From Khiva, we left early in the morning for the long and bumpy ride to the holy city of Bukhara – our next stop in the trip. People weren’t kidding when they said that the road was bad. The road conditions between the two cities were probably the worst I have seen in any highway! I reckoned it would not have made much difference had we driven on the sandy desert path instead.
the kalon mosque
The drive only reinforced the idea of how isolated Khiva was. We practically crossed a desert that extended for hundreds of miles, across empty wastelands with nobody and nothing but the odd shrub in sight.
a nice bukharan girl
The name Bukhara is certainly not unheard of. It has its place as one of the more important silk road cities, a place that crossed hands between many different empires, including Persian, Mongol and more recently, Russian. Despite this, its center, which is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains visibly Islamic with a strong Persian influence. Today, Bukhara is still recognized as the holiest city in Central Asia, where mosques, mausoleums and madrassas (religious schools) abound.
some of the local “art” in bukhara
The city is divided into two sections – the old center, where the sights are located and the new city, a flashier area filled with Soviet cum European-looking buildings. Much of the day-to-day life of modern Bukhara actually occurs in the new city, while the old one is preserved and has been commercialized primarily for tourism.
the ladies with the golden teeth
reflections at the samanid mausoleum
The old center, though not as compact as Khiva’s, is very much walkable. The buildings are certainly bigger and grander in Bukhara by comparison, and the colors more vivid as well. We started off by visiting the Samanid Mausoleum in the western part of the historical center. Built sometime between the 9th and 10th century, it is one of the finest examples of early Islamic architecture. Due to its antiquity, it does not have any of the tiles or bright colors which are found in other Islamic buildings. Instead, the whole building is brown. Despite its modest size, the locals attach a lot of importance to the structure. Apparently, it is one of the very few examples of early Islamic architecture left in Central Asia.
it is believed that the biblical figure, Job, visited this site and created a well by striking the ground with his staff
From there, we visited Chasma Ayub. It means Job’s (from the Bible) well, due to the legend that Job had visited the site and brought forth a well by using his staff to strike the ground. The well still exists to this day, and we had the chance to obtain some of the sacred water from there.
bolo hauz mosque, from inside and out
A short walk away was the Bolo Hauz Mosque. We were in Bukhara on a Friday which meant that it was an important day of prayer for the Muslims. Everyone was preparing for prayer time – the ground was draped in Bukharan carpets – but fortunately, we were still allowed in. The mosque was of modest size, and its many wooden columns were all carved in various designs. The ceilings were impressive displays of symmetry and color. The mosque was originally built as a royal chapel due to its proximity to the main fortress in Bukhara, where the Emir used to live.
from top to bottom – the main entrance, the fortress walls and ceiling of the coronation hall; all at the ark fortress
Today, much of the inside of the Ark Fortress had been destroyed, due to heavy bombing during the Soviet revolution in 1920. What has remained intact include the main entrance as well as the coronation hall. Apart from that, there is not that much to see inside the Ark itself. But it is possible to get some views of the old city from the ruins by bribing the guard of about 3,000 to 4,000 Som.
the iwan of the madrassa up close
By this time, we had already visited around four monuments, but we’d yet to visit the highlight of Bukhara. That place is the Kalon Ensemble located at the heart of the old city. It is quite easy to see why this is the most visited place in the city – it has a tall minaret, a large Persian-type mosque, and a gigantic madrassa just across. The 47m tall Kalon Minaret had an infamous reputation until the early 1900’s for being the site of all sorts of creative punishments, including the classic “pushing people out to fall to their death” and was nicknamed the Tower of Death. It used to be possible to climb all the way up the minaret for some great views of the city, but during my time in Bukhara, we were not allowed to go up.
the “beehive” at the iwan of the abdul aziz khan madrassa
We passed by a couple more madrassas and mosques after this. I won’t bother to mention the rest else YOU might be madrassa-ed out as well like I was by this point in time. Nevertheless, some were quite spectacular to see so I will just share the photos instead of blabbing out some things which you’ll find in a guidebook anyway 🙂
a day at the bazaar
Bukhara has a couple of traditional (READ: TOURISTY) bazaars as well. These are the Taqi Sarrafon and the Taqi Telpak Furushon. I thought name sounded quite cheeky, due to the English connotation but it would be unfair to say that everything being sold in Taqi is Taqi, if you know what I mean.
i thought the phoenix motif was quite cool… haven’t seen that elsewhere. this was at the madrassa facing lyabi hauz
We ended in Lyabi Hauz, an old pond which used to be one of the primary sources of water for the city residents. Today, it has been converted into a plaza, or a park for the city folk to while the time away. As can be expected, there are also a couple of madrassas surrounding this plaza, with one turned into a restaurant with a touristy cultural show every night.
where we had dinner that night — ambience = good / food = bad !
Overall, I could say that Bukhara’s architecture was certainly stunning and well-maintained. Unlike other Islamic cities however, the mosques, madrassas and mausoleums functioned less for their original purposes. For example, many of the madrassas have been converted to souvenir stores. Only a handful of these still exist today as religious schools. One also rarely sees anybody praying in the religious monuments. The 70 years of Soviet occupation I suppose had brought about a general sense of secularism which certainly is not a bad thing, but it’s a strong detachment from the local culture and attitudes of say, 70 years ago. My general observation is that Uzbekistan in general is even more secular than Turkey. I suppose the Soviets made sure of that! Given that there is a lacking prominent Islamic atmosphere to match the Islamic architecture, these structures are made to look like museum pieces restored to remind people of what life once was.
Bukhara is around 10 hours by car from Tashkent. There are direct flights to Bukhara from Tashkent on a daily basis. There are also weekly flights from Moscow and St. Petersburg
This is Part 3 of a series of posts about my trip around the great silk road cities of Uzbekistan. Click here to read about the Soviet style capital city of Tashkent, the Aladdin-like city of Khiva and the grand city of Samarkand.