Bukhara (300 kilometers west of Samarkand) was a famous Silk Road stop and an Islamic intellectual center and holy place with a long and colorful history featuring brutal Mongol raids and cruel emirs. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a modern city with 274, 000 people that does a better job conjuring up images of caravans and bazaars better than Samarkand because its old city―which is filled with blue-domed mosques, towering minarets, carpet shops, Madrasahs, decorated tiles and open squares―lies in an enclave separate from the modern city and the modern city itself is more laid back and slower-paced. .
The old town of Bukhara is regarded as a living museum with 140 registered monuments, and there in lies its appeal and its shortcomings. The buildings are very old, beautiful, clean and well-restored but the atmosphere is old and historical but also kind dead and sterile. There is no sense of it being a living, working place. The only people around are tourists and local people selling stuff to tourists.
The old town area has its own guesthouses and restaurants and set up so that visitors never have to leave it. To see a living city with traditional Uzbek courtyard homes, busy markets and imitated farms you have to leave the Old City and wander around the modern town, which also has its charms and is not blighted by too many Soviet-era buildings. The Zerafshan River flows through both Samarkand and Bukhara.
Some 80 nationalities make their homes in Bukhara. There are more Tajiks than Uzbeks. Both Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are close to Bukhara. The famous Bukhara Jews arrived from Persia in the 12th or 13th century. They didn’t speak Hebrew and prospered despite discrimination against them. The Jews now have largely gone. 1991 there were only 5,500. In 2000, only around 1,000 were left. Most left for Israel and the United States, believing they had more opportunities there than in Uzbekistan.
Early History of Bukhara
Although Bukhara is near Samarkand it's history is different. It was governed by a different set of rulers, the Samanids, who were at the peak of the power in the 10th century and was revived by the Uzbek Saybanids and emirs of Bukhara from the 16th to 19th centuries.
When the Arabs arrived in A.D. 709, Bukhara was already a bustling Silk Road trading center. They managed to convert most of the local population to Islam but were replaced after a few decades by the Samanids, Sunni Muslims loyal the caliph in Baghdad and admirers of Persian Shiite culture. Under the Samanids Bukhara became a great city of trade and leaning in the 9th and 10th centuries. Described as a "Pillar of Islam” and a place where light “radiates upward to illuminate heaven," it was home to 240 mosques and 113 Madrasahs (Islamic schools) and produced great scholars and intellectuals such as the mathematician Beruni, the poets Firdausi and Rudaki, and the physician Abu Ali ibn-Sina (Avicenna).
After two centuries under the Karakhan and Karakitay dynasties, Bukhara was attacked by the Mongols. When Genghis Khan arrived in Bukhara he reportedly entered mosque and emptied cases that contained the Koran, the Muslim's holiest book, and had them filled with grain for his horses. Upon leaving the mosque he declared, "I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me on you. "
Genghis Khan then ordered the rulers of the city to bring musicians, wine and fermented mare's milk and told the nobility to bring their riches. After gold and precious stones were laid at his feet, he set his troops loose. They took everything they could carry and burned what they couldn't. One witness who escaped wrote, "They came, they raped, they burnt, the slew, they plundered and they departed. "
In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]
Xuanzang was as philosopher, educator and translator as well as being a monk and traveler. Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “ Xuanzang was a leading Indophile of ancient China. The Chinese monk not only promoted Buddhist doctrines and the perception of India as a holy land through his writings, he also tried to foster diplomatic exchanges between India and China by lobbying his leading patrons, the Tang rulers Taizong (reigned 626–49) and Gaozong (reigned 649–683). In fact, the narrative of his pilgrimage to India, The Records of the Western Regions Visited During the Great Tang Dynasty, was meant for his royal patrons as much as it addressed the contemporary Chinese clergy. Thus, Xuanzang's work is significant both as an account of religious pilgrimage and as a historical record of foreign states and societies neighboring Tang China. In fact, in the work Xuanzang comes across both as a pious pilgrim and as a diplomat for Tang China." [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]
According to Silk Road Seattle: Xuanzang was a Chinese Buddhist monk and translator who traveled across the Tarim basin via the northern route, Turfan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over the Hindu Kush to India. He departed the Tang capitol (Chang'an) in 629 and returned via the southern route in 645. The remainder of his life was spent translating into Chinese the sutras which he had collected in India. At the request of the Tang Emperor Taizong (r.626-649) he composed a description of the lands through which he traveled. After his death, his travels and story became fantastic legends which were used in plays and novels."Source: Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad ]
Xuanzang in the Bukhara Area
Xuanzang reported: “K'iuh-shwang-ni-kia [Kashania]: The kingdom of K'iuh-shwang-ni-kia is 1400 or 1500 li in circuit; narrow from east to west, broad from north to south. It resembles Sa-mo-kien in point of customs and products. Going 200 li or so west from this country, we arrive at the Ho-han [Kuan] country. This country is about 1000 li in circuit; in point of customs and products it resembles Sa-mo-kien. Going west from here, we come, after 400 li or so, to the country of Pu-ho. | [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|]
“Pu-ho [Bokhâra, Bukhara in present-day southern Uzbekistan]: The Pu-ho country is 1600 or 1700 li in circuit; it is broad from east to west, and narrow from north to south. In point of climate and products it is like Sa-mo-kien, Going west from this 400 li or so, we come to the country Fa-ti. Fa-ti [Betik]: This country is 400 li or so in circuit. In point of customs and produce it resembles Sa-mo-kien. From this going south-west 500 li or so, we come to the country Holi-sih-mi-kia. Ho-li-sih-mi-kia [Khwârazm]: This country lies parallel with 115 the banks of the river Po-tsu (Oxus). From east to west it is 20 or 30 li, from north to south 500 li or so. In point of customs and produce it resembles the country of Fa-ti; the language, however, is a little different. From the country of Sa-mo-kien lie going south-west 300 li or so, we come to Ki-shwang-na. [p.36]” |:|
Later History of Bukhara
Bukhara was a minor city under Tamerlane. It was reborn under the Uzbek Saybanids and the cruel emirs of Bukhara beginning in the 16th century. During this era, Bukhara was the center of a empire that embraced much of Central Asia and was famous for its caravanserais, bazaars, Jews, carpets, fountains and 100 Madrasahs (with 10,000 students). Many of the building you see today in the Old Town of Bukhara are places where the emirs and nobles from this period lived, worshiped and were buried.
Until a hundred years ago the city was laced with canals and more than 200 stone pools, known as hauz, that brought in water for drinking, bathing and washing as well as a host of diseases—such as the Bukhara boil, which has been compared guinea worm disease—that lowered the average lifespan of the city to 32. The frogs, insects and other critters that lived in the waterways provided food for storks, regarded as auspicious symbols, that nested on roofs of the city.
The emirs that ruled Bukhara were notorious for their cruelty. One, Nasrullah "the Butcher" Khan, seized the throne in the 1826 after killing all of his brothers and 28 other relatives and was responsible for the death of Stoddart and Conolly in the Bug Pit. At that time Bukhara was regarded as a dangerous place. One British traveler wrote: “When the day is closed and the drum is beaten, none dare venture to walk in the streets of Bukhara the Holy. ” Infidels were not allowed to ride horses and Jews were discriminated against. See Bukhara Jews.
The Russians captured Bukhara in 1868 and made it a Russian protectorate and, in 1888, made it a stop on the Trans-Caspian railway. The Bukhara emirs continued to maintain their grasp on power. The last emir held on until 1920 when he was ousted by the Red Army after orchestrating the slaughter of a Bolshevik delegation by an anti-Russian mob. The ouster of the emir was marked by the freeing of children kept as slaves by the emir and women burning their veils in front if the Ark.
The Soviets worked hard to restore many of the old buildings. They filed all the canals and pools—except for one, Lab-i-Hauz, which not surprisingly is the most pleasant spot in the entire city. Not surprisingly disease rates plummeted. The Madrasah in Bukhara was the only working Madrasah in the Soviet Union. It graduated only 30 students a year.
Bukhara Legends and Folk Stories
Bukhara is the home of Minaret Kalon, which means "Great Tower". It is is also known as the "Tower of Death" as the Emir of Bukhara famously had prisoners thrown to their death from the top. . There are many legends about the tower. According to one: Long ago there was a Shah who had a wife. He was a very cruel man and decided to have her killed by having her pushed from the top of the tower. But she was a very clever woman, and begged of him that he grant her one last wish. He agreed and when the day of her death arrived, she put on all her gowns and petticoats. She climbed to the top of the tower while all the people waited on the square below and watched. When she jumped, it was like a miracle. She didn't die, her dresses parachuted her gently to the earth below. |~|
According to the legend Fountain of Aiyub: A long time ago in the Central Asian desert, where the city of Bukhara is situated, the people were dying of thirst. There was not even a single drop of water to be found. One day, the people were so thirsty, that they all sat down and prayed. They looked to the heavens and asked God for rain. It wasn't long before He sent a messenger to rescue them. The messenger's name was Aiyub. He had a stick and with it he struck the earth. At the place where he struck the earth, a hole suddenly appeared and a fountain gushed forth. It wasn't long before they discovered the great cures that could be achieved by drinking this water. The people were so happy that they built a beautiful shrine there. To this day, many people visit the well to partake of the refreshing clear, clean, healing waters, and to pray in thankfulness to God. |~|
Orientation and Accommodation in Bukhara
Located in the Kyzylkum desert 175 miles downstream from Samarkand on the Zeravshan, Uzbekistan’s third largest river, Bukhara is comprised of a self contained old town and modern city, mostly on the south side of the old town. Most of the guesthouses and restaurants in the old town are located around Labi-hauz, a pond-size pool enclosed by a square. Many of the main tourist sights in Bukhara are with a 15 minute walk from here. The old town is filled with mud-brick buildings and a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys that are easy to get lost in.
Just south of the old town is Bukhara’s main bazaar. This is geared mainly for local people and contains a large covered markets filled with dried fruit, vegetables, spices and nuts and stall and tables selling tools, clothes and household items. Beyond the main bazaar is a park and amusement park and the old cemetery.
The accommodation situation in Bukhara is pretty good. There is a choice top-end hotels, Soviet-era hotels, two and three star hotels, bed-and-breakfast and rooms in private homes. Several new hotels have been built. There are some relatively new guest houses set up in traditional Uzbek courtyard houses that have a charming atmosphere and offer good food. Many of the nicest guest houses are a short distance from Labi-hauz.
Entertainment and Restaurants in Bukhara
Bukhara doesn’t that many cultural and nightlife opportunities other than the after hours scene at hotel restaurants, local drama, folk music, folk dance and performances staged for tourists at some of the major tourist sights and hotels. For information try your hotel or guest house.
There are some restaurants and cafes around Labi-hauz. Some hotel restaurants become bars with music in the night. In the not so distant past, a five year-old child sometimes lept off a ladder onto shards of broken glass, while Uzbek musicians played, for money from people have gathered to watch. Maybe something like that still goes on today.
There are some restaurants and cafes around Labi-hauz. Some of the best hood is offered at the guest houses and home restaurants. In the summer people looking for tourists to eat at their home restaurant gather around Labi-hauz.
??The hotel restaurants are better than in some places. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, some new restaurants have opened up. These include Chinese, German, Italian, Middle Eastern, American and Russian food. Many hotel restaurants become bars with music in the night.
Shopping in Bukhara
The old town is filled with small shops, stalls and vendors selling things like silk scarves, decorated daggers and swords, embroidered skull caps, velvet robes with gold thread designs, hand-dyed and hand printed silks, wooly Turkmen hats, gold-embroidered slippers, hand-carved wooden cases, hand-made silver belts, felt rugs, scissors shaped like birds, hand-woven carpets, wall hangings and hand-painted miniatures, hand-carved wooden decorative objects.
The famous Bukhara carpets are mostly made in Turkmenistan and misnamed Bukhara. The Artisan Development Center was established in the Old Town of Bukhara. Funded by the U. N. and foreign governments, it features a workshop where artisans learn skills from masters and sell what they make. The spice shops in Bukhara are worth a visit.
In the main market in the modern city you can buy melons, saffron, spices, pomegranates, dried apricots, apples, honey, tools, household items, clothes, cheap Chinese goods, T-shirts, Russian vodka and Turkish snacks as well many of the souvenir items listed above at considerable cheaper prices. It has an entire section with people selling bug hunks of meat.
Transportation in Bukhara
Most places can be reached on foot. For those that are not they are best reached by using the plentiful and cheap taxis. Private cars often serve as taxis. You can one flag down by standing on the sidewalk and holding at your hand to let passing driver know you want a ride. Taxis can also be arranged through the hotels and guesthouses.
The public transportation system consists of buses and minibuses. They are best avoided for getting around Bukhara as they can difficult to sort out and taxis are so cheap anyway. If you want to visit a lot of places in a short, including those outside the Historic Centre of Bukhara, you may wish to arrange a vehicle with a driver. Guides are available. Guides, cars and drivers can be arranged through hotels, guest houses and trael agencies scattered around town.
The main train station is about 15 kilometers southeast from the city center in a place called Kagan. Trains can be caught to Tashkent, Samarkand, Termiz and Dushanbe. The airport is about four kilometers east of the city center. The long distance bus station is about five kilometers north of the city center. Bukhara is about two 2-3 hours by car from Samarkand and about six hours from Tashkent. The flight to Tashkent takes about an hour.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Uzbekistan Tourism website (National Uzbekistan Tourist Information Center, uzbekistan.travel/en), Uzbekistan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020