Bukhara, Central Asia’s holiest city is 2000 years old and is the most intact example of a medieval city in the area. This stunning ancient Persian city is on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan in Central Asia, an ancient trade route that gave the cities and towns along its path great power and influence.
Bukhara is in south-central Uzbekistan and lies about 140 miles west of Samarkand, the heart of the silk Road, on the delta of the Zeravshan River. The city was founded no later than the 1st century BC and was already an important trade route when it was captured by Arabs in 709. This invasion led to Bukhara becoming a centre of Islamic teaching, culture and trade for the Arab and Persian Samanid dynasties. It now has the honour of being known as one of the seven noble cities of Islam.
Throughout its many years Bukhara has been ruled by many empires and great dynasties, this has given the city a rich and colourful history. In Bukhara you can really feel and see the authentic heartbeat of ancient Central Asia. Most of the people who live here are descended from the inhabitants of ancient times so the population are deeply connected to their amazing city.
The Historic Centre of Bukhara
The centre of Bukhara was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 and wandering around the oldest parts of the city a traveller will find themselves amongst beautiful and well-preserved ancient buildings that are 3D illustrations of the history of Bukhara. These buildings are, of course, of huge historical and cultural importance, but it is the layout of the city that is unique and holds the most fascination for historians, archaeologists and anthropologists, their need to learn more has led to Bukhara continuing its tradition as a place of pilgrimage. The fabric of urban life all those years ago is complete and it is one of the earliest, unspoiled examples of a carefully and consistently planned town centre. The placing of roads and architecture in Bukhara was copied by many other towns and cities in this part of Asia.
Lyabi Khauz Palace
The Lyabi Khauz Palace has been the centre of the social life of Bukhara since the 17th Century. The name translates literally into ‘edge of a pond’ and refers to the artificially created reservoir which has long been a source of water for the population and a place for the upper classes to find shade, food, gossip and entertainment. It is still one of the most popular places for locals and tourists to take an evening walk and eat a delicious meal. The palace is in the centre of the old town so is also a great place to stop to re-fuel while on a walking tour of the city.
The pool at the centre of the palace is surrounded by three stunning religious buildings including the largest Madrasah (religious school) in the city called Kukeldash which now also houses a museum in honour of the Uzbek poet Sadriddin Ayni. The building’s design of pale-yellow brick and blue ceramic decorations is just beautiful.
Poi-Kalyan Square consists of the Kalyan Minaret, the Kalyan Mosque and the Miri-Arab Madrasah. The 13th century minaret is the most imposing part of the square and as well as being an important part of the mosque it has also been used a patrol tower overlooking all parts of the city and as a place of public execution.
The minaret is 45.5 metres and 9 metres wide with a round lantern on the top. Ceramic tiles cover its walls and are designed to represent geometric shapes, these are some of the oldest examples of coloured tiles being used as decoration in Central Asia.
The most romantic, and my favourite, use for the minaret was a lighthouse or beacon which weary travellers would see in the distance and know that they were nearing their destination or that they were going in the right direction for an ongoing journey. The tiles glinting in the sun would have been the first sign that the oasis city of Bukhara was near and that a pilgrimage was at an end or the start of an education would soon begin.
The Madrassah and Mosque neighbouring the minaret are also stunning examples of medieval Islamic architecture. The geometric shapes theme of the tiles continues throughout the square and the portal of the Madrassah is particularly breath-taking with blue tiles and beautiful ornaments decorating a school that anyone would be privileged to study in.
The Ark Citadel is the most ancient monument in Bukhara, it is almost certainly the structure around which the first houses in the city were built. The fortress has been the seat of power in the city since the 5th century AD and the main functions of day to day life and rule took place within the walls so that power could be easily defended by the walls should an attack occur.
The frontage of the Ark is imposing with massive fortress gate and 30 metre high walls. Its distinctive trapezium shape is one of the most iconic parts of the city and, like Paris’ Eiffel Tower, is the image to be found on all the postcards and posters that are sold to tourists.
The Ark-Citadel is in fact a royal city within a city and each ruling family used it as their protected residence. There is lots to explore within the walls, from the Emir’s private rooms to the Coronation Court and the Treasury. I’d recommend leaving lots of time to really appreciate all the different mosques and museums, hear all the gruesome stories from the dungeons and appreciate the gorgeous palatial surroundings.
The Bolo-Khauz, translated as ‘Children’s Reservoir’, is situated opposite the Ark Citadel across Registan Square. In ancient times this square was a busy public space crammed full of markets, administrative buildings and trade stalls. The Bolo-Khauz is the only part of this history that has survived to the modern day and the complex consists of the reservoir, the Friday mosque and a minaret.
The Mosque part of this architectural complex was built in 1712 and legend suggests that the Emir of 1785-1800 built it so that he could attend public prayers with the ‘common people.’
As with most buildings of importance in Bukhara the mosque is lavishly decorated. The front of the building features elegantly carved wooden pillars ornamented with intricate fretwork featuring floral and geometric designs. The inside of the mosque is much more modern and I preferred to stay in the sunshine marvelling at the incredible craftsmanship on the pillars.
Ismail Samani mausoleum
The Ismail Samani Mausoleum is a five minute walk west of Registan Square in Samani Park. This tomb is one of the oldest buildings in Central Asia and stands out as one of the most original in terms of architecture.
Instead of pale yellows and blue ceramics the Samani Mausoleum is made of burnt bricks with a warm biscuit colour with carvings like a crazy basket weaving throughout. I loved the quirkiness of the textures and patterns inside and out, like structural art. The colours and patterns change throughout the day as the sun hits different sides of the building, a constant metamorphosis which I thought was fantastic. This perfect brick cube, built in 907, is full of precise geometric forms and is considered a masterpiece of world architecture.
The mausoleum was built by the founder of the Samanid dynasty, the most influential in Bukhara’s history, as a family burial vault. It was considered a scared site for locals who placed worries, questions and prayers in one of the openings to then receive an answer or solution from a hidden mullah.
The 1000 year old tomb was discovered in 1934 by an archaeologist after laying for many years under several metres of collected sand and dirt. This protective layer is what has allowed the mausoleum to emerge into the modern world looking as beautifully preserved as it does today.
House of Fayzulla Khodjaev
Fayzulla Khodjaey was the most interesting political figure in Bukhara at the beginning of the 20th century. He was a leader of the Muslim Modernist Reformers known as Jadids, a patron of art, a fighter for equal rights and a promoter of democracy.
After returning home in 1913 from an education in Russia, Khodjaey led his Jadids followers to protest against the cruel rule of the Emir and to call for a new constitution and reforms which would improve the lives of the people of the Bukhara area. Sadly he was executed in 1937 by rulers who wanted to take back power.
The museum commemorating the life of this inspirational freedom fighter was created in his family home and it’s refreshing to find a part of the city dedicated to the recent history of the city. It is also an interesting example of how the rich people of Bukhara lived during this time.
The name Chor-Minor means ‘four minarets’ in the language of Tajikistan. These picturesque towers topped with prettily tiled cupolas the same colour as the sky are in fact the gatehouse to a 19th century madrassah that was built in 1807 by a wealthy Bukharian merchant called Khalif Niazkul.
Chor-Minor is clearly not an old structure in comparison with the rest of the city’s monuments but I loved searching for the entrance down the maze like narrow streets of old Bukhara. The design is unusual as it is almost Indian in style. The madrassah itself has been destroyed but Niazkul’s distinctive tiled minarets, cosy courtyard and a small summer mosque remain to be explored.