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Bokhara is surrounded by deserts, and watered by the little river
Waf kan, which flows between forests of fruit-trees and gardens. It
has eleven gates, and a circumference of fifteen English miles; three
hundred and sixty mosques, twenty-two caravanserays, many baths
and bazaars; and the old palace called Ark, built by Arslan Khan
one thousand years ago, and has about one hundred splendid colleges. (..) The chief of the mullahs at Bokhara has the title of Mullah Kelaun (grand mullah), a man of excellent character, who deplores the murder of poor Stoddart and Conolly.
Joseph Wolff - Narrative of a mission to Bokhara, in the years 1843-1845, to ascertain the fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly.
This book made widely known the existence of Bukhara to the British public. The two officers had been executed in 1842 by Nasrullah Khan, Emir of Bukhara, on charges of spying for the British Empire. The fame of Bukhara being ruled by a bloodthirsty emir was reinforced a few years later by the execution of the Italian clockmaker Giovanni Orlandi. This poor fellow was abducted in 1851 by a band of Turkmen slave traders in Orenburg, an important military Russian outpost on the frontier with Central Asia. He was brought to Bukhara where he made a clock to be placed at the gateway of the Emir's palace (the Ark fortress). In addition to the clock he made a telescope for Nasrullah Khan; unfortunately (they say), the Emir dropped the telescope from a minaret and Orlandi was sentenced to death.
(left) External walls; (right) walls of the Ark (citadel and residence of the Emir)
We had only proceeded half an hour through a country resplendent with gardens and cultivated fields, when Bokhara Sherif (the noble, as the Central Asiatics designate it) appeared in view, with, among some other buildings, its clumsy towers, crowned, almost without exception, by nests of storks. (..) We preferred, therefore, to take a circuitous route along the city wall. This we found, in many places, in a ruinous state. (..) The circumference of Bokhara, represented to me as a day's journey, I found actually not more than four miles.
Arminius Vambery - Travels in Central Asia in 1863
Bukhara retains only a short reconstructed section of its walls, which were pulled down in 1938; they were similar to those which still surround Khiva and were characterized by massive towers projecting from the main curtain in a wave-like manner.
Bukhara, which is situated on the Silk Route, is more than 2,000 years old. (..) The real importance of Bukhara lies not in its individual buildings, but rather in its overall townscape. (..) The citadel, rebuilt in the 16th century, has marked the civic center of the town since its earliest days to the present.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of Bukhara which in 2003 was added to the World Heritage List.
In antiquity Bukhara had close cultural ties with Persia. In 673 an Arab raid was repelled, but in 709 the city was taken and Islam was imposed on its inhabitants. Bukhara became part of the Arab Caliphate: later on the administration of Bukhara was entrusted by the Caliph to the Samanids, a Persian dynasty, who revived their country's culture and spread it into Central Asia.
Ismail Samani Mausoleum
Important monuments that survive from early times include the famous Ismail Samanai tomb, impressive in its sober elegance and the best surviving example of 10th century architecture in the whole Muslim world. UNESCO
This mausoleum was built in the Xth century for Ismail Samani, the founder of the Samanid power in Bukhara; the design is simple and yet innovative in some details (such as the columns which join the fašades). Its elaborate brickwork makes up for the lack of the lavish decoration of Bukhara's later monuments.
Tchachma Ayoub Mausoleum
From the 11th century Karakhanid period comes the outstanding Poi-Kalyan minaret, a masterpiece of decoration in brick, along with most of the Magoki Attori mosque and the Chashma Ayub shrine. UNESCO
Ayoub is the Arab name of Prophet Job. According to tradition he struck his staff on the ground creating a well, the water of which had healing powers. A series of chapels were built around the well in the XIVth century. They were preceded by a monumental fašade which is entirely lost.
In 999 the Karakhanids, Turkic-speaking tribes, occupied Bukhara; they converted to Islam and maintained the cultural bonds the city had with Persia. Kara-Khitais and Khwarezmshas, other Turkic dynasties took over from the Karakhanids in controlling Bukhara.
Mesdjidi Mogak. This is a subterranean building, in which, according to one tradition, the primitive Mussulmans, according to another, the last Fire-worshipers, held their meetings. The former version seems more probable; for, first, the Guebres (followers of Zoroaster), could have found more suitable spots outside of the city, in the open air; and, secondly, many Kufish inscriptions there point to an Islamite origin. Vambery
Magok-I-Attari is thought to be one of the most ancient mosques in Central Asia. Its entrance is some feet below the current ground level and this explains why the mosque is called magok (excavated). Attari refers to a herb (attar) market which took place in the vicinity. The mosque was rebuilt/restored several times but it mainly retains its XIIth century features (reliefs, elaborate brickworks and the use of blue ceramics).
Bukhara was formerly the capital of the lands beyond the Oxus. It was destroyed by the accursed Chingiz, the Tatar, (..) and all but a few of its mosques, academies, and bazaars are now lying in ruins. Its inhabitants are looked down upon (..) because of their reputation for fanaticism, falsehood and denial of the truth. There is not one of its inhabitants today who possesses any theological learning or makes any attempt to acquire it. (The force of this indictment lies in the fact that Bukhara was formerly one of the principal centres of theological study in the Islamic world).
H. A. R. Gibb - Selection from the Travels of Ibn Battuta in 1325-1354
The development of Bukhara was interrupted in 1220 when the city was conquered and sacked by the Mongols of Genghis Khan. They then set fire to it and the inhabitants were carried away as slaves.
With the exception of a few important vestiges from before the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan in 1220 and Timur in 1370, the old town bears witness to the urbanism and architecture of the Sheibani period of Uzbek rule, from the early 16th century onwards. UNESCO
For three centuries Bukhara remained a pale image of the flourishing city it had been. In 1506 the Uzbeks defeated Babur, the last heir of Timur and established their power over the region; they preferred to rule it from Bukhara, rather than from Samarkand. The Shaybanid (Uzbek) dynasty did for Bukhara what Timur had done for Samarkand.
The origin of the Ark, the fortress where the khans/emirs had their residence, dates back to the very early days of Bukhara, but it was almost entirely rebuilt in the XVIth century and afterwards.
In 1920 during the fight with the Soviets it was extensively damaged by a fire and only a minor part can be visited; this includes the court mosque and the open air throne hall.
In 1599 the Astrakhanids or Janids inherited the Khanate of Bukhara; they came from Astrakhan, a town on the Volga River, which in 1552 was conquered by the Russians. The first diplomatic contacts between Moscow and Bukhara date to 1619; the Russians gradually gained control of Siberia and in 1645 they reached the Pacific Ocean. In 1717 they started their first military expedition in Central Asia (against the Khanate of Khiva) and in 1734 they founded Orenburg on the Ural River to support their expansion.
Bolo Haouz (by the Bolo pool) Mosque, its design brings to mind that of Chehel Sotun a Safavid Palace at Isfahan in Persia which was built in 1642-1646
This mosque was built in 1712 for the mother of Abdul Fayud Khan, so its official name was Bibi Khanoum (Old Queen) Mosque,
the same as Timur's large mosque in Samarkand. It is usually named after a small pool which separates it from the Ark. The elegant eastern porch was reconstructed in 1914-1917.
While the Russians moved towards Central Asia from the north, from the south a strengthened Persian Empire gained great influence on the area. Between 1741 and 1747 the Khanate of Bukhara became a puppet state in the hands of Nader Shah of Persia. In 1785 the Manghits, an Uzbek family whose members often served as high-level officers/advisors in the government of the country, dethroned the khan and founded the Emirate of Bukhara. While the Khanate had a Mongol origin Emirate was usually linked to the Muslim world (emir was one of the titles of Prophet Muhammad). This dynasty emphasized the religious aspects of life in order to strengthen national identity; the Emirate was threatened by the Persians who were Shiites and by the Russians who were Christians, while the population of the Emirate was mainly Sunni.
The Turkomans of this day are a tribe of
no important note; and their military operations
are directed chiefly to the attack of karavans and
defenceless villages. They are no longer that
great and powerful people which produced a
Genghis and a Timur, the conquerors of Asia
whose posterity were seen in this country, seated
on the most splendid throne of the world. (..) The present chief of the
Turkoman tribe resides at Bochara, where he
keeps a moderate court, and exercises a very
George Forster - A Journey from Bengal to England, Through the Northern Part of India, Kashmire, Afghanistan, and Persia, and Into Russia by the Caspian Sea in 1782-1783.
During the XIXth century the Emirate became a pawn in the Great Game, the strategic conflict between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia. Emir Nasrullah Khan (1826-1860) managed to play the great powers one against the other. In 1868 however the Russians attacked the Emirate and conquered Samarkand. The Emir had to accept the protection of the Russians and to allow them to build a railway which from the Caspian Sea reached Samarkand across his country. The Emirate survived until 1920 when the Soviet Army conquered Bukhara and raised the red flag on the Ark.
I went next morning to view the city and the bazars; and although the wretchedness of the streets and houses far exceeded that of the meanest habitations in Persian cities, and the dust, a foot deep, gave but an ignoble idea of the "noble Bokhara," I was nevertheless astonished when I found myself for the first time in the bazar, and in the middle of its waving crowd.
These establishments in Bokhara are indeed far from splendid and magnificent, like those of Teheran, Tabris, and Ispahan. (..)
Each bazar has its particular aksakal, responsible to the emir for order as well as for taxes. In addition to the bazars, there are, perhaps, altogether about thirty small caravanserais, used partly as warehouses and partly for the reception of strangers.
They are separated into different parts, as Tirm Abdullah Khan had them built according to Persian models on his return from Persia in 1582. Restei Suzenghiran, haberdashers; R. Saraffan, where the money-changers and booksellers station themselves ; R. Zergheran, workers in gold; R. Tchilingheran, locksmiths; R. Attari, dealers in spices; R. Kannadi, confectioners; R. Tchayfurushi, tea-dealers; R. Tchitfurushi, dealers in chintz; Bazari Latta, linen-drapers ; Timche Darayfurushi, grocers and so on. Vambery
The Tartars of Bochara bring to Kabul the borses of Turkistan, furs and hides, the latter resembling those in Europe, called Bulgar, the amount of which is applied to the purchase of indigo, and other commodities of India. Forster
Tok-i-Zargaron (jewelers' market) and Kalon minaret in the background
Bukhara is the most complete and unspoiled example of a medieval Central Asian town which has preserved its urban fabric to the present day. UNESCO
There are two Bukharas because during the Soviet period a new town was built to the side of the existing one. This meant that, unlike Samarkand, most of the old town was not affected by modernization and it still retains some of its bazaars.
The two bazaars shown in this page were built in the XVIth century. Tok means arch and by extension also the vaulted structures which supported the domes.
The image used as background for this page shows a detail of the brickwork at Kalon minaret.