the Magok-i-Attori Mosque, in a 4-metre deep pit.
Magok-i-Attori Mosque with its 1200-year-old facade
It’s easy to compare this building to the wooden stave churches at home. Not because they look in any way similar; they don’t. But because they are from the same time in history, and even more because both are built on top of older constructions of worship: Urnes Stave Church is built on top of an older church, which is built on top of one even older.
Here, underneath the Magok-i-Attori Mosque is a Buddhist temple. Under there again, is a Zoroastrian sacred place. In the fourth layer down, is remnants of a pagan temple. That’s more than 2000 years of history underneath Andrew’s feet there.
Magok-i-Attori Mosque, facade detail
Poi-Kalon: domination and death
Poi-Kalon mosque and minaret.
About a 10-minute walk from Lyabi-Hauz, is the Poi-Kalon minaret: of baked brick, 47 metres tall, and another 10+ metres of foundation underground. Considering it was built in 1127, that is one pretty potent obelisk, isn’t it – visible for miles and miles in every direction on the flat steppe. It’s one of many victory towers erected by the Karakhanids, a Turkic khanate that ruled Transoxiana from 999 to 1211. Another one of theirs is Burana Tower in Kyrgyzstan. But whereas Burana is rather simply adorned, the Poi-Kalon minaret is a masterpiece of geometric brick decor.
Rumour has it, when Gengis Khan came to town to wreak havoc, he looked up at the minaret and was so impressed, he spared the spire. But it hasn’t had an easy life, this minaret, suffering earthquakes and being blown up in those late summer days of 1920 (the final days of the Emirate of Bukhara, remember).
Not for nothing has it earned the moniker Tower of Death. For centuries, it served as a place – and method – of execution, for crims and for those daring to oppose the bigwigs. Defenestration they called it in Prague. Not sure if there was a name for it here – in the Karakhanid era, or under most every ruler after – but the method was similar. Except here, they were thrown off the parapet, rather than out a window. A simple 3-step procedure:
- dragged up the winding stairs (probably screaming and struggling, at least I would be)
- briefly enjoy the view
- get tossed off
The most recent such execution took place in 1920. A mere 101 years ago! Mind-numbing!
Another 10 minute walk from Lyabi-Hauz (but in the opposite direction), is Chor Minor, meaning 4 towers. There’s something to be said for practical naming.
Pretty, isn’t it? Also, pretty odd. The most uniquely iconic structure in all of Bukhara. And what is it? A mosque? Entrance to the city? The answer is a gatehouse of a madrasa (school) that is no longer there.
Storks used to nest on top of the turquoise towers, but no more. The theory is they disappeared when the ponds disappeared. Makes sense. If you’re a stork, in this heat, even stagnant pond water must be better than no water.
Memories of storks past
Just across the street is a small covered market with stalls selling Soviet military memorabilia and traditional Uzbek gear.
The covered bazaars of Bukhara
And while we’re on the subject of markets, there are three covered, domed bazaars in the centre of the old town, full of shops selling various arts and crafts: carpets, textiles, Astrakhan hats, postcards, fridge magnets, local clothes, paintings, miniatures, sketches and photographs by local artists, books, ceramics, jewellery, hot spicy stuff. Go for it!
The Ark of Bukhara
Home of despotic rulers for more than 1000 years, the Ark of Bukhara is the oldest building in town. Archaeologists believe this fortress was built around 500 CE (AD).
The Ark was essentially a town within a town, containing the royal palace, as well as a temple, guardrooms and administrative offices. In fact, everything happened inside here. Probably a smart move; easier to defend that way.
Most of this massive citadel was destroyed by fire in 1920, sparked by Red Army bombs, or by the emir, on a mission of revenge – depending on your political stance. What’s certain, is that it signified the end of an era. 1400 years of royal habitation was no more.
About 20% of the building remains today, containing archives and several museums, as well as the Juma Mosque (Friday Mosque) at the sloping entrance. The Ark is open to visitors every day 0800 – 2000 (per May 2021.)
The Registan – main square of ancient Bukhara
A stranger has only to seat himself on a bench in the Registan, to know the Uzbeks and the people of Bukhara.
Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes (Scottish explorer/diplomat), 1832
Things have changed since Alexander’s day. In fact, I mostly remember the Registan as a long walk along the walls in the oh so very hot sun, not so much as a square inch of shade available anywhere.
But it used to be a happening kinda place: public square, merchants’ stalls, execution grounds. Everything for sale: meat, bread, slaves (Mondays and Thursdays only), cabbage, a proper shave, you name it. And the entertainment! Flogging, torture, beheadings… Keep reading for a sad example!
I know I go on and on about the scorchio, but… hot damn!!
A little something to look at along the walls, taking my mind off the heat for a minute.
In the Ark is a gruesome attraction, a prison with a 6.5-metre deep hole, accessible only by rope, known as the Bug Pit. This was the tortuous home of a soldier in the British East India Company, Charles Stoddart.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t up-to-speed on local etiquette, and it would cost him dearly: On 17 December 1838, Charles rode into town to reassure the Emir that Britain would not invade his realm and maybe to forge an alliance. ‘Rode’ being the operative word. The good Charles greeted the emir from horseback; that was the British way. But here in Bukhara, the done thing was to dismount, then bow before the Emir. Major faux-pas! The first of many.
Ever the supremely self-confident representative of imperial Britain.
When in Rome, dude!
Now this particular Emir, Nasrullah Khan, was known as The Butcher – and he.was.livid. The indignities! Also, he was none too impressed with the British efforts in the First Anglo-Afghan War. Allies, schmallies.
‘You are offensive and worthless,’ Nasrullah said to Charles, or words to that effect. ‘So I am sending you to the Bug Pit, where you will suffer torture and generally have a horrible time.’ And sure enough – rats, cockroaches, scorpions and various insects were thrown in to keep him company.
Three years later, another soldier, Arthur Conolly, was sent to Bukhara to secure Charles’ release. ‘Pfft! Another Brit,’ said Nasrullah, and imprisoned Arthur, too.
Fast forward another year, and Nasrullah had had enough of the both of them.
On June 17, 1842, Nasrullah Khan ordered Stoddart and Conolly brought to the square in front of the Ark Fortress. The crowd stood quietly while the two men dug their own graves. Then their hands were tied behind them, and the executioner forced them to kneel. Colonel Stoddart called out that the Emir was a tyrant. The executioner sliced off his head.
The executioner offered Conolly the chance to convert to Islam in order to save his own life, but the evangelical Conolly refused. He too was beheaded. Stoddart was 36 years old; Conolly was 34.
And on that sobering anecdote, it’s time to get out of town.
We’re excited to travel by rail this time. The Afrosiyob high-speed train connects Bukhara and Samarkand, speeding through the Kyzyl-kum desert at 250 km/hr.
Here’s the pretty railway station in Bukhara (Buxoro in Uzbek), and Andrew showing off our biznez class ticket.
Onward to Samarkand. Watch this space.
- We arrived in Bukhara by car from Khiva. A fast train is available, but only 3 times per week (currently Tue, Fri and Sun from Khiva to Bukhara, and Mon, Thu, Sat in the other direction). Travel time: ca. 5 hours. Up-to-date info here.
- Bukhara is connected to Samarkand daily, by ‘slow train’ (3.5 hours) and high-speed train (1.5 hours), and on to Tashkent.
- Bukhara sleeps: We stayed at Hotel Amelia, which I really liked. A small boutique hotel in a 19th century Jewish merchant’s house, it’s in the old city, just a short walk from Lyabi-Hauz. Rooms are upstairs above an inside courtyard and are all individually decorated. (Nope, nothing sponsored.)
- Bukhara eats: A variety of restaurants in the new town, including Italian. Cosy chaikanas (teahouses) and more around Lyabi-Hauz.
Uzbek cheese and chardie
All photos by Andrew Morland, Tom Brothwell and myself.
Historic Centre of Bukhara is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites we have visited around the world.
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