Suitcase and World: The Holy City. Bukhara.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Holy City. Bukhara.

Panoramic view of Bukhara. (Photo by mariusz kluzniak)

Bu·kha·ra. I have been mispronouncing the name of this city my entire life. It is not pronouciate *boo-cah-ra* as you would think looking at the Roman letters.. No, the *kh* are actually sounded out a wee bit gutteral so the *k* is not a harsh.  Here, click on the link to hear the proper way to pronounce the name of this ancient city.  Make sure your speakers are turned on.

The region around Bukhara has been inhabited for at least five millennia and the city has existed for about half that time.  Located on the Silk Road, the city has long been a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion.  During the Samanid Empire, a Sunni Persian Empire that reigned from 819 AD to 999 AD, Bukhara became the intellectual center of the Islamic world and stayed that way for centuries.  In the 8th century, it als became a major cultural center of the Caliphate.

Like many a city in the region, Bukhara was invaded by the armies of both Genghis Khan and Timur as well as by the Russians in 1920.

Today, it is a modern city in Uzbekistan but its historic heart still beats. The historic center of Bukhara is said to contain about 140 historic landmarks is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  No wonder Bukhara is often referred to as a city museum!

According to UNESCO, Bukhara is 

" of the best examples of well preserved Islamic cities of Central Asia of the 10th to 17th centuries, with an urban fabric that has remained largely intact."

According to our itinerary, here are the places we'll be visiting.  It's a long list and so this is a long posting! Given Bukhara's history as an intellectual center, it's no surprise that many of the places that we are visiting are madrasahs.  It's going to be a blur of madrasahs!  I just hope I can keep track of them.

Lyab-i-Hauz. (Photo by Allan Gray)
Lyab-i-Huaz is a plaza that was built in 1620.  It's located in the of the historic old town and is described as a peaceful spot, surrounding  one of the few remaining hauz (ponds) in the city of Bukhara.

Up until the Soviet era there were many such ponds, which were the city's principal source of water, but they were notorious for spreading disease and were mostly filled in during the 1920s and 1930s.

Lyab-i Hauz survived because it is the centerpiece of a magnificent architectural ensemble, created during the 16th and 17th centuries, which has not been significantly changed since. The Lab-i Hauz ensemble surrounds pond on three sides  On the north side stands the Kukeldash Madrasah (built 1568–1569), the largest in the city  On the west and east sides of the pond stand two edifices built by Nadir Divan-Beghi - a khanaka, built in 1620, which provided lodging for itinerant Sufis, and a madrasah built in 1622.

Pretty all day, Lab-i Hauz apparently really comes to life at night with music and lights.

In Lyab-i-Huaz, there is also a whimsical metal statue of Nasruddin Hodja, the quick-witted and warm-hearted man who is the central character of many children's folk stories in the Central Asian and Indian subcontinent.  One of the best is "The Tale of Hodja Nasreddin: Disturber of the Peace", which takes place in Bukhara.  The statue depicts Hodja sitting atop his mule with one hand on his heart and the other with an 'All OK' sign above his head.

Chor-Minor Madrasah (Photo from
Chor-Minor Madrasah is likely to be the only one that I will easily remember because of it's distinctive towers. It looks cute and charming if those are words you can use to describe a madrasah.

Each of the four towers is topped with a turquoise colored dome but other than than they are each of a different shape and have different designs which are believed to reflect the religious-philosophical understanding of the world’s four religions. At least, it is easy to see that some elements look like a cross, a Christian fish, and the Buddhist prayer wheel.

Strictly speaking, the four towers are not minarets and they were never designed (or used) as a location from which the muezzin could call the faithful to prayer; these are simply decorative towers. The building was simply the gatehouse to a larger madrasah.

The four towers surround the mosque.  Rooms for scholars and students flank the mosque though oddly enough, there are no lecture rooms.  In addition to the mosque, the madrasah also houses a hospice and a khanaka.

The well-preserved madrasah was built by Khalif Niyaz-kul, a rich Turkmen merchant although there's some debate about exactly when the madrasah was built.

From a design perspective, the architecture of Chor-Minor is unusual in that it is the only known building in Uzbekistan in this style.  Some historians have surmised that it was possibly inspired by the Charminar Mosque in Hyderabad, India, where Khalif Niyaz-kul is thought to have traveled.

Chor-Minor is located right behind Lyab-i-Huaz.

Magoki-Attori Mosque (Photo from
Magoki-Attori Mosque known as Maghoki-Attar in Persian, dates back to the 12th century and is the oldest mosque in Central Asia.
The site originally occupied by a Buddhist temple, then later a Zoroastrian temple that was built in the 5th century. Zoroastrianism was a monotheistic faith and the state religion of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam.

The Zoroastrian temple was destroyed by the Arabs and replaced with a mosque in the 12th century, which was named Maghoki-Attar ("Pit of the Herbalists") because of the nearby spice bazaar.

The Magoki-Attori Mosque is said to have been used by Bukharan Jews as a synagogue in the evenings until it was rebuilt in the 16th century. An earthquake destroyed the mosque in 1860. It was excavated and restored in the 1930s, during which the earlier structures were found.

The architecture and design of the mosque is a mishmash of the original 12th-century building (mainly in the southern façade and doorways) and the 16th-century reconstruction.

Today, the mosque houses a carpet museum. 

Po-i-Kalyan Mosque Complex is comprised of three sacred landmarks - the Kalyan Minaret, the Po-i-Kalyan Mosque and the Mir-i Arab Madrasah.

Kalyan Minaret and Po-i-Kalyan Mosque (Photo by Hylgeriak)

Kalyan Minaret (Great Minaret) is the iconic, sacred landmark of ancient Bukhara; it is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city.

The minaret, designed by Bako, was built by the Qarakhanid ruler Mohammad Arslan Khan in 1127 to not only to call Muslims to prayer, but to also symbolize the authority and power of its spiritual leaders.  In the 16th century, the Kaylan mosque and Mir-i Arab Madrasah were built around it, and the minaret is now the center piece of the Po-i-Kalyan mosque complex.
The Kalyan Minaret is circular brick tower that stands 45.6 meters (149.61 ft) tall.  It is 9 meters (29.53 ft) in diameter at the base and tapers to 6 meters (19.69 ft) at the top.  The body of the minaret is topped by a rotunda with 16 arched fenestrations, from which the muezzins summoned Muslims to prayer.  Inside, there is a brick spiral staircase that twists up to the rotunda.  It is believed that at one time, the minaret had another round section above the rotunda, but now only the cone-shaped top remains.

In its history, the minaret has been used as an observatory, and, during times of war, it served as a lookout to watch for invading armies. Its most famous, and startlingly recent use was for public execution, earning the minaret its nickname - *Tower of Death*.  Those condemned to die were thrown from the rotunda at the top to the stone courtyard below thereby. The last known execution took place as late as 1920, during the Russian Revolution.
Kalyan Mosque was built at the beginning of the 16th century and since that time, except for Soviet time, it has served as the cathedral (central) mosque of Bukhara. The mosque replaced the old Qarakhanid cathedral mosque of the 12th century, which was built simultaneously with Kalyan Minaret.

Mir-i-Arab Madrasah (Photo by Fabio Achilli)
Mir-i-Arab Madrasah  stands opposite Kalyan Mosque.  The medrasah's namesake, Mir-i-Arab, was a 16th-century Naqshbandi sheikh from Yemen. He had a powerful influence on the Shaybanid ruler, Ubaidullah Khan and it was he who financed the building of Kalyan Mosque and the madrasah that bears his name.
The madrasah has been a functioning seminary since it was built in the 16th century until it was closed in 1920. It was reponed by Stalin in 1944 in an effort to gain Muslim favor for his war effort.  The madrasah is off limits to tourists so all we can appreciate is its beautiful exterior, front façade.  That's too bad because it would have been interesting to tour the interior.

The madrasah has a traditional layout out of two floors of dormitory style rooms, surrounding a courtyard.  Classrooms occupy three corners of the building. The fourth corner, situated atop the northern dome, houses the necropolis of Ubaidallah Khan and the tomb of Mir-i-Arab.

Ulug Beg Madrasah and Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah.  Facing each other, these two madrasahs compose a single architectural ensemble called *kosh madrasah*, which is common in Bukhara. The two madrasahs represent the two dynasties that once ruled Bukhara - Timurid and Ashtarkhanid.

Ulug Beg Madrasah (Photo by Allan Gray)

Ulug Beg Madrasah was built by Ulug Beg, the grandson of Timur, in 1417.

The madrasah has two floors of rooms and a mosque. Originally, the madrasah had four domes and four minarets in corners. In 1585, the façades were restored and decorated with majolica.

Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah (Photo from
Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah is named after its founder, Abdullazziz Khan who was a member of the Astarkhanid dynasty which ruled Bukhara from 1601-1747. This traditional madrassah also has two floors of rooms around a courtyard and a mosque.

In Bukharan and Central Asian architecture, Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah stands out with the rich decor of its façades. The portal of the madrasah is decorated with a Chinese dragon and Semurg, a legendary Persian bird.

Today, the madrasah building houses the Museum of Wood Carving Art.  The museum, which was established in 1988, displays the finest collections of Bukharian wood carving art dating back to the 16th century.  The 16th – 18th centuries were marked in the history of Central Asian art as the flourishing period for Bukharan school of wood carvers. Wide range of works on wood carving were carried out in decorating mosques, madrasahs, gates, doors, and tombstones.  I'm looking forward to visiting the museum.

The Ark is a massive citadel that was initially built and occupied around the 5th century AD.

The Ark (Photo by Jose Javier Martin Espartosa)

Ceremonial Entrance to the Ark.  Photo by Stanislav Kozlovskiy
In addition to being a military structure, the Ark encompassed what was essentially a town that, during much of the citadel's history, was inhabited by the various royal courts that ruled the region surrounding Bukhara.  Inside the Ark's walls was the palace for Bukharan emirs, offices for high-ranking authorities and military officials, craftsmen workshops, treasury, arsenal, mosques, homes for courtiers and their relatives, and storerooms for clothes, carpets, arms, and palace treasures.  About 3,000 people once lived in the citadel. Today, the Ark is an archaeological reserve.

The ceremonial entrance into the citadel is flanked by two 18th century towers. The upper parts of the towers are connected by a gallery, rooms, and terraces. A gradually rising ramp leads through a winch-raised portal and a covered long corridor. The covered corridor leads to a mosque as well as provides access to storerooms and prison cells. 

Bolo Hauz Mosque is a beautiful mosque that was built in the 18th century as the Emir of Bukhara’s official place of worship. It is notable for the intricately decorated ceiling and wooden pillars.

Bolo Hauz Mosque (Photo from The Open Road Before Me)
 Bolo Hauz is where the Emir would stride out of a Friday from his residence in the nearby Registan for the noon prayers. Its slender, elegantly carved wooden pillars hold up a beautifully restored painted coffered ceiling. On Fridays once again the faithful come here to pray, and there are often so many that they spill out of the mosque onto the platform near the reflecting pool.

The Mosque was built in 1712 for the mother of Ashtarkhanid ruler, Abul Fayud Khan (1711-47). Another version states that the Emir Shakhmurad (1785-1800) built it for public prayers, because he liked to be closer to his people.

Bolo Hauz Mosque sits in Registan Square, located west of the Ark.  Back in its heyday, Registan Square was the public gathering area.  Up until the 13th century, there were administrative buildings as well as some palaces.  After that, it became a market place as well as a place where public executions took place.

Today, the only building that remains in Registan Square is Bolo Hauz.  Sadly, all the others were destroyed in the early 20th century during the brief Bolshevik seige of the city.  Unbelievably, the beautiful mosque itself was turned into a working men's club.  I guess turning it in to a club did at least save the mosque from a far worse fate.  I haven't been able to find out exactly what type of men's club it was but horrors, if it was a strip club.

Bolo Hauz is also known as the Forty Pillar Mosque after all the slim columns that support its iwan.  The pillars are carved from elm, poplar and walnut wood.

Located nearby Bolo Hauz Mosque is a minaret and a pool named Bolo-Hauz (*Children’s Pool*).  The pool is the oldest part of the mosque complex and is one of the few remaining in the ancient city.

Ismail Samani Mausoleum (Photo by Atilin)

Ismail Samani Mausoleum is a royal mausoleum that was built in the 10th century and houses the tombs of Ismail Samani, founder of the Samanid Dynasty, as well as his father and grandson.  Although it is one of Bukhara's oldest monuments, its delicate terracotta brickwork disguises thick walls (2 meters, 6.5 feet) that are so well built that the mausoleum has never needed significant repair in the 1100 years that it has stood here.  Pretty amazing!

Chashma-i-Ayub Mausoleum (Photo by Hygeriak)
Chashma-i-Ayub Mausoleum is located, in the middle of a small ancient cemetery, near Ismail Samani Mausoleum.  The name of the mausoleum translates into English as *Jacob's Well* after the legend that the Christian prophet, Jacob (Ayub), visited here and upon seeing that the people were suffering from water shortage, made a well by striking the ground with his staff. The spring water of this well is still pure and is considered healing.  The mausoleum was built atop the spring.

The mausoleum was first constructed in 1208-1209 AD and subsequent to that, was repeatedly reconstructed.  The current building was buillt during the reign of Timur and is covered with domes.  The conical dome which is uncommon in Bukhara, marks the spot above the spring.

I've not been able to find out who, if anyone, is entombed inside the mausoleum but apparently, today the modest sized building houses the Museum of Water Supply.

On our second day in Bukhara, we will be venturing out beyond the ancient city center to visit several other historica landmarks.

Sitorai Mokhi-Khosa Palace. (Photo by M & G Therin-Weise)
Sitorai Mokhi-Khosa Palace which translates from Tajik as *Palace of Moon-like Stars* is the palace of the Emir of Bukhara.

In the mid-XIX century, the Emir of Bukhara - Nasr-Allah bin Haydar Tora (aka Nasrullah Khan), who ruled Bukhara from 1827 to 1860, decided to build a summer palace for himself.  To choose the coolest place not to suffer from summer heat, the architects applied a tried and true method - dressed sheep were put on the potential sites of construction.

The site, where the meat spoiled the last, was chosen as the spot for where the palace would be built.  The palace was constructed but unfortunately it was destroyed.

The last Emir of Bukhara, Mir Sayyd Muhammad Alim Khan (1880-1944).
This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints
 and Photographs Division under the digital ID prokc.21887.

Subsequently, the next Emir - Muzaffar al-Din bin Nasr-Allah (aka Muzaffar Khan), who ruled from 1860–1886 initiated construction of a new palace on the same grounds as the first once stood.  A legend has it that the Emir dedicated the palace to his wife Sitora, after her death.  Even though the second palace was also destroyed, its name was carried over to the third and last palace that was built.

The current palace was built in 1912-1918,  by order of the last Emir of Bukhara - Mir Sayyd Muhammad Alim Khan.  

One of the palace's many waiting rooms.  (Photo from the Daily Star)
Stylewise, the current palace blends Eastern and Western architectural styles and designs.  The main palace building consists of several reception halls and the emir’s private rooms.

In addition, the summer palace includes a tea room, a small minaret, and a guest house. add an element of grandeur to the palace, there are still peacocks wandering the grounds.

In 1927, shortly after the fall of the Emirate of Bukhara, the palace was transformed into a museum. Today, it  houses the Museum of Arts and Crafts.

Bahauddin Naqshbandi Memorial Complex (Photo from sufiwiki)
Memorial Complex of Naqshbandi. Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari (1318–1389) was the founder of what would become one of the largest and most influential Sufi Muslim order - the Naqshbandi. He is the patron saint of Bukhara and the Memorial Complex of Naqshbandi is where he is entombed.  It is considered to be a pilgrimage site for Sufi Muslims.

In addition to a mausoleum, the complex also contains mosques, madrasahs, and khankas.

Located nearby is a necropolis where the emirs of Bukhara are buried.

Chor-Bakr Necropolis (Photo by Alexander_ar)
Chor-Bakr Necropolis, also called "The City of the Dead" is one of the more unusual landmarks in Bukhara.

The first graves appeared at least a thousand years ago, when there was a small settlement of dervishes. But the current site, now visited by thousands of pilgrims was not built until the 16th century.

In the 10th century, when Bukhara was under the Samanid Dynasty, there lived an old family of Djuybar Seyyids (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) who played an important role in the city’s life. For centuries, the Djuybars were buried here and it became a family burial ground.

In 1560, the Shaybanid ruler, Abdullakhan II ordered that a mosque, madrasah and khanaka be built here as a gift to his teacher, Djuybar Sheikh Muhammad Islam Khoja, who was buried here when he died in 1563. The construction of the complex was completed the same year.

The three buildings were constructed in the center of the necropolis, at the crossroads of its alleys. To the north of the necropolis, a garden was planted - filled with poplars, junipers, willows, fruit trees, grapevines, and roses.

In 1593, Djuybar Sheikh Muhammad Islam Khoja’s son Khodja Bakr Sadi was buried next to his father. Subsequently, other family members were also buried here. It just so happened that four of the men buried here, in a single tomb, bore the title of “Bakr” which translates into English as *brother; Chor-Bakr means *Four Brothers*.

According to a popular, ancient Bukharan ancient popular belief, if within one day a person manages to make pilgrimages to four mazars (graves) of the saints named Bakr, any wish of his or her's will come true. That is why Chor-Bakris a popular pilgrimage site for Muslims.

Toki-Sarrafon.  Photo from

Our second day, in Bukhara, is only a half day of conducted sightseeing so we will have some free time on our own to explore the city.  I'm hoping we can spend it wandering through at least one of Bukhara's famed Trading Domes.  Our tour will take us to one but with so much ground to cover and so little time, I think we'll be rushed through. We'll ask our guide for suggestion on which of the domes to go to and we can probably arrange for either the driver to take us there or we can just take a taxi on our own.  Perhaps we can go to Toki-Sarrafon - it looks so interesting.

Today, it houses a small bazaar but back in Silk Road days, it was where the money changers worked.  I can imagine that with all the trade traffic going back and forth, currency exchange was much needed.  Never really thought about that aspect of life on the Silk Road until I started reading up about this particular trading dome.

I didn't realize how much there is to see in Bukhara and now that I do know, I am really, really looking forward to visiting the pace. I do know that I will be happily exhausted when I leave! :-)