Although Bukhara was founded back in the 4th or 5th century BCE, its heyday came in the Middle Ages when it blossomed into an important Silk Road trading post. Soon the town was a thriving centre for arts and literature, a rich cultural melting pot. Famous for its unrivalled library, Bukhara attracted budding scholar as well as talented artisans from far and wide. The skill of miniature painting developed here, for instance, and many other traditional crafts handed down through the generations are still practised locally today.
Today Bukhara is an important cultural centre and popular tourist destination thanks to its beautifully restored monuments and traditional crafts such as gold embroidery and metalworking.
Perhaps the most striking monument is the elegant Kalyan minaret, an amazing architectural feat of baked clay bricks rising 48m into the sky and so impressive that when Genghis Khan razed Bukhara to the ground in 1220, he spared the tower.
Commissioned by Arslan Khan in 1127, legend has it that the architect (enigmatically know as Bako) first laid foundations of precious alabaster mixed with camel’s milk and then disappeared, only returning two years later when the foundations were firmly set.
The brickwork is magnificent. Bands of geometric patterns tower into the heavens as the turquoise tiling catches the light making this a spectacular centrepiece for the Kalyan Mosque built next it. The minaret was intended as a religious structure but has also served as a watchtower and a landmark for merchants travelling the Silk Road. Its nickname – the Tower of Death – refers to the practice of executing criminals by hurling them from the top floor.
The minaret together with the spiral staircase inside was fully renovated in 1997 for the city’s 2500th anniversary and is now a truly breath-taking landmark.
Ark of Bukhara
The Ark of Bukhara is an imposing fortress, an ancient symbol of power, and residence of many royal courts throughout the centuries. Archaeologists uncovered remains of a citadel on this site dating back to 4th century BCE, and the present fortress now stands on an artificial hill, 20m high, created over the centuries as buildings rose and fell on this very spot.
Occupied from 5th century right up until 1920, the Ark was a town within a town, home to emirs, top viziers, military leaders and a host of servants. Behind its walls were palaces and prisons, mosques and stables. In the Middles Ages, great scholars such as Avicenna, Farabi and even Omar Khayyam worked here, studying in the famous library.
Today the Ark is open to the public, and as we walk by the mighty buttresses to the imposing 18th century portal, even though many of the inner buildings are now in ruins, the magnitude of this once great fortress never ceases to impress.
The Samanid Mausoleum is a deceptively small monument set in a park outside the town on the site of an ancient graveyard where even khans were buried.
But don’t be fooled by its size. This neat cuboid, beautifully symmetrical and topped with a low dome, was built as the final resting place for Ismail Samani, founder of the Samanid dynasty, and is the sole surviving Samanid monument. Like the Kalyan Minaret, it escaped destruction at the hands of Genghis Khan because, built back in 892-943 CE, it had already fallen prey to the ravages of time and was covered in mud from floods.
Rediscovered in 1934, the Mausoleum has been meticulously restored, although, amazingly, its ancient terracotta walls are so thick that they have never needed repair.
The Samanid Mausoleum is a stunning example of Central Asian architecture, an exquisite fusion of Zoroastrian and Islamic work. Reminiscent of a Zoroastrian fire temple with Sogdian buttresses and a 4-arch design, the structure boasts a façade with incredibly intricate brickwork that catches the light ingeniously, making it look different depending on the time of day. The decorative circular designs are typical Zoroastrian motifs while the geometric designs are more typically Islamic.
The amazing precision of the brickwork creates a beautifully pleasing and tranquil atmosphere, perfect for the resting place of great rulers.
Shaded by century-old trees, Lyab-i Hauz has an air of grandeur and tranquility. It’s an area surrounding one of Bukhara’s oldest ponds (hauz) or reservoirs, and today forms the splendid centrepiece of a magnificent ensemble that has changed little since it was built in the 1600’s.
Lyab-i Hauz was commissioned by the powerful vizier Nadir Divan Beghi, and two of the buildings here still bear his name. The oldest structure is the Kukeldash Madrasah, Bukhara’s largest, founded in 1568. Its stunning indigo and gold ceiling tiles have to be seen to be believed.
The pond itself is flanked to West and East by the Nadir Divan Beghi Khanaka (1620) and the Nadir Divan Beghi Madrasah (1622) respectively. The madrasah has an airy, secluded courtyard protected by imposing portals with fantastic tilework, while the khanaka, originally a lodge for itinerant Sufis, became a prominent religious and cultural centre.
Sitora-I Mokhi Khosa
No tour of Bukhara would be complete without a visit to this fascinating museum, briefly home to the last Emir of Bukhara.
Originally built by Nasrullah Khan, it was rebuilt by his grandson in the mid-19th century but only completed in 1917 by his son, the last Emir of Bukhara.
Today the summer palace is rather eccentric, a unique conglomerate of European and Oriental style. Take the tilework on the imposing entrance portal, for instance, an almost gaudy combination of traditional mosaic and Russian-influenced geometric designs. Both Oriental and Russian artisans were hired to work on the palace, and it seems they vied with each other in a bid to showcase their skills. The result? A cacophony of colour and sumptuous splendour. In the White Hall, for example, not one centimetre is left plain. The furnishings are eclectic, too – a Polish chandelier, English door handles, and German fireplace tiles to name but a few, yet the gorgeous stucco ornaments are unmistakably Bukharan ganch.
The Sitora-I Mokhi Khosa summer palace is now a museum open to the public. As well as elegant rose gardens and courtyards, visitors can also view an impressive collection of lavish national costumes.