Spectres & Spectacles in Holy Bukhara

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Backpacking in Central Asia

The ghosts of history sometimes speak to us in spectacles and marvels, sometimes stay frustratingly silent, and the art of travel often lies more in the imagination than the destination itself.

“Bukhara! For centuries it had glimmered remote in the Western consciousness: the most secretive and fanatical of the great caravan-cities, shored up in its desert fastness against time and change. To either side of it the Silk Road had withered away, so that by the 19th century the town had folded its battlements around its people in self-immolated barbarism, and receded into fable.”
Colin Thubron, The Lost Heart of Asia.

I earmarked the pages of my guidebook’s history section, beaming with expectation, as the intercity bus pulled into dusty Bukhara just past noon.

This holy city was the top destination on my itinerary, a place where I hoped to reconnect with the fascinating past of the Silk Road at one of its most popular outposts. 

Dazed from the seven-hour ride, I stumbled off the bus, hoisted my pack, and headed into town. I didn’t have far to walk. Within a few blocks of the impromptu bus stop, I wandered into the historic Lyabi-Hauz district, a popular tourist haunt.

After asking around a bit, a hotel tout led me to a suitable option. It wasn’t one of the more “famous” guesthouses described by the my revered Lonely Planet, but attractive and comfortable nonetheless. The large lobby/breakfast room, decorated with ornate wooden carvings and colorful Uzbek tapestries, ended in a corner where a large curved staircase led me up to a plain, spartan room, a jarring contrast from the charming lobby.

Splayed out on the bed with the air conditioner on full blast, I recharged my tired body for a few minutes, then took a quick shower, changed clothes, and went out to explore the city. As usual it was the worst part of the day for sightseeing, the scorching mid-afternoon sun at its highest point in the vast desert sky.

I set a modest goal to reach the famous Po-i-Kalyan complex, stopping to see the breathtaking and baffling array of mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools), and bazaars along the way.


First stop was the Nadir Devan-Beg Complex in Lyabi-Hauz.

Nadir Divan-Begi Madrassa in Bukhara.

Nadir Divan-Begi Madrassa in Bukhara.

One of the more curious sites in Bukhara, the front gate of the complex depicts whimsical images of mythical birds and small ivory deer, soaring toward a round-faced sun, surrounded by pixelated Arabic calligraphy. Originally built in 1619 AD as a type of hostel for traveling Sufi mystics and a caravanserai for traders, the local ruler later declared the building “for the glory of God” and added a madrassa in 1622 AD. In my head I watched a dozen disheveled Sufis spinning and reciting around the immaculately decorated structure.

Moving along, I passed by the crumbling yet evocative Magok-i-Attari Mosque

Its dusty clay brick façade was bedecked in geometric wood carvings. The site is one of Bukhara’s oldest, converted to a mosque only relatively recently—around 1549 AD. Before that the site housed a market and pagan moon temple, then a Buddhist monastery, and later a Zoroastrian temple. Gazing at it today, it was hard to imagine that such an array of faiths had graced this parcel of land. The spectres of meditating Buddhist monks, fire-worshiping Zoroastrian priests, and even the old moon-gazing pagans of yore had long been banished by the singular, all-encompassing faith of the Prophet. 

Next I strolled up the road to the Taqi-Sarrafon Market

Taqi-Sarrafon Bazaar in Bukhara.

Taqi-Sarrafon Bazaar in Bukhara.

This domed bazaar has been active since medieval times, and the goods sold there, once considered practical, everyday items, were now simply souvenirs. I avoided the few hawkers resting in the shade, selling embroidered hats, wall hangings, and wooden carvings—it was still too early in my trip to begin acquiring such trinkets. Rounding a corner a placard immediately caught my eye—”Sarrafon Hammam.” As in ancient Rome or even modern Japan, public baths were a popular feature of classic Islamic civilization. I’d already planned a hammam experience for my Istanbul stop, but after the long bus ride from Tashkent, the thought of a relaxing soak and steam was hopelessly enticing. I imagined myself, naked and sweating among wise old mullahs deep in contemplation, weary traders looking for relief. I peered left and right of the placard, searching for a door, an opening, an attendant of some kind, finding nothing. Had public bathing gone out of style? Reaching the conclusion that the hammam was now closed to the public, I shuffled on, disappointed and already caked in sweaty grime despite my shower.

After a few wrong turns, I came upon Taqi-Zargaron Market

Taqi-Zargaron Mosque in Bukhara.

Taqi-Zargaron Mosque in Bukhara.

This was one of Bukhara’s best preserved domed bazaars, where traders have sold jewelry, candles, and scented soaps for centuries. The structure looked like a strange conglomeration of beige brick bubbles, centered around one larger bubble. I paused, trying to imagine what the place had looked like in the Silk Road days. Perhaps a few camels or horses tied up outside, perhaps with more hawkers decked in flowing robes. Otherwise, the bazaar almost certainly had looked much the same then as it did now.

Further down the road I found the stunning madrassas of Abdulaziz Khan and Ulughbek.

Abdullaziz Khan Madrassa in Bukhara.

Abdullaziz Khan Madrassa in Bukhara.

The towering gates of Abuldaziz Khan Madrassa were full encrusted in radiant blue and gold and green and crimson. A startling contrast with the drab beige and turquoise that dominated the landscape. Unlike the other buildings, which seemed to have acquiesced to the inevitable passage of time and its consequences, this madrassa with its stark colors stood defiant. I wondered if the colors had been so bright hundreds of years ago when it was built. Perhaps the government had made some embellishments in the restoration? In any event, the brilliant hues of the facade outshone any ghosts of past students or mullahs my imagination might have conjured.

Ulughbek Madrassa in Bukhara.

Ulughbek Madrassa in Bukhara.

The facing Ulughbek Madrassa, Central Asia’s oldest, was more austere. Blue and green tiles covered most, but not all, of the many surfaces. The inner courtyard was ringed by dozens of small alcoves harboring tiny wooden doors. Here the muted decor set the stage for an array of ancient figures. I imagined these classrooms full, as they where hundreds of years ago, of students memorizing the Quran, poring over the Hadiths, rocking and reciting on small carpets in front of small wooden book stands. Supposedly one of these madrassas was still functional, though there were no students in sight.

Continuing down the same road I eventually reached my goal: Po-i-Kalyan, meaning “Foot of the Great” in Persian.

Pa-i-Kalyan Complex in Bukhara.

Pa-i-Kalyan Complex in Bukhara.

The complex centered around the spectacular Kalyan Minaret, once the tallest building in Central Asia, surrounded by yet more astonishingly beautiful mosaicked portals in the artfully brick-laid plaza of Kalyan Mosque. Squatting in a shaded corner, my eyes drank up the austere holiness in every beige brick and lapis lazuli tile. Legend has it when the Mongol horde invaded Bukhara in 1218 AD, Genghis Khan himself stood before the Kalyan Minaret in astonishment. So puzzled and impressed by the landmark, he decided to spare it from destruction when the holy city fell. Centuries ago Muslim worshipers and curious sightseeing traders from all over the world would have crowded the complex. Today, only a small handful of tourists scurried around the otherwise empty plaza. I recalled the story of the Tower of Babel. In the 13th century, this minaret was enough to be considered “great” (kalyan), today it was miniature compared to modern marvels like the Eiffel Tower or the Burj Khalifa. How much higher could we build until we attracted the wrath of whichever god our temples and towers happened to celebrate at that point in time?

Each spectacular site I visited had conjured a unique yet universally colorful vision in my mind of Bukhara’s long and varied past.

With the sun now low on the horizon, I decided to head back to my guesthouse for dinner, carefully retracing my steps down Bukhara’s labyrinthine roads, troubled.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had arrived several centuries too late.

Though undeniably beautiful, these relics somehow fell short of the vibrant, colorful, even chaotic scene that unfolded in my own imagination as I read the legends and lore about them in my guidebook and on the English-Russian-Uzbek trilingual placards. Spectacular yet sterile, like architectural mummies put on display, fighting desperately for attention in a world where money means relevance and power.

So far from its heyday, I could only admire Bukhara’s spectacles impassively, like pages in a haunted 3D picture book, unable to join the scene myself.

Of course the Silk Road was no longer what it used to be. Globalization, communism, and now authoritarianism had sealed the fate of this once bustling trading route, and despite the Uzbek government’s best intentions and investments to attract tourism, the Zeitgeist had come and gone, unlikely to return anytime soon. Still, life went on in Bukhara, must as it had all those centuries ago.

So where was the everyday allure? 

Where was the irresistible zest for life? Where was the music, the magic, the flavor? Where was the humanity that inspired these beautiful buildings?

Little did I know, the next day that iridescent humanity would discover me, not I it, to a confusing and chaotic result.

That night I drifted off to sleep in a sterile, air-conditioned guesthouse room, on a modern springboard mattress, cell phone alarm clock ready to wake me from dreams of Buddhist temples, Mongol hordes, bustling mosques, and camel caravans.

July 23, 2008.

What historical places set your own imagination spinning? Share your stories in the comments below!


Series Navigation<< A Lonely Fool and a Mirage in TashkentBackpacker Befriends Bukhara, Part 1 >>

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