Beneath my feet were soft as silk to me.
Glad at the friend's return, the Oxus deep
Up to our girths in laughing waves shall leap.
Long live Bukhara! Be thou of good cheer!
Joyous towards thee hasteth our Amir!
translation by A. J. Arberry, 1958.
|The Escher-like domes of Bukhara |
|Ishmail Samani Mausoleum -|
burial place of the Samanids
For a couple of thousand years, until the middle of the 18th century, a network of Silk Roads linked Europe to China, crisscrossing Persia and Central Asia and the lands to the north of India. One of these highways led through the great city of Bukhara, the capital of the emirate of Bukhara of which Samarkand was a part. Bukhara had long been a centre of trade, culture, scholarship and religion. It was Central Asia’s holiest city, legendary for its wealth and beauty.
It was said that while elsewhere daylight shone down from the skies, it radiated up from Bokhara to illuminate the heavens.
Central Asia’s Holiest City
A thousand years ago, when Anglo-Saxon bards were telling the tale of Beowulf and a Japanese court lady was composing The Tale of Genji, Islam was enjoying its Golden Age. Bukhara, under the rule of the Samanid dynasty (819 to 999), was the intellectual centre of the Islamic world.
The Samanids were patrons of scholarship and scholars. Bukhara was home to many of the greatest figures of the age - the brilliant court poet Rudaki (859-941), famous as a musician, player of the chang (harp) and declaimer of verse; Firdausi (940-1020), also spelt Ferdowsi, author of Iran’s epic poem, the Shahnameh or Book of Kings; and Ibn Sina (981-1037), known in English as Avicenna, physician, astronomer, thinker and author of seminal medical tracts.
|Jester in Bukhara|
In the nineteenth century Bukhara was still the holiest city in Muslim Central Asia. To Europeans it was a mysterious but alluring place surrounded by a natural barrier of mile upon mile of impassable desert. It was the Emir’s capital from where he ruled over a kingdom almost the size of the British Isles.
The British arrive
George IV was on the throne when the first British caravan arrived in Bukhara in February 1825. They had travelled from northern British India across the Khyber Pass to the Oxus and across desert lands which snow had turned into quagmire, only to discover to their chagrin that the Russians had got there before them. One of these Russians, the German-born Dr Eversmann, had infiltrated the capital in disguise and reported among much else that in this city ‘all the horrors and abominations of Sodom and Gomorrah’ were being practised. Besides his harem the Emir had the ‘services of forty or fifty degraded beings,’ he wrote. Things went on which ‘even in Constantinople’ were taboo.
Things did not always go well for the British in Bukhara.
A year after Queen Victoria came to the throne, on December 17th 1838, a daunty Englishman called Colonel Charles Stoddart rode through Bukhara’s great gates. He had been sent by the East India Company to try and forge an alliance with the Emir against the Russians, whom the British were convinced would storm across barren steppes, bandit-infested deserts and impassable mountain ranges down into British India and capture it if they weren’t held back.
|Nasrullah Khan |
Three years passed. Then on November 10th 1841 Captain Arthur Conolly arrived to try and negotiate his release. He too ended up in the Black Hole. Finally the two were executed in the grand square in front of the Ark.
In 1868 Russian troops captured the kingdom of Bukhara. It remained under Russian, then Soviet rule until the break up of the Soviet Union and became part of Uzbekistan when the country was given its independence.
Of all Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities, Bukhara most retains the flavour of its past. The city is full of domes of pink brick, built in geometrical designs like M.C.Escher’s drawings. You can ramble the lanes and explore the bazaars, lined with stalls selling silks, fabrics, goods from all the neighbouring countries - Afghanistan, Kazakhstan - or heaped with spices, filling the air with the scent of cumin. At the centre of the city is the Kalyan Minaret which dates from 1127, so tall that when Genghis Khan put his head back to look at it, his helmet fell off and he decided to spare it.
|Kalyan Minaret |
You can gaze up in wonder at the Ark, a mammoth fortress whose formidable concave mud walls are impossible to climb. It broods over the city still, as it did in the days when Stoddart and Conolly met their end. You can even see a replica of the prison cell where they were incarcerated. The heart of the town is Lyabi Hauz pond, shaded by mulberry trees, where people sit all day drinking tea out of blue and white ceramic cups.
By pure chance we managed to arrive just as the city was celebrating the annual Silk and Spice Festival. People had come in from miles around, all dressed in their best. Musicians played lutes, fiddles, tambourines and drums, singers belted out folk songs, dancers undulated with intricate hand movements and a jester in a multi-coloured coat pranced about. The crowd raised their arms and danced too while an old man in a white turban leaned on a stick, observing.
The moon's the prince, Bukhara is the sky;
O Sky, the Moon shall light thee by and by!
Bukhara is the Mead, the Cypress he;
Receive at last, O Mead, thy Cypress tree!
|One of Bukhara's many bazaars |
For the whole thrilling story of the opening of Central Asia, please read The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk - a wonderful book.
Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. For more, much more, see https://www.lesleydowner.com/