We went to Bukhara by car with our sleepy driver. In Samarkand, every time we came back from visiting a sight, we found him sleeping on the lowered seats. Now, during the whole drive we tried to keep a dialogue with him, otherwise his eyes were closing very quickly.
Bukhara is like an oasis but instead of sand there are just cotton fields everywhere around. Harvesting starts in September, everybody is involved, old and young, students and pupils. We made a quick stop to pick some of the white fluffs too.
The field was full with white, rosy and yellow flowers, there had been also some ripe fruits already. At a certain moment they split and cotton fibers pop out. They must be picked very quickly, otherwise they become loose from the cap and the wind will seize them. We met not only people going home after their work on the fields but also tractors with trailers full of that “white gold”. In villages, we could see pyramids of cotton which reminded of huge sugar cones. Uzbekistan is the 6th largest producer of cotton in the world.
Bukhara is often called “the heart of the Silk Road”. It was the center of trade, many bazaars and caravanserais (roadside inns where travelers could rest) were built here. People from all over the world used to gather in the city. Even today, the names of the streets remind of traded goods.
Our first stop was at the citadel – the Ark – the seat of the last emirs. An amazing construction, destroyed several times and rebuilt in the 7th century.
With respect, we admired the massive walls. Wooden poles were sticking out of them. They looked like a ladder for Spiderman, I could imagine how easily he could climb to the top of the walls with a height of 10 meters. But the poles were there for another reason, thanks to them the fortress should give the impression that it is not finished yet so to drive bad ghosts away. Because they dominate the finished buildings only!
200 years ago, we hardly would have dared to come here. The emir would have immediately killed or whipped us – as followers of another religion. A whip – as a symbol of the hard justice of Bukhara – used to hang over the main entrance.
We could see a lodge on the portal where the willful emir used to sit and declare his orders and verdicts. Two young boys on a horse and a camel tried to persuade us to take pictures of them but in the past, they would not have been allowed to come here riding. Only on foot and bowing down all the time, facing the citadel, even when leaving.
Once, it used to be more vivid here. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were barracks, storerooms, stables, a library, a mint, a throne hall and palaces and about 3.000 people lived here. In 1920, the Red Army under the command of Bolshevik general Mikhail Frunze dropped bombs on Bukhara, however, it is said that the palaces were blown up by the (last) emir Alim Khan himself because he did not want anybody to get to the private rooms of his harem. Today, a mosque, museums and some shops are here.
I entered a small shop full of all kinds of things. The owner of the shop took me through all that jumble to a small window. I could see a crossroad and started to imagine how various trade routes used to cross here, some of them ran to Persia, other ones to China, India or Russia…
Even merchants from Venice used to come and trade here in Oriental spices, furs, silk, golden embroideries and wrought articles made of gold.
On one of those streets, there are two madrasahs:
I thought nothing can surprise me after seeing Samarkand and its jewels. But it was only till the moment we stood in front of the Kalyan minaret.
In 1219, Genghis Khan stormed Bukhara, killed its inhabitants or sold them into slavery. Craftsmen were abducted to Mongolia. Genghis Khan destroyed everything in the city, except this minaret. I know, it was because of strategic reasons but let‘s say he saved it because he was fascinated by it the same way I was.
The minaret is not covered with turquoise tiles like most of the Uzbek sights, the whole decoration is made of simple small bricks which create different ornaments in every ring. And what is more, the shadows of the bricks are also a part of the decoration as they change their angle and length during the day. It is perfect!
The original minaret had collapsed. The builder Arslan Khan decided to build a new one but to build it slowly and thoroughly. According to a legend, first he laid foundations made of a mixture of alabaster and camel milk. After that he disappeared from the town because he didn‘t want anybody to force him to continue in building. Two years later, he came back. Seeing that the foundations were firm enough he built a new minaret, 46 m high. It was in 1127.
What a pity, we didn‘t manage to get to the top of the minaret. The view must be unique. The minaret helped caravans with orientation like a lighthouse to ships. A guard used to sit in the rotunda with 16 vaults on the top watching if any enemy comes to the city. Oh, and also criminals were executed here by being thrown off the top. The last execution was in 1884.
The minaret stands next to the Kalyan Mosque – one of the oldest Islamic prayer sites. Also, it was the second largest one following the Bibi Khanum Mosque in Samarkand.
In the 16th century, Sheikh Abdullah of Yemen, called Mir-i-Arab – was an important person in Bukhara. Mir-i-Arab Madrasah is ascribed to him. It is said that the money gained by selling more than 3.000 slaves was invested into the construction of the madrasah. Bolsheviks closed this Islamic school but Stalin – because he needed the support of Muslims – reopened it after the war, as the only one in Uzbekistan. Even today it is a functional Islamic school, so we could see it only from outside.
The Ismail Samani Mausoleum from the 10th century has a similar decoration like the Kalyan Minaret. It is a masterpiece of the early Islamic architecture. It was built as the resting place of Ismail Samani, the founder of the important Samani dynasty.
Bukhara has also its square – Labi Hauz, although it is much smaller than the Registan in Samarkand, but it is very pleasant and romantic and has a pond in the middle.
The square attracted us like a magnet, we came here in the evening and also during the day and were able to just sit there for hours – as the local people who – under the shadows of 500-year-old mulberry trees – played domino or drank tea.
The pond with the depth of 5 m acted as the city’s principal source of water. Professional bearers brought water in special leather buckets.
Not only pilgrims washed their feet in the pond, clothes and dishes were also washed here… No wonder that the pond was notorious for spreading diseases. To get a worm was so common like to catch a cold. You went to a coiffeur who pulled out the worm with tweezers and winded it on a reel. 🙂 Only the first Soviet doctor defined new hygienic rules and also a sewer was built.
The square is surrounded by some typical historical buildings:
Local families come here and sit on takhtas which look like oversized beds laid with rugs and colourfull pillows. Food is served on smaller tables, you sit when you eat and lie when you finish eating. Who could resist?
All movement on the square is watched by a metal Nasreddin Hodja on a donkey – a popular character of many folk anecdotes.
It is said he was a smuggler but nobody knew how he became rich because customs officers could never find out what he was smuggling. He always bore just baskets filled with straw which were burnt by officers. When Nasreddin became old, he confessed that he was actually smuggling the donkeys on which he sat! According to another story, the Padishah promised to allow Nasreddin to marry his daughter, if he would spend a night on the roof. Nasreddin asked to bring him a big stone. He was rolling the stone the whole night to avoid freezing. However, the Padishah said surely he had warmed himself by the moonlight and refused to give him his daughter. The disappointed Nasreddin left the town and lived in the steppe in a hut with a well. One day, the Padishah went hunting but he lost his way and was thirsty. He wanted to drink water from the well but no bucket was there. Nasreddin told him: “Well, if I could warm myself by the moonlight during the freezing night, you can drink from the gleam of the water in the well!”
The madrasah Chor Minor means four minarets and indeed, they were there – four towers like four huge mushrooms with blue hats.
It was built by Khalif Niyaz-kul, a wealthy man of Turkmen origin in 1807. There is a tiny shop inside and for a small fee you can climb onto the roof.
I enjoyed the view of the untypical building also from a bench in the small garden. There was also a girl with me who was lulling her small sister to sleep. Unusual (for me) quietness was here, no rush, no stress.
I remember some old pictures with nests of storks on each of those four minarets.
Storks belong to the Uzbek national symbols. Although there are no nests on the minarets anymore, we still could see a lot of these birds in Uzbekistan. And it is good like that. Because Uzbek people believe that if storks are peacefully gliding in the sky, there will be also peace and well-being in their country.
We also met a group of very cheerful young women who asked us to take pictures of them, they were singing, dancing and having fun.
We felt like putting our cameras away and succumbing to their happy mood, even when we were not able to communicate with them. It happened only here to us, up to that moment we had always managed with Russian without problems. But anyway, an older woman (baryshnia) came out the house and terminated the show with her strict look. It is a pity, because the women were the most cheerful persons we have met on our trip to Uzbekistan.
How to Get There: We came to Bukhara by car. But you can take also a high-speed rail line (it is 616 km from Tashkent to Bukhara). All details and information you can find here. To Tashkent we returned by plane with Uzbekistan Airways.
Where to Stay: I recommend the hotel Semurg.
If you plan a trip to Uzbekistan you can also contact:
Kalpak Travel – a Swiss travel company specialized on tours to Central Asia
Indy Guide – the largest community marketplace for local tour operators, guides and drivers in Central Asia & Mongolia
Visit Uzbekistan Travel – information about Uzbekistan on sightseeing, transportation and travel options/packets (Tashkent)
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri