We were staying in a cute little B & B hotel called Amelia, located in the Jewish section, right in the center of Bukhara’s old town. The house was purchased from a Jewish family who had owned the home for generations and the new owner was very proud of his purchase. He had converted the house into a hotel but had left the original decorations of the house. The dining room was especially delicious with little niches in one wall where they stored their treasures and ganch (decorative design patterns carved into plaster) on the other walls. Each room had a different theme; our room was the camel room with scenes of camels painted on the walls. He reminded us of the hotel owner in the movie “The Exotic Marigold Hotel”. The proprietor was always running around asking us if we were happy with his hotel?
For centuries thousands of Jewish people had lived in Central Asia because they were traders on the Silk Road. They eventually settled in various villages along the Silk Road, many chose to live in Bukhara, to do their trading business. During Soviet times there were 5,000 Jews living in this section of Bukhara but after Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviets in the 1990’s most of the Jewish people had moved away, mostly to America or Israel. Today, there were approximately 300 Jews living in the Jewish Section of Bukhara.
The weather on this trip was absolutely perfect we had been away one full month with no rain, other than one day when it sprinkled for approximately 10 minutes. Otherwise, we had blue skies and sunshine everyday. Evenings were especially wonderful because it would cool down to room temperature with a slight warm breeze, very comfortable and no need jackets.
We started off our day with a city guide named Noila. She took us on a walking tour of the city. The streets in Old Town were once all named after Russians, i.e., Lenin Street, and Stalin Street but the residents of Bukhara were slowly turning their street names back into Uzbek Hero names. There was a huge canal across the street from our hotel and it ran through the center of Old Town. The canal was built in the 12th Century. It was very pretty with little bridges across it every so often and brick walls. The only problem was the water had dried up in the canal, our guide said that the water came from a river that had been swallowed up by the desert! They now got their water from the Oxus or today called the Amu Darya River! We know all about that river by now!
In the central square of old town, Bukhara had the largest, Madrasah in Central Asia named Kukeldash Madrasah. It was built in 1568-9 and had 160 rooms called Hujras. Madrasahs were religious universities where men lived for several years to get educated. They were organized and run by the Muslim Religious Leaders. Most men at that time were illiterate so to become educated they lived and went to school at Madrasahs. When their education was complete they would become Imams. Imams were missionary/teachers/counselors who would spread the word about Islam and other subjects to the villagers. If the students did not become Imams they worked for the Islamic organization in another capacity. The men learned many things not just their Islamic religion. They also studied astronomy, medicine, etc. Women were not allowed to go to Madrasahs.
To enter the Madrasah we walked through a high façade entrance with a large archway all decorated in glazed tile work and two very large carved doors. Inside the courtyard, on one side was a large classroom and on the opposite side was a Mosque. The student rooms were situated on two floors of the courtyard perimeter.
During the 1920’s the Soviets closed all religious centers. Bukhara had around 120 Madrasahs, 219 Mosques and 68 Caravan Sarays before the Soviet occupation. After the Soviet occupation the Bolsheviks turned the Kukeldash Madrasah into a hotel. Today Bukhara had only 57 Madrasahs and 68 Mosques. Prior to the Soviet invasions Bukhara was the center of Islamic education that was why there were so many Madrasahs and Mosques in the city. Until 1920 (when religion was banned by the Soviets), Bukhara was recognized as a very noble and holy city because of their Islamic scholars. One such scholar, Imam al-Bekhari, (who died in 870 AD) wrote a very famous book (Hadith collections) called Hadith Alsaihih meaning the trustworthy legends of Prophet Muhammad.
25 years later, after WWII because many Muslims participated in the war, Stalin reopened the Mir-I Arab Madrasah in Bukhara. It was the only Madrasah allowed to operate in the whole Soviet Union. The Chechnya Presidents (current and past “Kadirov”) studied at this Madrasah. It was rumored that Ubaydulla-khan sold 3,000 prisoners and gave the money to Mir-I Arab to build this Madrasah.
The Nadir Divan Beghi building constructed in 1620 was originally built as a Caravan Saray. But at the opening of the Caravan Saray, the Khan came and said to Nadir, the builder, “nice Madrasah you built here.” Nadir replied no this was built as a Caravan Saray! The Khan replied “nice Madrasah you have here”. Nadir had no choice but to turn his Caravan Saray into a Madrasah even though it did not conform to the regular construction of a Madrasah. It did not have a classroom on one side and a mosque on the opposite side, (which side depended on where Mecca was situated), like all the other Madrasahs. Another huge difference was the decoration of the façade entrance, which showed a bird with a pig. In the Sunni Islamic religion there was to be no human or animal decorations, especially a pig, which was against the Muslim religion to eat. Sunni ornamentation was always geometric designs, flowers or Arabic writings from the Koran. It turned out that the builder was from Iran and was a Shiite and apparently they could put living art in their decorations plus the original plan was for a Caravan Saray. The builder thought the living decorations would be okay.
The stork was the national bird of Bukhara and previously they had many storks in their city. The ponds had frogs, which fed the storks. But in the 1920’s there were many diseases in the city like Malaria and different skin diseases because of the stagnant water in the ponds. The Soviets drained and filled in all but two of the ponds. The storks disappeared after the ponds were filled in. Today when there was a group of trees growing in an area that was a good indication that the area used to be a pond.
One of the two remaining ponds in Bukhara was located in the central square of the Jewish center. A wealthy man built the Caravan Saray and Mosque (I guess he was a Muslim Jew?) and he wanted a reflection pond between his two buildings but he had a problem. An old woman lived in a house located smack in the middle of the pool area. He asked to buy it from her and she answered, no. He purchased the surrounding land and began making the pond anyway, surrounding and flooding her property. She had no choice but to sell him her house (or stay in the middle of the wet pond). The Mosque and Caravan Saray were still beside this pond and the lady’s house had been long gone. The pillars from the Mosque reflected into the pool making it seem like there were 40 pillars when there were actually 20!
In 1997 Bukhara celebrated its 2,500th year of existence. Russ and I were surprised to see artists painting excellent miniature artwork and selling their work in the markets in Bukhara. We had thought that miniature paintings were only done in Iran. How naive were we?
We visited Bukhara’s carpet museum located in a 12th Century Mosque that was built on top of a Zoroastrian Temple. During Soviet times this building was turned into a bar. Next we stopped to tour two Madrasahs (Kosh Madrasahs meaning double or twin) one of which was built by Timarlane’s grandson in the 1400’s. This Madrasah was called Ulug Bek after his grandson and was much lower than the other Madrasah. The other Madrasah, called Abdulazyz Khan (directly opposite Ulug Bek) was built in the 1600’s and was never finished. There were timbers sticking out the sides of the archway that should have been used as supports for the twisted columns, which were never made. Apparently another war broke out and the Khan had to flee the area. There was also a stork nest on top of the Abdulazyz Madrasah.
We toured inside the Abdulazyz Madrasah where they had a small museum. There was an example of a whirling dervish’s cane with a snake winding itself around the stick and an elephant head carved into the top. We also visited inside the rooms used for students at the Madrasah. The residence consisted of two rooms, one on top of the other. There was a square indentation in the middle of the top floor to make a fire, niches in the walls to store items and the ceiling was decorated. The bottom floor had a stove and pots to cook with. It was small but very cute.
All the houses built in Old Town and the rural areas had flat roofs because as the families grew (lots of children in most families) they built another floor or another building within the courtyard if there was room. Their compounds all had the windows and doors of their houses facing inside their courtyards and many times no windows faced the road. Each family compound created their own oasis around the courtyard, and excluded the goings on of the desert city outside their walls. The beauty of their homes was hidden inside their houses and courtyards. The walls and buildings gave protection from the wind. They had their own gardens and animals all enclosed around them. Most of the houses were made of mud or clay bricks. Whereas, all the public buildings such as Mosques and Madrasahs were made from fired clay bricks. Every so often there would be a row of wood placed between the bricks. The wood would be used as a stabilizer in case of an earthquake. Mud mixed with straw was then smoothed over the mud bricks and usually the house was painted white with a lime solution. The lime kept the bugs out.
The streets in Old Town were purposely narrow to make shade from the hot summer sun and in the winter the narrow streets kept the walls warm. It also added a romantic feel to the city as we strolled along their streets and alleyways.
We ate lunch across from a very high minaret called Kalon. It was built in the 12th Century and had survived many wars and earthquakes. One of the theories it was still standing was because they constructed the foundation first and let it stand for two years before building the minaret higher. When Genghis Khan attacked Bukhara much of the city was destroyed. Legend said that Genghis Khan lifted his head up to see the top of the Kalon Minaret and his hat fell off. To pick up his hat he had to bow down. When he stood up he said if any building could make a great leader like him bow before it, it should not be destroyed. So this minaret was not destroyed and was still standing.
Minaret comes from Arabic meaning lighthouse. At first minarets were used as lighthouses by burning oil lamps at the top during the night and the glazed ceramic tiles were used to reflect light during the day for the traders travelling along the Silk Road. Then the mosques used the minarets for their call to prayer and last they were used for executions by pushing people off the top. There was a legend of one lady who was sentenced to death for adultery. The police took her to the top of the minaret and asked her what her last wish was before they pushed her off. She said she would like all the dresses her husband had given her. They brought the dresses to her and guess what? There were 40 dresses! She put all of the dresses on and when they pushed her off the minaret the dresses acted like a parachute and she landed on her feet at the bottom and walked away.
Every so often we would notice a metal flag on top of a pole with a crown above the triangle flag. This flagpole signified that a saint or special person was buried at that site. For example at one Madrasah they had turned the classroom into a Mausoleum for an Emir and there was one of these poles outside to signify that a special person was buried there.
We visited a museum of a prison called a Zindan. There were 4 separate cells. The first was for people who owed money. They were allowed to make crafts inside their cell the jailer sold the crafts to get money to pay off their debts. During judgments there had to be 2 women versus 1 man. If it were one man’s word against one woman she would be found guilty. The architect who built the Summer Palace for the Emir was put in this prison because he drank wine, which was against the law. The 4th cell was known as Kanakhona or bug pit! It was 6.5 meters deep and covered with an iron grill. The only way in or out was by a rope. Prisoners either died in the cell or were executed. Two famous Englishmen were put in this cell and then executed in the 1800’s. The story about them was in the book called The Great Game.
Today there was money scattered around in this pit. Apparently, people came to this cell to pray to the patron saint of prisoners (whoever that was?) and paid money by dropping it into the pit for their friends or relatives who were in jail. Hoping that their prisoner would be set free.
In 1920, 80% of Bukhara’s Ark, the center of the Bukhara Emirate statehood, was bombed and destroyed by the Bolsheviks. The 20 meter high wall around the Ark was originally built in the 4th Century BC and the Emirs lived inside these walls until the early 1900’s. The Ark was a city within the city of Bukhara. It was the Palace of the Emir and included all of the Emir’s administrative buildings with approximately 3,000 people living and working inside the walls. The Ark was the center of Bukhara’s gossip and trading. Information and goods were exchanged (plus public hangings) on the square outside the walls.
Our next stop was at Job’s well. Legend said that the people were tired and very thirsty from their travels across the desert. Job took his staff and hit the ground with it making a well with curative cold fresh water. This well was 20 meters deep and still functioned. It was enclosed in a building and considered sacred.
The mausoleum of the Samanid family located very close to Job’s well was built in the 9th Century. The walls were very thick and made from fired brick with 18 different brick laying designs. All 4 sides of the mausoleum were identical. The entrance was on the Eastern side. It was constructed with a dome on top and a cube on the bottom. The cube represented life on earth and the dome represented the heavens; the two combined represented the universe. We walked around this building three times (as was the tradition) to make our wishes come true! I had made a friend with a little girl, who gave me a rose and walked around the building with me. She was amazing, she spoke around 8 languages, enough to say hi, what is your name, do you want to buy something, etc. Even our guide was amazed by her language skills! I wanted to take her home but her mother was waiting for her at their little kiosk.
History Lesson gleaned from the Internet on Central Asia and Uzbekistan:
The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 BCE), sometimes known as the First Persian Empire, was an Iranian empire in Western Asia, founded in the 6th century BCE by Cyrus the Great who overthrew the Median confederation. The Medes had originally been the dominant Iranic group in the region. The Persian Empire was named after an Indo-European tribe called Parsua. The name Persia was a Latin pronunciation of the Indo-Iranian people Parsua who named their territorial borders Persis. We visited Persepolis in Iran last year, it was an amazing city built during the rule of Darius the Great (Darius I) after Cyrus the Great, and completed some 100 years later.
At the height of its power after the conquest of Egypt, the Achaemenid Persian Empire spanned three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe. At its greatest extent, the empire included the modern territories of Iran, Turkey, parts of Central Asia, Pakistan, Thrace and Macedonia, much of the Black Sea coastal regions, Afghanistan, Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and all significant population centers of ancient Egypt as far west as Libya.
Zoroastrianism and the Persian language (today referred to as Farsi or Tajik) were spread by the Sogdian rulers throughout Central Asia in BCE. Many people living in Tajikistan spoke Tajik today. They could communicate with people living in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, etc.
Turkic Tribes also migrated into Central Asia from Siberia during the 6th Century BCE. Today the Turkic and Tajik people all lived together peacefully in Uzbekistan (& Central Asia). They shared similar traditions and may even look alike but they spoke different languages. The Tajik people were originally from Persia and the Turkic people were originally Tartars from Siberia and/or China. The term Turkic represents a broad ethno-linguistic group of people including existing societies such as the Turkish, Azerbaijani, Chuvashes, Kazakhs, Tatars, Kyrgyz, Turkmens, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Bashkirs, Qashqai, Gagauzs, Yakuts, Turkic Karaites, Krymchaks, Karakalpaks, Karachays, Balkars, Nogais and as well as past civilizations such as the Göktürks, Kumans, Kipchaks, Avars, Bulgars, Turgeshes, Khazars, Seljuk Turks, Ottoman Turks, Mamluks, Timurids and possibly Huns and the Xiongnu. Today the people who spoke Turkic understood their cousins from Turkey, Azerbaijan, some parts of Western China and other Central Asian Countries.
It amazed me how many languages the people of Central Asia could speak. All could speak Russian because during Soviet times Russian was the main language. All spoke either Turkic or Tajik and many spoke both plus Uzbek, plus English and on and on. It put us Canadians to shame as we only could speak one language.
For dinner we ate in one of the courtyards of a Caravan Saray and were privileged to have an architect join us to explain the building designs of Bukhara. According to our speaker, Bukhara was originally built on 650 hectares and had a 9-kilometer wall surrounding it with 11 city gates. In the early 19th Century Bukhara had so many ponds it was known as Venice in the desert. The city was divided into sections (approximately 220 sections). In each section would be a skill, craft, trade or ethnic group. For example there would be a bakers section, a shoemakers section or a Jewish section.
Bukhara was a famous city (Khanate) because it was the center of commerce and trade as well as the center for education and the Islamic religion along the Silk Road. One of the reasons for Bukhara’s success was the number of Caravan Sarays in the city. These buildings shielded traders from both the hot summers and the cold winters and allowed them to continue their trading of ideas and goods all year long.
There was a white marble quarry 70 kilometers north of Bukhara, which provided much of the marble used in the construction of the buildings. The marble was traded with Russia to use in their construction of buildings in Moscow. He also told us that the builders in Bukhara started using fired clay bricks as early as the 6th Century!
While we were listening to our lecture and eating dinner a cat suddenly jumped up on our guide’s lap (Batir) and lunged at his chicken dinner. This really surprised all of us it happened so quickly. The owner came out and shooed the cat away but we felt sorry for it and snuck some food out to it behind the restaurant.
Walking around this ancient city with their amazing Muslim architecture you couldn’t help to notice old buildings made of mud, dirt alleyways and broken up sidewalks but I have to say it was immaculate. Each morning and evening the owners were outside sweeping up the dirt, taking the garbage away and everything was neat and tidy. It was amazing really to see a spotlessly clean dirt walkway. Nobody was lazy; everyone was busy working at something. I highly recommend visiting Bukhara an amazing, interesting and friendly city.