Silk Road Series: Bukhara
"Bokhara, the most shameless sink of iniquity that I know in the East."
-Arminius Vambery, Hungarian traveller and first European to visit Bukhara
In the minds of European poets and writers, Samarkand was a shimmering jewel in the desert; the city of Bukhara, by contrast, had a more sinister reputation. Though Bukhara, like Samarkand, flourished during the height of Silk Road trade, the slow death of the Silk Road prompted Bukhara to wrap itself in shrouds of secrecy and isolation. Competition between the Russian and British empires in the 19th Century, a rivalry termed “The Great Game” by the British and the “Tournament of Shadows” by the Russians, suddenly brought Bukhara into the international spotlight as both superpowers started to send spies and envoys to the emir, or ruler, of Bukhara in an effort to secure his alliance. Bukhara has enough stunning buildings and artwork to rival Samarkand but it’s the story of emir Nasrullah Khan’s despotic rule that I find the most interesting. (We wrote about Samarkand here).
Looming over the town is the infamous Ark, a hulking mud brick citadel that was the seat of the emir’s power. The oldest building in Bukhara, the Ark was a fortress that solidified Bukhara’s strategic position on the Silk Road. By the 1800s, it was the seat of government, the home of the emir and the mint and treasury of the Bukhara Emirate, with thousands of slaves, bureaucrats and guardsmen living within its squat walls. The Ark became synonymous in the minds of many with the secretiveness, fanaticism and barbarism of Bukhara in general and it was described by one Russian as a “disgusting ulcer on the body of the Russian empire.”
From within it’s impenetrable walls, the emirs of Bukhara announced draconian punishments to their critics and descended into rabid paranoia. Fearing poison, the emir’s food was tasted first by his confidants and then locked up in a sealed container. After an hour, during which the tasters were monitored for signs of poisoning, the food was hand delivered to the emir who had the key to open the box.
A labyrinth of secret passageways apparently riddles the Ark and the emir had secret peepholes installed in the bedrooms of his harem so he could monitor his many concubines in secret. The most infamous emir, Nasrullah Khan, had to murder around thirty of his relatives in cold blood before taking the throne, so royal paranoia wasn’t exactly unwarranted. Bukhara’s historical mistrust and suspicion of change can be seen today when arriving by train. When the Russians began expanding into Uzbekistan, the emir was suspicious of trains (“devil wagons”) and decreed that the Russian train station must be situated outside of Bukhara. As a result, any modern day tourist must hire a cab for the twenty minute trip between the "Bukhara" train station and Bukhara proper.
The wide ramp that leads to the main entrance of the Ark used to be a bustling scene. Slave traders, merchants and travellers would congregate at its base to trade gossip and wares. Hanging above the foreboding main gate was a giant whip, a visceral reminder to the townspeople of the emir’s power. Inside the palace several sections remain or have been restored; the Bolsheviks bombed and shelled the Ark when they fought to bring Bukhara into the fold of their new Soviet Union, probably one of the few times a medieval fortress has been besieged by industrial artillery. The result of the communists’ attack, and a subsequent fire that they may or may not have started, was that much of the Ark’s interior was razed.
Nevertheless, enough remains to give an idea of what conditions the emir lived in.
To see what conditions the emir’s critics lived in, it’s a good idea to venture behind the Ark to visit the “zindan” or the town dungeons. A building that must have terrified the denizens of Bukhara, who were completely at the whims of their ruler, the zindan sits atop a rocky outcrop. Inside is a museum that catalogues the life of the prisoners and those who guarded them; an already eerie place was made more atmospheric because we were the only visitors the day we went. The most notorious part of the zindan, and something I had wanted to lay eyes on since first hearing the stories of it, was the “bug pit”. A 15-foot deep dark well, with sheer walls and an iron-barred entrance, this shaft was reserved for the most unlucky prisoners. Biting insects, rats and reptiles were tossed into the pit to torment the hapless inhabitants, the most famous of whom were two Englishmen, players in the Great Game, condemned for being impolite to Nasrullah Khan.
Perhaps one of the most distinctive landmarks in Bukhara is the Kalon minaret. Central Asia, for all its beauty, is not a land of grand historical buildings, which makes the towering Kalon minaret that much more remarkable. Genghis Khan, who is single handedly responsible for laying waste to most of the few historical buildings Central Asia has, reportedly was so impressed by the minaret that he ordered it spared from the destruction meted out to the rest of the city.
Watching over Bukhara for almost a thousand years, the minaret has done more than simply serve as a place for the imam to shout out the call to prayer. In keeping with Bukhara’s grim history, the emirs had their guards tie up prisoners in sacks and toss them off the top of the tower, a grisly practice that apparently continued even into the 20th Century. In addition, the minaret once acted as a sort in inland lighthouse. During the time of the Silk Road, beacons were lit at the top of the tower to guide camel caravans through the oceans of sand that encircle Bukhara.
On either side of the Kalon tower are mosques and medressas, Islamic religious schools that were shuttered during communism and that have now sprung back up to train new generations of Muslim scholars within its splendidly tiled walls and re-assert Bukhara’s age-old position as a centre of Islamic learning.
Bukhara today has understandably tried to shake it’s foreboding reputation and shift the focus to its lovely architecture, pools and historical backstreets. With its dusty alleyways, in which children play soccer and old men in distinctive Uzbek hats talk and sit on stoops, the town is better suited for wandering than Samarkand, which has wide modern highways in the Soviet style. Like everywhere else in Uzbekistan, we found the people incredibly friendly and inquisitive, with many people asking for pictures of/with us or calling out “hello” as we passed them.
Travels into Bokhara: The Narrative of a Voyage on the Indus by Alexander Burnes