Bukhara in Uzbekistan is World Heritage-listed for urban planning and architecture, over centuries. Stephen Scourfield explores.
Yesterday morning was cool and still, under a clear and ice-blue sky, here on the edge of the Kyzyl Kum desert in Uzbekistan.
But today in the ancient city of Bukhara, I stepped out and it was breezy. The wind has built through the morning and now the sky is hazy and tinted beige with sand.
And the blustery, gritty shift from yesterday to today helps make sense of the extraordinary building before me.
For this is the Ismail Samani mausoleum. It was built in the ninth century, more than 300 years before Genghis Khan’s Mongolian army came through here, building an empire. They slaughtered people and destroyed buildings, inflicting large-scale damage on Bukhara. And yet this Samani mausoleum survived.
It was built between AD892 and AD942 as the final resting place of Ismail Samani, who founded the last Persian dynasty to rule in the region, the Samanids. They ran this city in the ninth and 10th centuries, becoming independent from Baghdad.
People were buried around the mausoleum — many people over many centuries. As the ground level rose, more were buried in another storey, until, between human death and sandstorm, the building was almost buried.
Apparently only a small part of the dome showed above the sand.
And so the building wasn’t seen when Genghis Khan came through here or even when, just before 1876, this region was incorporated into the Russian Empire, again with damage to heritage.
And that sand proved a perfect preserver of the building.
So today, before me, is one of Central Asia’s most highly regarded pieces of architecture.
It was Soviets who uncovered the building in 1932, relocating the cemetery and excavating from that dome down to reveal a building with 150 types of brickwork. Most of the bricks are original, though the building has been appropriately restored.
In an Islamic architecture defined not only by blue and turquoise mosaic and glaze but by symmetry, there is a sheer, elegant beauty to the simplicity and intricacy of the brickwork.
There are hints of the Zoroastrian beliefs of Uzbekistan’s deep past, as the dome depicts a rising sun. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions, once the official religion of Iran and the world’s most important belief system for 1000 years.
The mausoleum is one of only three pre-Mongol buildings in Bukhara.
Another is right opposite the Asia Hotel Bukhara, where I am staying — a pre-Genghis Khan mosque which is now a Museum of Carpets. In a true example of Uzbekistan’s long history of tolerance, Muslims, Christians and Jews used to pray together here, and again there are references in its design to Zoroastrianism.
It is said when Genghis Khan’s army was coming, locals buried the building with sand so it wasn’t found.
While Bukhara was an important trading centre on the Great Silk Road between China and Europe, and is more than 2000 years old, its greater story is one of education, scholarship, intelligence and tolerance. Philosophy, mathematics and all sorts of religions were studied alongside one another at the Oxford and Cambridge of its day, a precursor to the secular Islamic country that Uzbekistan is today.
The extraordinary Kalyan brick minaret stands nearly 47m, dominating the Po-i Kalan cultural square of Bukhara, and it also carries history but as a tattoo. Russian invaders blew cannon holes in it, though these were later repaired. Earlier, it was known as the Tower of Death, because, for hundreds of years, criminals were thrown from the top.
Bleaching sun bounces up off the square, giving its high rim an under-lit glow. But, interestingly in Islamic but secular Uzbekistan, there is no call to prayer from the top.
The Kalyan mosque sits to one side of the square. It is said that when Genghis Khan invaded, 35,000 people were killed here, and it was filled with sand as a mass grave.
The Mir-I Arab madrasah, or school, faces it across the square. It dates back to the 1530s and at one time was the only working Islamic madrasah in the whole Soviet Union. In another old part of Bukhara, Chor Minor minaret is one of Central Asia’s landmarks, with its four turquoise capping bricks, which may contain camel milk and egg yolk, giving them longevity. It is in an old suburban village district; modern everyday life, with historic echoes, going on around it.
The Citadel, a fortress and often also called The Ark, looks down on Bukhara from a hill that was man-made in the fourth century BC, and used for centuries, with many of the buildings from the 18th century. It was lived in by the last Emir of Bukhara from 1909 to 1919, after which the Soviets took power.
Many streets in the city’s most popular areas are pedestrianised, particularly around the Lyab-i Hauz (pool) in the heart of Bukhara and the Kukeldash madrasah, finished in 1569 to accommodate travellers. There are open-air cafes and restaurants, shops full of fabrics, and seamstresses who can make just about anything in 24 hours.
There are great trading domes, first built in the 16th century, around which shops and traders cluster. I buy a pair of Uzbek scissors, angled to enable intricate embroidery patterns to be cut out, from master blacksmith Sayfullo Ikramov. And, of course, Bukhara is famous for its carpets and I watch women sitting knotting with nimble fingers at Sabina Burkhanova’s Bukhara Silk Carpets, in Khodja Nurobod Street.
Bukhara’s architectural and living history helped Uzbekistan draw more than two million visitors last year but locals in tourism estimate there have been 30 per cent fewer this season, between May and the end of September (July is hottest). It may be that Uzbekistan has been affected by travellers’ concerns about Islamic states, not realising this country’s strong secular, tolerant and temperate nature.
But the real importance and seduction of Bukhara lie not in its detail but in its overall townscape. For, as its UNESCO World Heritage listing recognises, this shows a high and consistent level of urban planning and architecture over centuries.
With the exception of three buildings dating to before the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan in 1220 and Emir Temur in 1370, the old town bears witness to the urbanism and architecture from the early 16th century onwards. It also bears witness to reconstruction that has given it contemporary life, while retaining much of its historic ambience.
It is beautifully cool as I walk back through the dusty streets and past a haphazard bubble wrap of trading domes that imitate the undulations of dunes. The late sun fires through dust and sand in the air. The wind is still up.
Stephen Scourfield was in Uzbekistan as a guest of Travel Directors.
Article & Photo by: (c) Stephen Scourfield
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