Bukhara is a very nice, laid back town that immediately struck us as a sort of Islamic version of Bhaktapur in Nepal. There is a focus on handicrafts and many shops and stands in the small covered bazaars now target tourists, but the area remains uncrowded and reeks of the past – a casual wander through the backstreets reveals Uzbek men, ancient themselves, playing backgammon under reedy shades at tiny teahouses. While we did see some other tourists here, they were rare, but the presence of numerous guesthouses suggests that there are many more here during peak season (we were the only ones staying at our guesthouse, a supposedly very popular budget option). For whatever reason, we’d been told that peak season in Uzbekistan starts after Navrus, the Islamic new year. This seemed to work almost like clockwork – our last full day in Bukhara was Navrus, and as we headed to catch a bus the next morning we noticed three tour buses parked near a couple of the nicer looking hotels.
The sandy beige adobe buildings dominate Bukhara’s landscape, a monochromatic panorama where sand and structure meld. It’s a step back in time and one feels that despite the restorations and modern shops tucked in old buildings, perhaps not much has changed in centuries. There are traders selling their items on the side of the walking path and throughout town, glazed pottery and wooden book stands laid out on carpets and blankets. Rounded brick domes, minarets, and tall madrassahs are seemingly everywhere, so much so that we at first walk by the famous Kalon Minaret without so much as a glance.
We were easily brought back to the present walking down the street the morning of our first full day in Bukhara as several groups of young boys on their ways to school stopped to practice their rudimentary English: “where are you from?”, “what is your name?”, “how old are you?”. Sometimes a simple response, such as “my name is Brett, what is yours?”, is easily answered and sometimes it elicits a frantic look as the boy rifles through his classroom memories desperately trying to formulate an appropriate response. One boy says “its nice meet you”, to which we retort “its nice to meet you too”. He walks the next bit repeating our words – “its nice to meet you too … Its nice to meet you too” – trying to perfectly mimic our pronunciation. There are many sounds in these languages which we have trouble with – like the highly aspirated ‘h’ sounds in Khiva or the rough ‘gh’ sound originating in the back throat in Uighur – and its easy to see that they have the same problem with some sounds in our language.
Lyabi Hauz is the center of Bhukara’s old town, a pleasant pool lined with old mulberry trees and surrounded by madrassahs. There is now a nice restaurant on the edge of the pool, though you could easily image men lounging with tea on the pool steps in days gone by. The pool is from 1602 and the madrassahs are from this same era.
Modari Khan Madrassah and Abdulla Khan Madrassah
These madrassahs we stumbled upon after Angie caught sight of them down a narrow alley. Later, reviewing our lonely planet, we found only brief mention of their exterior beauty and a note that they were locked and not accessible to the public. Glad we were then that we did not read this ahead of our visit as the Abdulah Khan Madrassah was perhaps the highlight of our Bhukara stay.
As we were admiring the exteriors of these massive madrassahs, whose facades face each other across a cobbled square, a lovely older man waddled from down the street trying to catch our eye. He hurriedly unlocked the Abdullah Khan Madrassah and waved us in with all the excitement of a six year old boy anxious to show off his new puppy, you could tell how much he thought of this place. We entered and he excitedly spoke in Uzbek, gesturing like mad hoping that we’d somehow understand, his face lighting up when we had understood part of his explanation, however small. Much of the unrestored interior of this 16th century building was original – one English word he did know.
After his explanation, he turned us loose to explore the building unaccompanied. We happily sneaked through tiny passages into old student rooms and explored the deteriorating hallways and small nooks. The domed areas were of spiraling exposed brick and filled with cool, calm air. The slightest sound echoed off the dome and down through the halls.
The Modari Khan Madrassah was unlocked and open, but was undergoing extensive restoration and was filled with workers.
Samani Park (Kirov Park)
The gates to the park were monitored by police, as everywhere, but we walked by without any questions. As we walked up the central path we came upon the Crying Mother statue, a WWII monument nearly identical to the crying mother monument in Tashkent. However, this monument was fronted by the avenue of memories which displayed the names of those who had died on large book-like displays with brass pages.
We continued walking west towards a section of the partially restored old city wall. This is a very thick wall of brick and adobe, the lower half perhaps seven or eight meters wide and five or six meters tall. The upper wall is perhaps another five or six meters in height, but significantly thinner, allowing for a walkway atop the lower wall on the interior side. There was also a large gate, mostly restored and of brick but without adobe.
On our way back east we took another route and passed by the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, a remarkable all brick building built in 905 and the oldest Islamic building in town. The bricks are arranged in a variety of ways, some at angles and some in circular donut-like patterns, and these patterns create interestingly textured shading in the sunlight. Our path also took us by the Chashma Ayrb Mausoleum, an odd looking building with a conical structure where most of these mausoleums have a dome. Across from the Chashma Ayrb was a modern circular glass memorial to Imam Ismail Al-Bukhari, the man for whom the town is named.
Bolo Hauz Mosque – the Emir’s mosque
This large Friday mosque located immediately across the street from the ark was the one that served the city’s emir in olden times and it is still functional today. The long carved wooden columns appear to barely support the carved and painted wooden awning which stretches across the entire front of the building. This beautiful but deteriorating old wood is juxtaposed with an electronic scrolling display which, amongst other information, displays the current time in a number important places in Islams history and the skeletal remains of a soviet built water tower, perhaps the only steel structure in the city.
The ark is the former emir’s walled palace, located in the center of town. This protected residence combined with fortified protective wall which stretched around the city allowed the emir to maintain control of Bukhara from the 5th century AD until the soviets bombed the ark in 1920, leaving about 75% of the interior structures in ruins.
Parts of the remaining wall and interior structures have been restored, though much of the wall has also been left unrestored and those parts bombed have been left in ruins. A large ramp leads through the main west gate up to the palace, the ground level of whish is perhaps 20m above the level of the streets below, no doubt allowing the emir and his family a superb view across the city.
Many of the remaining restored buildings have been converted into museums of various qualities and then including history, coins, and nature, to name a few. Interesting items on display included samples of old silk notes in the former mint, ceramics from as far back as 2nd century BC and a 7th century fresca in decent condition. Overall, the Ark area is immense; however we were only allowed to explore the small part which escaped the soviet onslaught.
Kalon Mosque and Minaret, Mir-Arab Madrassah
Along with the ark and lyabi hauz, the 47m tall Kalon Minaret one of Bukhara’s main attractions. This 1127-built tower is an early marvel of engineering, built on a 10m deep foundation which rests on dried reeds for protection in this earthquake prone area. Its towering height and 14 blue tiled bands were so striking that Chinggis Khan ordered in not to be damaged during the mongol invasion, a time that saw many cities completely razed.
The front of the attached Kalon Madrassah is beautifully decorated with mosaics. Inside, archways and continuously-tiled walls circumference a courtyard which rests approximately 2.5m below street level. The white-washed arched hallways and domed brick ceilings created many pleasantly cool and secluded areas to walk, the archways often framing beautiful views of the courtyard and main dome. The Kalon Madrassah was a stunning building.
The Mir-Arab Madrassah, located across the square from and facing the Kalon Madrassah, is still a functioning Madrassah and we were not allowed to enter. However, the exterior of the Mir-Arab Madrassah matches the beauty of the Kalon Madrassah.
Thought to be the oldest madrassah in central Asia, this partially restored building was constructed in 1417. We entered the madrassah and peered into the old study rooms, this interior still contained some original tile work which appears to be imminently facing restoration.
Unfortunately, the mosque area was not impressive and was being used as a handicraft shop, where the vendors tried with effort to sell us something – ‘cheap, very cheap.’ There is no peace to just stand and admire this place.
Abdul Aziz Khan Madrassah
The colors and deigns on the cornice work of the Abdul Aziz Khan Madrassah facade was spectacular, incorporating many rarely used bright colors. Unfortunately, the interior was also facing imminent restoration and also contained craft shops and their annoyingly persistent owners. The highlight was probably the room which housed a museum for carving work, which contained beautiful old unrestored carved and painted ganch walls.
This relatively nondescript small brick building nestled between larger and more impressive structures is actually one of the most holy sites in town. The mosque is from the 9th century, making it one of the oldest, although in sits locked and inaccessible.
Hoja Zayniddin Mosque
This mosque is tucked back in Bukhara’s sidestreets and would be easy to miss, but we greatly enjoyed the original old carved and painted ganch which was probably the best we came across. We were the only people present in this 16th century mosque, and we greatly enjoyed the quietness and the fancy.
Museum of Art
This is a small state-run museum displaying clothing, embroidery, carpets, sculptures but mainly focused on Uzbek painters. The modern day artist Erkin was the one that really caught our attention, his use of color and lines creating suitably juxtaposed feelings of chaos and calm that fit this region. It was a small, but enjoyable museum.
The mausoleum was under extensive restoration and much of the area was torn up, and so we really didn’t get any idea of what this site is normally like. The story behind this structure is that turki jandi was buried here and that prayers can be answered in this mausoleum like nowhere else. Perhaps related to this, many people have desired to be buried here and the graves are supposedly stacked 30 bodies deep.
Fayzulla Khojaev House
The former merchant’s house was built in 1891 and was home to a famous man who became the president of the Bukhara People’s Republic – as a reward for his cooperation with Tue soviets in the successful overthrow of the emir. He and his family were later killed by Stalin.
There has been extensive renovation to the building displaying amazingly colorful ganch and lattice work. We were given the opportunity to dress in traditional clothing, an offer which angie decided against and Brett accepted, resulting in a few blackmail-worthy photos.
This was a gatehouse for a long since destroyed madrassah, hidden amongst Bukhara’s back streets. This gatehouse has four minaret-like towers, each capped with a blue tiles dome, and is stylistically much different from other buildings we’ve seen here.
We researched options for accommodation and were concerned that prices would be high. However, we fell lucky and found the Malikjon, which offered us a twin room with bath for $30/night including breakfast (significantly cheaper than the $50 average in Bukhara). Several staff spoke English and everyone is friendly. Breakfast was egg, rice porridge, cheese and salami, non, jam, and tea – a good-sized brekkie.