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.


Discovering Uzbek history mirrored in world history (Alexander the Great, Islam and the Mongols)

End of September/beginning of October 2019, I  am in Uzbekistan. I want to find out about the roots of the Uzbeks and identify the following six highlights in their history mirrored in world history (note that I am not a historian by profession):

  1. Around 300 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers Central Asia and marries the Sogdian princess Roxane in Samarkand
  2. 8th-12th century: The Islam expands to Central Asia conquering Samarkand in 712; the Islam is adopted by local leaders
  3. Beginning 13th to mid 15th century: The Mongols invade Central Asia, and the Timurids are their successors
  4. Mid 15th to mid 18th century: Uzbek Khanates – the name “Uzbekistan” takes shape
  5. 19th century to 1925: The Russians conquer Central Asia and install the colony Turkestan
  6. 1925-today: Uzbekistan becomes a Soviet Republic in 1925, and it has been an independent nation since 1991

Let us start with the first three highlights, Alexander the Great, Islamic expansion and the Mongols.


1. Around 300 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers Central Asia and marries the Sogdian princess Roxane in Samarkand

After having defeated the king of Persia, Dareios III, in Issos (333 B.C.), Alexander the Great invades the Persian empire of the Archaemenids which comprised the Middle East (including Egypt) and Central Asia up to the river Indus and to the Hindu Kush. What is Uszbekistan today belonged to Sogdia (mainly located beyond the river Oxus (now Amudarya), the area was called Transoxiana). In Marakanda (today: Samarkand), Alexander marries Roxane in 327 B.C.. She is the daughter of the local chieftain. When Alexander dies in 323 B.C., his empire is divided into four parts, whereby the eastern part becomes the empire of the Seleucids. Roxane and her son are murdered in the successor fights.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

Today, no monuments are left from this time, though Greek culture and art made a long-lasting impact here.

About the marriage of Alexander and Roxane, Händel has composed an opera called “Alessandro” that was premiered in 1725.


2. 8th-12th century: The Islam expands to Central Asia conquering Samarkand in 712; the Islam is adopted by local leaders

Muhammed, based on his monotheistic religion, unifies the (formerly competing) Arab tribes. Muhammed dies In 632.The Arabs rapidly expand not only to the west (invading Spain in 711 and being pushed back in France at Poitiers in 732), but also at the same time, they expand to the east. In 712 they definitively conquer Marakanda (later: Samarkand) which becomes a cultural and intellectual centre of the Islam.

Around 800, the Samanids take over power in the area of Transoxiana (or where Uzbekistan is today). They are of Persian origin and claim to be the successors of the Sasanians who had ruled over Persia from 224 to 651 AD. The Samanids report into the caliphate of the Abbasids in Baghdad. In the 12th century the Kara-Khanids succeed the Samanids. The Kara-Khanids are of Turkish origin. Until today Persian and Turkish heritage have cohabitated in what is Uzbekistan now.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

The capital of the Samanids is Bukhara. Trade and culture at Buchara thrive. Under Mansur I (961-976) and Nuh II (976-997) Buchara is the centre of Persian culture and contributes to the rise of the new Persian language. Rudaki (858/59-941) was an important Persian poet (his master piece was “Kalila wa Dimna”, a collection of fables; note that Persian/Farsi is an Indo-Germanic language).

We find monuments from the area of the Samanids and the Kara-Khanids in Bukhara.

This is the Samanid mausoleum where Ismail I is buried. It is the oldest Islamic building in Central Asia that still exists. Raw terracotta bricks make the magnificent patterns – just charming.

The elegant Kalon Minaret (12th century, also a pattern created by raw bricks, adorned with one narrow band of blue tiles)… and

… the Magoki Attari Mosque are from the times, when Bukhara was the capital of the empire of the (Turkish) Kara Khanids.

This is cultural heritage from pre Mongolian times.


3. Beginning 13th to mid 15th century: The Mongols invade Central Asia, and the Timurids are their successors

Genghis Khan (1206-1227) unifies the peoples of the steppe of Central Asia and conquers a large part of Asia and Northern China. His son Ögedei (1229-1241) takes over and his grand-son Batu invades Asia Minor and conquers most Russian principalities, except Novgorod. In 1241 Batu wins battles in Hungary and Poland, but then Ögedei dies and struggling for a successor halts the advance of the Mongols in Europe. In 1259, Möngke, the last Khan of the united Mongolian empire, dies. Now, the Mongolian empire disintegrates into four khanates:

  • China: Kublai Khan, a grand-son of Genghis Khan, founds the Yuan dynasty that last until 1380. It is the Mongolian emperors from the Yuan dynasty that Marco Polo (1254-1324) tells us about, when visiting in China.
  • Khanate of the Ilkhanes: Founded by Hülegü, a grand-son of Genghis Khan, it includes Persia, and the rulers adopt the Islam.
  • Khanate of the Golden Horde: Founded by grand-son Batu, the Golden Horde governs the Russian principalities until 1505. The Golden Horde converts to the Islam in the 14th century.
  •  Khanate Chagatai: Founded by Chagatai, a son of Genghis Khan, it includes, what is Uzbekistan today.

Source: Der grosse Plötz

However, borders of the Khanates change in the late 14th century. The green line on the map shows the empire of Timur (1360-1405). Timur was a lower level noble man from Transoxania (from today’s Uzbekistan). He gains control over the western Chagatai Khanate and the Empire of the Ilkhanes. Timur is a successful warlord. He weakens the Golden Horde (which marks the beginning the liberation of Russia that will be completed in 1505). In addition Timur defeats the Ottomans near Ankara in 1402 which gives Europe and Byzantium a break from the Ottoman attacks. Timur’s empire thrives economically due to internal peace, free trade routes and the post system based on messengers.

Timur believes that he needs Mongolian heritage to justify his authority, and he marries Bibi Khanym who is a descendent of Genghis Khan. Timur makes Samarkand (formerly Marakanda) the capital of his empire.

His grand-son, Ulugh Bek (1394-1445), is not only the ruler, but also an excellent mathematician and astronomer. His astronomic maps were used for centuries to navigate the world oceans. He is murdered by his own son.

It is interesting to note that Babur (1504-1530) was another descendent of Timur. In 1525, Babur conquers Delhi and founds the Mogul Dynasty in Northern India.

We meet Timur all over the country. He is venerated for being the founder of Uzbekistan, for instance riding his horse at Taschkent…

… or sitting on his throne, surrounded by traffic in Samarkand.

Timur is buried in Samarkand, in the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. This is Persian for “Tomb of the King”.

Inside are the sarcophagi of some Timurids and some close companions.

For his main wife, Timur builds the Bibi Khanym Mosque (he has to get permission from the Imams to devote a mosque to a woman).

Ulugh Bekh establishes his center of mathematical and astronomical research in Samarkand from which the sextant of his observatory remains.

In addition Ulugh Bekh promotes education in his empire; the Madrasa of Bukhara tells about that.

Also Samarkand has its Ulugh Bek madrasa at the Registan Square – it is the building to the left of this beautiful place.

The two other buildings at the Registan will  be added in the 17th century.

Sources: “Der grosse Plötz – Atlas zur Weltgeschichte”, Komet Verlag, Köln 2008; Burchard Brentjes: “Die Araber”, Ex Libris Zürich 1977; 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 and various wiki entries.