The legend of the origin of Bukhara appears in the Shahnameh (or the Epic of the Persian Kings) by Firdausi.
When King Siyavush of the Pishdak dynasty wed Farangis, the daughter of King Afrosiab of Samarqand, he was gifted a vassal kingdom in the Bukhara region by his father-in-law. Siyavush, who had always liked this region for its many rivers and its location on the ancient trade route, built a new city there — Bukhara. The first structure that he built was the Ark or Arg (the Persian word for ‘citadel).
Today, Siyavush’s Ark is long gone and another one stands in its place. Also known as the Ark, it is no coincidence that this 16th century Ark too continues to be at the heart of Bukhara, both historical and modern. And that’s why I begin this post with the Ark, for both the legend and the history of Bukhara is inextricably linked to it or the people who governed from there.
The exact date of the first Ark on this site is not known, but archaeologists believe that it should have been built between 500-600 CE. Based on excavations, they also believe that many Arks were built on this site and destroyed, only to be rebuilt again. In the centuries since the first Ark was built, it has functioned as a royal enclosure, along with space for administrative offices, guardrooms, places of worship, harem, the mint, treasury, prisons, slave quarters, and so on.
The Ark has been witness to and faced the brunt of invasions from the Arabs in the 8th century to the Genghis Khan in 1220 to the Russians in 1920. A fire destroyed about 80% of the buildings inside the Ark at that time. A massive restoration project was undertaken a couple of decades ago in an attempt to restore the Ark to its former glory.
Today, many of the buildings inside the Ark function as museums to different facets of the city’s past.
A visitor to Bukhara usually begins exploring the city from the Ark. While the Ark was not the first monument I visited in Bukhara, it was where I heard the story of Bukhara from my excellent guide Shakhnoza.
It is not clear where the name Bukhara is derived from, though some historians believe that it is comes from the word “Vihara”, a term used to denote a Buddhist monastery. Some other historians put forth the view that it is derived from ancient city of Varaksha, the ruins of which are located near present day Bukhara. Both names are possible sources, for the pre-Islamic Bukhara was home to Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Christians.
Located very strategically on the Silk Route, Bukhara had been a centre of trade and culture for centuries. When the Arab invaders arrived in the 8th century CE, they found a well- established city. Introducing Islam was not easy and it took the Arabs over a century to establish the new religion in Bukhara. The fire temple in the Ark was destroyed by the Arabs, and the city’s first mosque constructed over it.
Bukhara soon became an intellectual centre of Islam. During the rule of the Samanids in the 9th and 10th centuries CE — often considered by historians and modern scholars as the golden age of the city — Bukhara was a populous city, and perhaps the largest in Central Asia. Many scholars made Bukhara their home as they found its cultural environment conducive to their growth. The city was also a centre of Sufism, most notably the Naqshbandi order. The many Khanakas or rest houses for the sufi mystics in Bukhara are testimony to this fact.
Bukhara’s importance as a cultural and religious centre rivaled that of Baghdad, and scholars often referred to the city as the Eastern Dome of learning. It is believed that the revival of the Persian language to rival that of Arabic began and was sustained in Bukhara. This was to end with the end of the Samanid Empire.
Bukhara was ruled by many dynasties after the Samanids — the Karakhanids, followed by the Khorezem Shahs, the Chaghatay Khanate, the Timurid Empire and lastly by the Shaybanids, who united all the Uzbek clans. The Shyabanids heralded in Bukhara’s second spring, but as a regional religious centre. At the end of the 17th century, Bukhara was home to some 200 madrassahs and 300 mosques within city limits!
At the same time, trade via the Silk Route (and Bukhara) was declining, due to increase in maritime trade all over the world. The city’s fortunes started declining. In 1868, the Russians entered Bukhara by gaining trading concessions and thereon the Bukharan emirate became a Russian protectorate. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia ended the reign of the Emirate in 1920 and Bukhara was incorporated into the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924.
Today, Bukhara may be Uzbekistan’s fifth-largest city, but perhaps has the maximum number of monuments — around 140 mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums, markets, and more. UNESCO listed the historic centre of Bukhara, which contains numerous mosques and madrassahs, as one of the World Heritage Sites in 1993, the second site in the country.
I barely made a dent at that number in the two days I was there. While I explored the monuments with my guide, Shakhnoza, I also wandered around on my own. The first day was a sensory overload of blue domes, tiles, exquisite brick work, architectural styles, stories, legends, coups, battles, despots, excesses…
So I went back in the evening on my own to look at the monuments again and also to photograph them in better light. It turned out to be a good idea, for I was able to understand the details, the context and also make connections. The second day was overwhelming too, but in a nicer way, for by then I had completely fallen in love with Bukhara.
Presenting the monuments of Bukhara. I have divided them into sets of Masjids, Madrassahs, Mausoleums, and others. Clicking on any of the photographs in each set will enlarge it. You can then use the left or right arrow keys to navigate through that set of photographs and their accompanying captions.
MORE…: Khanaka, Palace and Market Dome
Bukhara was the third city I visited during my road trip through Uzbekistan in September 2015. Prior to my visit, my acquaintance with Bukhara was rather shadowy and vague. I recall that the first time I came across Bukhara was in my school (perhaps 6th or 7th standard) history textbook, though I can’t recall the details context now. The second time was when I read an article on a much celebrated restaurant named Bukhara in Delhi. And the third was the name for the Indian plum in Hindi, rather bewilderingly (for me at least), called Aloo Bukhara. My visit to the “real” Bukhara dispelled the shadowy and vague association I had with the name.
As I mentioned in the previous post, I came with absolutely no idea or expectations of the city or experience. Maybe it was a good thing for Bukhara turned out to be the surprise of the trip. I may have barely made a dent at understanding the deep and layered history of this ancient city, but its vibes and its atmosphere could certainly be felt.
I came away enthused, enriched and energised from Bukhara. I came away happy, content and at peace too. Bukhara was that kind of a place. 🙂
My Dream Trip Uzbekistan Series:
Dear Uzbekistan | A city called Nukus | Art in the Desert: The Savitsky Collection at Nukus | Mizdahkan: A city for the dead | 3 forts & a dakhma | Itchan Kala of Khiva | There’s something about Bukhara! | Monumental Bukhara | The Jewish Heritage of Bukhara | Shakhrisabz: The home town of Amir Timur | The Registan Square of Samarqand | The blue city of Samarqand | The silk paper factory at Konigil | The surprise & delight that was Tashkent | Uzbekistan: The food & markets special | The Uzbekistan trip planner |