Where: Uzbekistan, Central Asia
When: 500 B.C.
History: The Mecca of Central Asia – a desert city established by a Persian prince with 360 mosques with superb architecture of mosques, madrassas, minaret and mausoleums
Where it’s at
Located in the south-west of Uzbekistan about 180 miles from Samarkand, Bukhara has been dubbed the ‘Star of the Muslim World,’ due to its status as the holiest city in Central Asia. With 360 mosques and 80 masdrassahs, it is said the sun shines upwards from Bukhara, whereas all other cities the sun shines down on.
Completely surrounded by the vast Kyzyl Kum Desert, Bukhara manages to maintain its traditional atmosphere. In its Silk Road prime, it developed renowned schools of art and learning, famous throughout the Islamic world.
History of Bukhara
Founded 2,500 years ago by the Persian prince Siyavush, it started as a citadel the prince built after marrying the daughter of Afraisiab. The continued success of the city can be attributed to its strategic position, on the crossroads leading to Merv, Gurganj, Heart, Kabul, and Samarkand. The history of Bukhara is made all the more unique by its special wealth of architectural monuments and its Islamic culture and heritage.
Things to see and do in Bukhara
You’ll find some of Central Asia’s most intriguing landmarks and architectural wonders in Bukhara’s narrow winding streets which reveal surprises at unexpected turns. The Uzbek habit of arranging monuments around towns in kosh (pairs) fashion makes sightseeing that bit easier for the visitor.
The historical centre is called Shakristan and contains The Ark, a vast palace covering 100,000 square feet. The Ark is the traditional home of Bukhara’s ruler. Built as a fortress, its foundations date back 2,000 years, but it has been added to by subsequent rulers of the city. As more buildings sprung up, The Ark became a city within the city, housing municipal buildings and the general population.
Kalyan Minaret and mosque
Nearby stands the towering 150 feet tall Kalyan Minaret, built in 1227. The walls are covered in the striking patterns of burnt bricks, this being the first building in the city to be built using this technique. The Minaret was nicknamed the ‘Tower of Death‘, due to its unlucky history. The first tower built here was wood framed and burnt down, the next attempt, made out of brick, was said to have been bewitched, and subsequently fell onto the adjacent mosque, completely destroying it. Now it towers over the mosque with its beautiful, decorative brickwork.
Poi Kalyan, the paved plaza at the foot of Kalyan Minaret, contains two of Bukhara’s most imposing facades: the mosque and the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah. The mosque has a capacity for 10,000, and as you walk through the arcaded courtyards and climb the difficult, narrow stairway, you will be rewarded with fantastic views over the city. The madrassah, on the other hand, is generally not open to tourists but houses one of the most prestigious Islamic colleges in the country.
In the centre of town you can swim in the sacred pool, Lyab-i-Haus, around which you’ll find old men in traditional dress playing chess and drinking tea. It originated in the 1600s when the khan’s great vizier wanted a reservoir put in the city centre. Once the pool was completed, he flanked it with two buildings, named after himself, the Nadir Divanbegi madrassah andkhanaga. This pool, lined with old mulberry bushes, is the social heart of Bukhara, and a great place to take five and do some relaxed people-watching. The lights are turned on the pool at night and it makes for a very romantic spot for a drink or meal in one of the many chaikhanas (tea houses). Just south of the Lyab-i-Haus is the Jewish Quarter, where you can stroll around and take in the synagogue.
Another mausoleum worth viewing is that of the Samanids from the ninth to tenth centuries. Simple composition and decorative features make this structure stand out, along with the endemic use of baked brick. Laid out in ornamental panels and frames, with rosette-like discs of bricks, this mausoleum demonstrates the unique and beautiful architecture of this region.
Traditionally, Bukhara has been a thriving commercial centre with many of Central Asia’s oldest shops. Check out a traditional tok, or dome-covered bazaar, for some bargains and excellent locally produced crafts. Bukhara is famous for its gold embroidery and elaborately decorated traditional Uzbek hats are widely available. Carpets are also a bargain here, as you can buy the traditional Persian and Bukhara styles in the many market and street stalls. As with anywhere, you need to be on your guard for pick-pockets and bag-slashers, and don’t expect to get any use from your credit cards – payment is accepted in cash only.
Outside the city
Bukhara was also home to the great Sheikh Bakhautin Nakshbandi who played a key role in the development of the mystical Sufi approach to philosophy, religion and Islam in the fourteenth century. Given the unofficial status of Bukhara’s patron saint, his tomb is located just to the east of Bukhara and makes for an interesting day trip. In the courtyard outside is the ‘Wishing Tree’, said to bring luck to anyone who crawls under it three times. This dead trunk is linked by legend to the great Bakhautin.
By Jenna Colbourne