Visit to Bukhara

Kalyan Minaret “The Tower of Death”

There are three ancient Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. I finally got to the middle of the three, Bukhara last weekend. I led a retreat of CEESA directors to both Samarkand and Bukhara. I was awed by the vast history and architecture of Bukhara. The city was a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion for over 2,500 years. Today it is a medium-sized city of 280,000 citizens with a thriving tourist industry. Many of the mosques, madrassas, markets, and mausoleums are preserved and we saw numerous tour groups learning about the history of the city.

Bukhara’s “heyday” was between 850 and 1500 when it was an important center of Persian (Samanoid) culture. The majority of residents today still speak Tajik, a Persian (Iranian) language. Our tour guide said most people she knows are bilingual, Tajik and Uzbek, with the study of English and Russian quite popular in schools. The Uzbeks eventually took over the city and it was a city-state, ruled by the Emirs of Bukhara all the way up until the arrival of Russian armies. The city fell under Red Army control in 1920 and was incorporated into the Uzbek SSR. The long history means much has taken place in Bukhara. I was reading Ghengis Khan sacked the city in 1220.

We stayed at the new Mercure Hotel, about a kilometer from the old city. It was an elegant and comfortable choice and the group enjoyed the rooftop bar and spa. The bus took us to the major sites, including the following:

Ismail Samani mausoleum: This is the final resting place of the founder of the Saminoid (Persian) dynasty and it was built around 900 AD. The intricate brickwork has a Zoroastrian motif. It was saved from Mongol destruction by being buried in mud due to a flood when Ghengis Khan destroyed much of the city. Nadia loved the textures and shapes. The Soviets built parks on the site of cemeteries, hence today, there is a Ferris wheel, games, and rides surrounding the mausoleum.

Ark Fortress of Bukhara: The fort was built around 400 AD and city leaders and citizens lived inside it for thousands of years. It is restored today and we toured the museums and a mosque inside. A cool fact is that it was designed after the constellation Ursa Major (The Big Dipper). Nadia bought some artwork and we took a group photo on a recreated throne of the Emir.

Kalyan Minaret: This was my favorite! The massive tower is known as the “Tower of Death” because city officials executed criminals by tossing them from the top. When we visited, technicians were setting up for a classical music concert. I am always amazed that it just takes a lot of time to change the reputation from a site of gruesome atrocities to a UNESCO heritage site. The gorgeous blue domes, pillars and religious buildings surrounding the tower are truly awesome from an architectural perspective.

Lab-i Hauz complex: Bukhara was founded near the Zeravshan River, a tributary of the Amu Darya, and is surrounded by desert. Water was crucial for survival and the city once has many artificial ponds or pools. The Lab-i-Hauz complex is a preserved area of madrassas, mosques, and markets surrounding one of the last remaining pools. The Russians filled most of the pools because the mosquitos that bred on the water carried infectious diseases. I read in the Lonely Planet Guidebook that the city was known for illnesses and the life expectancy for Bukharans was 32. I found it to be quite pleasant with cafes lining the pool. Walking through the narrow alleyways and coming upon ancient and beautiful buildings was a lovely way to spend a sunny afternoon.

You definitely need a couple of days to really see the entire city and I am sure I’ll be back with my family sometime before I leave Uzbekistan. I also have the third Silk Road City, Khiva on my bucket list.

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