Discovering Uzbekistan – the gorgeous city centre of Bukhara

In September/October 2019, I was in Uzbekistan.

From Tashkent, we take the night train to Bukhara.

We stay in a friendly hotel outside of the city centre, and our driver, Firouz, took us to wherever we asked him for. The city centre of Bukhara as a whole is on the list of UNESCO world heritage and there is a lot to see within walking distance.

Source: “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag 2019, my own photos

Bukhara, located advantageously on the river Sherafshan, was an important hub on the Silk Road and, again and again, it was the capital of one of the changing empires in Central Asia. For example it was the capital of the empire of the Samanids in the 9th/10th century. Let us start with them.


The charming Samanid Mausoleum from around 900 – Ismail I is buried here

The founder of the Samanid dynasty was Ismail I, and he is buried in this graceful mausoleum from around 900 AD.

This lady has unfolded her chair and is enjoying the charm of the Samanid mausoleum. I feel like her. I cannot stop looking at this harmonic cube with the small dome on top, decorated with the amazing “weaving” pattern of unglazed bricks.

Inside the weaving brick patterns continue. The cube is translated into an octagon and then into an exagon…

… which carries the cupola that seems to swirl around the small top hole.

The weaving like arrangement of the unglazed bricks is called hazarbaf (in Persian this means: hazar=thousand and baf=weaving; first only raw bricks were used (like for the Samanid Mausoleum). Later, in the 12th century, glazed blue and white tiles were added to alternate with the unglazed bricks (example: Kalon Minaret below); finally after the 14th century, the tiles became multi-coloured. Mixing unglazed and glazed tiles is called “banna’i”, see Dumont, p. 60).

The Samanid Mausoleum survived the destructions by the Mongolians, when they conquered Central Asia. Some say, because the Mausoleum was in the middle of a cemetery, some say, because it was hidden under sand.

It is interesting to note that Ismail I, the founder of the Samanid dynasty, was of Persian origin. He is the national hero of Tajikistan, but the Tajiks have to live with the fact that the tomb of their hero is in Uzbekistan. Had the Russians drawn the frontiers differently, Bukhara would have ended up in Tajikistan and as a matter of fact, a high percentage of the inhabitants around Samarkand and Bukhara are Tajiks with a Persian background.


The source of Hiob

We walk to this place, where Hiob is said to have uncovered a source. Hiob? From the Bible? Yes, it is true, the Islam and our religion have the same sources. I would have never expected Hiob to have gone that far east.

Inside is a small museum and the pilgrims can take some of the holy water.


The Ark citadel with the Bolo Haus Mosque

The Ark citadel was where the leaders of the empires around Bukhara resided, the pre Mongolian dynasties from the 9th to the 12th century, the Shaybanids of the Uzbek Khanates in the 16th/17th century and their more local successors, the emirs of Bukhara (the Janid dynasty), until the Russians conquered Central Asia in the 19th century. The Red Army destroyed the citadel in 1920. Some parts have been reconstructed. The defensive brick wall surrounds the palace and a small town.

Nearby is the Bolo Haus Mosque where the emirs of Bukhara used to pray. The mosque was built around 1700 and has been rebuilt again and again. I like the wood carvings…

… and we are allowed to see the winter mosque inside.

We enter the mighty citadel, the Ark.

Inside we find another mosque with a finely carved wooden ceiling…

… and the throne hall that is actually a “throne courtyard”. This is the entry gate with separating wall. From here visitors were not allowed to show their backs to the emir sitting on the throne at the other end.

The elegant lion, unusual in an Islamic environment, watches the entry gate.

Many tourists sit down on the throne at the other end of the courtyard. The throne is a copy, the original is in Saint Petersburg.


The Kalon Complex

The Kalon Complex, not far from the Ark, is a magnificant example of the symmetry or Kosh concept in Central Asian architecture. Two pishtaks (gates) are facing one another: The pishtak of the Kalon Mosque and the pishtak of the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa. Both are from the early 16th century, when the dynasty of the Shaybanids ruled (the founders of the Uszbek Khanates).

This is the entry gate (pishtak) of the Kalon Mosque (16th century) with the bottom part of the Kalon Minaret (12th century, pre Mongolian).

The Kalon Minaret has been built by the successors of the Persian Samanids, the Kara Khanids that were from Turkish origin. It is another great example of the hazarbaf technique where unglazed bricks are “woven” into one another.

It is interesting that at the very top, there is a narrow band of blue glazed tiles. This is an early example, where the unglazed and glazed terracotta techniques have been mixed.

In the Kalon Mosque, glazed tiles interact with unglazed bricks. The courtyard is bordered by four galleries called “ivan”. The winter mosque marks the end of the four ivan courtyard, opposite of the entry gate.

Looking back from within the winter mosque, we can see the Kalon Minaret behind the courtyard. The  blue cupola in the background belongs to the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa.

The Mir-i-Arab Madrasa has also been built by the Shaybanids, just after they had appointed Bukhara to be their new capital in 1533.

The tiles of this pishtak are not just blue and white, but also contain yellow.

It is a working Madrasa that is closed to the public. Through this iron lattice we can look into the courtyard.


The Ulugh Bek Madresa with its kosh (symmetric) counterpart, the Abdulasis Khan Madrasa

A walk of about 150m, and we admire the Ulugh Bek Madrasa (from the 15th century) with the glazed blue and white tiles woven into the structure of unglazed bricks. The calligraphic writings are called “Thulut” and the technique of combining geometric patterns is called “Girih” (Dumont, p. 64). I like the swinging frame surrounding the gate.

Inside the madrasa shows the signs of decay – sad. It is no longer a working madrasa, but a collection of souvenir shops.

Across is the Abdulasis Khan Madrasa from the late 17th century. It is 200 years younger and much more decorated than its earlier and more modest counterpart, the Ulugh Bek Madrasa (some say, it is almost too much decoration).

Inside we find more souvenir shops.

Nearby we admire this artful architecture of the local storks. My friend, a physicist with the mind of an engineer, frowns at it: “Well the stork took a suboptimal approach when starting to build the nest, but then it corrected the design cleverly.”


The Bazars

We are now in the very city centre with various bazars covered by cupolas. This is the view of the cupolas of the Toki Sagaron, the bazar of the jewelers, taken from the terrace of a nice coffee bar. In the background we can see the Kalon Minarett and the blue cupola of the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa.

Each community of traders had their own bazar, but now the bazars are more or less across the board souvenir shops.

Even scooters are on offer.

My friend buys a carpet at Magic Carpet. The carpet will be sent to Switzerland and will arrive safely.

Almost unnoticed by tourists the Magoki Attari Mosque appears between the bazars. It is from the 12th century, built in the joyful weaving technique of unglazed bricks and shily adorned with a first band of glazed blue tiles (like the Kalon Minaret). My Dumont (p. 305) says that this is a carpet museum, but it seems to be no longer safe enough for that.


Around the Labi Haus with Kukeldash and Nadir Divan Bek Madrasa

The heart of Bukhara is the Labi Haus with the water pool, restaurants,…

… the Kukeldash Madrasa to the north (late 16th century, this is another mosque built by the foster brother of Abdullah Khan),…

… and the Nadir Divan Bek Madrasa to the east (early 17th century) – interesting are the birds and the sun with the face. This i s an unusual decoration program in the Islam.

Nadir Divan Bek’s Chanaka to the west of the pool is under renovation.

The water pool (or Labi Haus) reminds of all the pools that once existed in the centre of Bukhara, and they seem to have been a problem, because the worms that lived in them, attacked men endangering their lives. The barbers were able to pull out the worms, but not always successfully (Dumont, p. 301).

Not far from Labi Haus is the charming Chor Minor Madrasa. Only the gate is left. It has been built by a rich merchant who had four daughters – hence four towers (early 19th century).

Hodscha Nasreddin rides on his donkey next to the Labi Haus. He was very wise, something like a jester.

I found a booklet with his stories in French (Mourodkhon Ergashiev: Un jour de Nasreddine, Tafakkur Bostoni, Tashkent 2011) – here is an example: One day, Nasreddin goes to the market to buy a donkey. The market is busy, there are many, many farmers. A well dressed man is angry and says: “What a jostling, there are just farmers and donkeys here.” Nasreddin asks him: “Are you a farmer?” “No, obviously not”, he replies. “Hm”, Nasreddin answers, “I would not buy you, I look for a donkey with longer ears!”


Jewish area and puppet maker

To the south of the Labi Haus is the old Jewish city. We enter the solemn synagogue.

Also here, Nasreddin is popular.

We see quite a few boutique hotels – perhaps an idea for staying overnight, in case we will return to Bukhara one day.

Iskandar Khamikov has a small workshop in the Jewish city, where he produces and sells puppets in traditional costumes.

He shows, how the dolls can dance driven by his hands.

There are also smaller puppets that make a good souvenir. I acquire two of these.


Good-bye Bukhara

We have a farewell dinner at the Labi Haus with a good glass of Uzbek wine. I do like the Plov (rice dish) that they prepare in this country.

Bukhara is a gorgeous place to see. It provides insight into the history and architecture of Central Asia from the 9th century on. In addition the bazars offer good opportunities for shopping. Whenever I return to Bukhara, I will select a hotel in the Jewish city centre south of the Labi Haus to be in the middle of it all.


Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Isa Ducke and Natascha Thoma, “Usbekistan”, Dumont Reisehandbuch, Ostfildern 2017; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Usbekistan”, Trescher Verlag, Berlin 2019; Irina and Bodo Thöns, “Reise durch Usbekistan”, Stürtz, Verlagshaus Würzburg 2018, Sanjeev Mehan; “Ein vergessenes Land holt auf”, Tagesanzeiger 21. September 2019; Markus Ackeret: “Usbekistans Ambitionen in Zentralasien”, NZZ 5. März 2020; Mourodkhon Ergashiev: Un jour de Nasreddine, Tafakkur Bostoni, Tashkent 20 and various wiki entries.


2 thoughts on “Discovering Uzbekistan – the gorgeous city centre of Bukhara

  1. Anna says:

    I just love your posts, so informative and interesting! I hope to go next year and visit these amazing places.

  2. peterspetra says:

    Thanks Anna, as I am retired, I now love to dive into history, geography and languages (Spanish and Russian).

    It is a strange feeling to write about our tour to Uzbekistan, now that I have to stay in Switzerland and the borders even to France and Germany are closed (Basel is located at the border of these two countries). I love to walk around my city (Basel) which is also full of history – maybe you consider Switzerland and Basel one day?

    I am impressed by your story and by your blog site. I have never been to Australia, but with my husband (a star that watches over me), I was in Peru 20 years ago, in Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu. I read several books of Mario Vargas Llosa (in Spanish).

    So thanks again and all the best to you, your Peruvian husband and your baby – and I do wish you more travelling next year. Take care! Un gran abrazo!

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