The oldest, best preserved, and most original monument in Bukhara is the Ismail Samani Mausoleum built in the 9th century (between 892 and 943). The mausoleum was the resting place of Ismail Samani who was the founder of the Samanid Dynasty as well as that of his father and future Samanid rulers. The walls here are almost 2 meters thick and this fact together with the monument being buried in mud from flooding, spared it from destruction when Genghis Khan arrived in Bukhara. Ismail Samani Mausoleum was built with both Zoroastrian and Islamic motifs mainly because the region had large populations of Zoroastrians who were beginning to convert to Islam around that time. It is one of the oldest buildings in Central Asia built with burnt bricks. The entire facade is covered by highly decorated bricks featuring circular patterns resembling the sun which is a common motif in Zoroastrian art. The basket-woven terracotta brickwork is said to change “personality” throughout the day shifting with the angle of the sun. Just looking at the building, it feels so light and airy that one would never have guessed that the walls are 2 meters thick! The cuboid shape of the building resembles that of Ka’aba in Mecca while the dome is a typical architectural feature of mosques. Ismail Samani Mausoleum is such a remarkably elegant structure that the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was modeled after it.
Lyabi-Hauz in Tajik means “around the pool” and as its name suggests, was a plaza built in 1620 around a hauz or pool used as Bukhara’s main source of water. There used to be over 200 stone hauz or pools where people came to draw water, wash, gossip, and drink tea at one of the many chaikhanas or tea houses under one of the many mulberry trees that line its shore. The city’s reservoirs or pools were fed from the main canal or Royal Canal and professional “water carriers” would deliver water to wealthy residents. However, this stagnant water came to spread diseases and plagues so most of these pools were filled in by the Soviets in the 1920s and 1930s. Lyabi-Hauz was spared because it was the centerpiece of the Lyabi-Hauz ensemble and is one of the few remaining pools in Bukhara. The Labi-Hauz ensemble consists of the 16th century Kukeldash Madrasa, the Nadir Divan-begi Khanaka, and the Nadir Divan-begi Madrasa. Divan-begi is a title given to someone equivalent to a Finance Minister at the time. Nadir Divan-begi Madrasa was originally built as a caravanserai. But the Imam Kuli Khan commended the Divan-begi for building such a grand madrasa for furthering the teaching of Islam and Divan-begi had no choice but to change the caravanserai into a madrasa. That is why the madrasa does not have a traditional layout and does not have a lecture hall or mosque. The famous mosaic here depicts two simurgh birds with two white deers clasped in their talons flying up a Mongol-faced sun. There is nothing religious about this mosaic and in fact challenges the Islamic prohibition of figurative art.
Not far from Lyabi-Hauz ensemble is Maghoki-Attar Mosque which is considered to be the oldest surviving mosque in Central Asia. It is believed to be constructed in the 9th century on the remains of a 5th century Zoroastrian temple and an even earlier Buddhist monastery. The mosque sits lower than the surrounding ground level and hence its name which translates to “mosque in a pit” or “deep mosque”. It was said that the locals buried the mosque in sand to spare it from the Mongols’ destruction and only the top of the mosque was visible when excavations began in the 1930s. The mosque was once used by the Jews of the city as a synagogue in the evenings which reflects the melding of religions and religious tolerance in those days. The mosque is no longer in use today but serve as a carpet museum.
Because of Bukhara’s location on the Silk Road for several centuries, many markets and caravanserais flourished here. Even though it is no longer the cross roads of trade, 4 of the original trading domes still stand. Next to Lyabi-Hauz is the Toki-Sarrofon Trading Dome. People who dealt with the exchange of money were called sarrafs, hence the name of the dome. Toki-Sarrofon used to be one of the largest currency exchanges of Central Asia. Nowadays, it has been taken over by shops selling carpets and souvenirs. North of Toki-Sarrofon is the hexagonal Telpak Furushon Trading Dome selling mainly knives, musical instrument, and other tools. Books used to be sold here and the dome was once called Kitab-Furushon where Kitab means “book” in Uzbek. Another trading dome is that of Tim Abdullakhan with small windows in the domes and mainly sells carpets and fabrics over the centuries until now. The largest of the four trading domes is the Toki-Zargaron Trading Dome next to Po-i Kalyan. The dome of Toki-Zargaron was built first in 1586-1587 by Abdullahan. The dome is stretched upwards and strengthened with ribs and Zargaron comes from the work “zargar” which means “goldsmith”. As its name suggests, there once were many jewelry workshops here.
To the east of the Old Town is Chor Minor, built in 1807, with four 17-meter towers capped with blue domes. Although Chor Minor means “four minarets” in Tajik, these towers were not used as minarets for the call to prayer, instead they were merely decorative. Chor Minor stands in front of a larger madrasa that had been destroyed. What is interesting is that each of the four minarets has different decorations believed to reflect the four religions known to Central Asians. There are elements of a cross, a Christian fish, a Buddhist praying wheel, and Zoroastrian and Islamic motifs.
Sitorai Mohi-Hosa Palace about 6 km outside of Bukhara is the summer palace of the last emir of Bukhara, Said Muhammad Alim Khan. The palace was built in 1911 on the grounds of an earlier palace of Nasurllah Khan that was destroyed. Sitorai Mohi-Hosa is a mix of Russian and traditional Central Asian architecture. The name of the place means “stars meet the moon” and was said to be named after his wife Sitorai. It was the first building in Bukhara that had electricity provided by its own Russian generator. One of the most interesting parts of the palace is the White Hall which is decorated with ganch (alabaster) covered with mirrors of all kinds. There are several museums now inside the palace with an interesting Museum of Costume where you can see the paranja, a kind of burqa where the front of the face is covered by heavy horsehair that used to be worn by higher class women of the day. Next door is the harem, home to the emir’s concubines. There is a pool here overlooked by a wooden pavilion from which the emir was said to toss an apple to the concubine chosen to spend the night with him.
I would have wanted to stay in Bukhara for a few more days if it wasn’t for the hard-to-come-by high-speed train ticket I had already purchased. Reluctantly, I pressed on to another ancient city of the Silk Road, Samarkand. Stay tuned!
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