From Samarkand I continued by train to Bukhara. A great political, cultural and religious centre through millennia, Bukhara’s many historical monuments have been restored less assertively and more sensitively than those of Samarkand. Although much has changed in the past one hundred years, it is nevertheless possible to get much more of a sense of the old city wandering around its streets and lanes, than is the case in Samarkand. Much has yet to undergo restoration at all. Like Samarkand, Bukhara is attracting more and more tourists, but it is as yet far from overwhelmed. For me it was the most beautiful, the most atmospheric city I visited in Central Asia.
Bukhara was the capital of the Persian Samanid dynasty in the 9th and 10th centuries. The intricate yet beautifully simple mausoleum of Ismail Samani, the founder of the dynasty, is in stark contrast to the scale and bombast of the monuments of Samarkand. In general, Bukahra’s architecture seems to express elegance, beauty and the sense of quiet peacefulness that is so often evident in Islamic design than the power and awe that the great buildings of Samarkand seem been built for. But this impression might in part be due to the restoration and rebuilding of recent times, and the redesign of the old centre of Samarkand.
The Kalon Minaret and Mosque, Bukhara
The Kalon minaret, standing at nearly 50 metres, was built in the 12th century under the rule of the Turkic Karakhanid dynasty, which supplanted the Samanids. Circled by concentric rings of geometric patterns, the tower tapers towards the top before opening out into an elaborately decorated gallery. It is said that when Genghis Khan conquered the city in 1220, he was so impressed by the tower that he ordered that it be spared when much of the rest of the city was destroyed. The minaret was once also known as the tower of death, as criminals were for centuries executed by being hurled from it. Fitzroy MacLean, then a young diplomat serving at the British embassy in Moscow, visited Bukhara in 1938, and wrote how executions in this manner, having ceased after 1870, had again been practiced in 1917-1920. MacLean travelled widely in Central Asia and the Caucasus, doggedly trying to evade his NKVD shadows. He wrote about his experiences in his memoir, Eastern Approaches, which also covered his time with the SAS in North Africa and as an envoy with Tito’s Partisans in Yugoslavia. He described Bukhara, where he slept in parks during his stay, as an ‘enchanted city’, rivalling ‘the finest architecture of the Italian Renaissance.’
Down one side of the Kalon minaret there are lighter patches, where the damage done by Boslshevik artillery in 1920 was repaired. In the 1870s, The Emirate of Bukhara, which covered a large territory, including Samarkand, became a Russian protectorate, but retained broad autonomy. When Bolsheviks first tried to take control of the city in 1918, the last Emir, Alim Khan, had them slaughtered, along with several hundred Russian Bolshevik sympathisers in the city. But it was a temporary respite. In 1920 a stronger Red Army unit under General Frunze arrived, storming the Ark, or citadel, leaving the Emir to flee into exile (he died in 1944 in Kabul).
The Mir-I-Arab Medressa, Bukhara
Below the Kalon Minaret is a 17th century mosque of the same name, which replaced an earlier mosque destroyed by Genghis Khan. Used as a warehouse in Soviet times, it was returned to its intended use in 1991. Inside, a large open space is surrounded by arched galleries. It is said it can fit 10,000 worshipers. Opposite the mosque is the Mir-i-Arab Medressa. Unusual among the numerous medressas in Uzbekistan, this one is still working, and visitors were not allowed beyond the entrance foyer. I listened from there to the students at prayer. Later I looked in at the courtyard, laid out in the typical pattern, with arched alcoves all around, on two stories, where the students live and study, all richly decorated with blue and gold tiles.
Unlike in Samarkand, in Bukhara the historical buildings are surrounded on all sides by the old town. Wandering around its dusty streets there are several unrestored medressas and mosques. Bukhara had once been noted for its numerous pools, which were used for drinking and washing. They also spread disease, and were mostly drained after the communist takeover. But there are a few left, including the Lyabi-Hauz (‘around the pool’ in Tajik), a plaza around a pool, shaded by mulberry trees, some of them very ancient, which is the heart of the old town. Richly tiled medressas fronting on to the plaza cast their reflections in the pool. Where once old men sat drinking tea and playing draughts in the shade of the trees, now there are restaurants frequented by families, as well as by tourists. One afternoon I sat in the shade of a tree by another pool in a less frequented part of the old town, overlooked by a medressa and a mosque, with a smaller version of the Kalon Minaret. Boys played around the pool, diving into the water from the steps. The oldest medressa in Bukhara and all Uzbekistan is the Ulugbek Medressa, built in 1417, unrestored, but with much of its intricate tiling still intact.
The old town, Bukhara
In the narrow streets close to the Lyabi-Hauz is the Jewish Centre, comprising a small synagogue and school. This is the old Jewish quarter, once a ghetto, but with few of its Jews left today. Daniel Metcalfe had written about Bukhara’s Jewish community in his 2009 book Out of Steppe, about his travels among some of the endangered minority groups in Central Asia. He had pretended to be Jewish, discovering his family roots in Bukhara, in order to gain an entrée to this dwindling people. Spotting a man about to enter the Centre, I asked if I could have a look inside. The synagogue itself is small and simple. He told me a bit about the Bukharan Jews. Only a few hundred remain today, most having left as the Soviet Union broke up, for Israel and America, and some for Europe. At the time of the communist takeover there were several synagogues in Bukhara, but only two are left now.
Jews have a long history in Central Asia, some say going back well over two millennia. They have their own language, Bukhori, a dialect of Tajik. In the heyday of the Silk Road, they had thrived, playing an important role in the trans-continental trade. After the discovery of the sea route between Europe and Asia, the Jews of Bukhara went into a long decline that mirrored that of the Silk Road itself. Once a great centre of Islamic culture and learning, Central Asia became a vast, remote and little-known desert. In Bukahra, trade and intellectual enquiry were replaced by ignorance and religious intolerance. The Jews faced persecution and pressure to convert to Islam. Yet somehow they survived. The first synagogue was built in 1620. Before that, it is said that Jews shared the Maghoki-Attar Mosque, praying there in the evening, after the Muslims had finished their devotions. This is the oldest mosque in Bukhara, a mixture of the 12-century original and 16th century reconstruction. The holiness of the site long predates the arrival of Islam. Beneath the mosque, archaeologists have found the remains of a 5th century Zoroastrian temple.
In 1843, Bukhara was visited by an eccentric German Jewish convert to Christianity, Joseph Wolff, who had travelled widely in Asia, the Caucasus and North Africa in search of the lost tribes of Israel. Wolff, having settled in England, had become an Anglican Priest. He travelled to Bukhara in the hope of helping two British officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly, who had been held captive there. In fact the two men had already been executed by the time he arrived. According to Wolff’s account, he avoided the same fate only because the Emir, Nasrullah Khan, found his clerical attire hilarious and laughed uncontrollably at the sight.
Sir Alexander 'Bokhara' Burnes
Conolly is said to have coined the phrase the ‘Great Game’ to describe the 19th century struggle between Britain and Russia for influence in Central Asia. He was a noted player of the game, having undertaken a journey from Russia through the Caucasus and Central Asia to India in 1829-31. Perhaps the most famous of all the Great Game players was a Scot named Alexander Burnes, an officer in the army of the British East India Company. An extraordinarily talented linguist, fluent in Persian, Hindustani and several other oriental languages, Burnes undertook his travels in local garb, and was at ease in the manners and customs of the people of the region. In 1832, he made a journey from India, through Afghanistan, and up to Bukhara. Burnes became fast friends with the Koosh Begee, or Grand Vizier of Bukhara, but he never met Nasrullah Khan, who had succeeded as Emir five years previously. In Britain his exploits made him a hero, and earned him the epithet ‘Bokhara Burnes.’ He was showered with honours, and granted a private audience with the King. Burnes was later one of the first casualties of Britain’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan, cut down by a mob in Kabul in November 1841.
Stoddart had been sent to Bukhara to reassure the Emir about British intentions in the invasion of Afghanistan, as well as to try to persuade him to release the Russian slaves in Bukhara, and thus remove a potential excuse for a Russian attack. He was also supposed to sound out the possibility of a treaty of friendship between Britain and Bukhara, whose main aim, as always in the Great Game, would be to forestall Russian influence.
When Burnes had visited Bukhara a few years earlier he had gone to the slave market, describing how ‘the feelings of a European revolt at this most odious traffic’ (it was not long since Britain had outlawed the Atlantic slave trade). He also discreetly met a Russian slave, said to be one of 130 in the city, who had been seized by slavers at a Russian outpost at the age of ten. After 15 years in captivity, the man acknowledged that he was well treated by his master, but said he longed to see his native land. While publicly professing Islam, crossing himself he told Burnes he remained a Christian in his heart.
The Ark, Bukhara
Stoddart’s mission to Bukhara went wrong from the outset. Unlike Burnes, who had been careful scrupulously to respect local customs during his visit, Stoddart ignored Bukhara’s protocols, riding through the city to the Ark, although non-Muslims were expressly forbidden to ride a horse in the city. A bluff soldier, Stoddart was no diplomat. When summoned into the Emir’s presence, rather than performing a symbolic act of obeisance, as urged to do by a court usher, Stoddart struck the man. Nasrullah Khan had him thrown into prison, into the notorious vermin-infested ‘bug pit’. The unfortunate Stoddart remained a captive for the next three years, some of the time under relatively comfortable house arrest, at other times in the Emir’s frightful gaol, depending on the whim of the capricious despot.
I visited the gaol, the Zindon, close by the Ark, now open to the public as a rather gruesome museum. The bug pit itself, a deep, squalid brick hole, is still there, with a couple of wretched-looking stuffed human dummies completing the grim scene. Bizarrely, the floor of the pit was strewn with money, as if it were a wishing well. I could hardly imagine a more unlikely place to look for good fortune. For the men who languished there, including Stoddart, it must have seemed like Hell.
The Ark, as it was
The Ark itself, with its thick walls, is still impressive. It was severely damaged when Frunze stormed it in 1920, supported by aerial bombardment. Apparently the royal apartments were in a bad state of disrepair even before that. Its entrance is flanked by twin towers built in the 18th century. Across from the Ark is the intricately decorated Bolo-Hauz Mosque, built in the 18th century, where Emirs once worshipped.
Conolly’s mission was no less ill-starred than Stoddart’s. He set out with big plans to persuade the three khanates of central Asia, Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand, to unite against Russia and to abolish slavery. He also hoped to secure the release of Stoddart. Burnes had warned that there was little chance of persuading the khans, longstanding rivals, to unite, but Conolly had not been deterred. He was well received in Khiva and Kokand, but found no interest in his proposals. Indeed, Kokand was about to go to war with Bukhara. So Conolly set off on the final stage of his mission, to Bukhara. His initial welcome by the Emir appeared cordial, but his prior visits to Khiva and Kokand had confirmed Nasrullah Khan’s suspicions that he, as well as Stoddart, was a spy, in cahoots with his old enemies. Furthermore, the Emir was peeved that he had not received a reply to a letter he had sent some months earlier to Queen Victoria, who he considered to be his equal. Conolly joined Stoddart in the bug pit. What finally did for them was the news of the catastrophic British retreat from Kabul in January 1842. The British, it appeared, were not to be feared. On a June morning in 1842, Stoddart and Conolly were led out onto the Registan, the great square in front of the Ark, filthy, ragged and half-starved. Their graves had already been dug. First Stoddart, and then Conolly was beheaded with a large knife.
The stories of Stoddart and Conolly, of Burnes and other adventurers of their ilk, had long captivated me. Peter Hopkirk opened his masterful history of The Great Game with an account of the execution of Stoddart and Conolly. As I walked across the wide space in front of the Ark, now empty, the bustling market that old photos reveal once stood there gone, I thought of those two hapless, ill-prepared, yet courageous men, their remains presumably still somewhere beneath my feet. I have taken part in numerous overseas missions, working for international organisations, some of them in Central Asia. Nowadays we have elaborate security backup, constant communications with headquarters, and security rules that prohibit us from doing anything that might put us at risk. In truth, international workers are sometimes still killed, despite all precautions; several have died in recent years in Afghanistan. But how different are the experiences of the modern traveller to those of the early pioneers, men like Stoddart and Conolly who set out on journeys lasting several months, across little known lands, risking attack by brigands and capture by slave traders, far from any possibility of help, never knowing what their fate might be when they reached their destination. What effete times we live in by comparison.
- Travellers to Bukhara