Bukhara is the third stop on my journey to Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
Whilst Khiva is a compact fairy-tale town enclosed in medieval walls, Bukhara is scattered, both geographically and thematically, as well as bigger: There is the marketplace, learning and spiritual hub, royal grounds, and necropolis. If one is not aware of its various facets, it is easy to give some of them a slip.
And hey, Bukhara does not come into our lives every day. So here are my top 15 things to do in Bukhara, a World Heritage Site, and why I chose to put them in this list. If you have any that you feel merit a place, please do share. 🙂
1. Get up close and personal with Nasreddin Hodja, the Islamic world and Bukhara’s most loved trickster
Nasreddin Hodja [hodja means teacher/ scholar] was a 13th Century Turkish Sufi remembered for the hundreds of stories and anecdotes about his wit and comic trickery. The stories, at times funny, often wise, usually have a moral. The Uzbek believe he was born and lived in Bukhara. A bronze statue of him stands in the Lyabi-Hauz square. Let me share with you one of his stories:
Once Nasreddin was invited to deliver a sermon. When he got on the pulpit, he asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “no,” so he announced, “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about!” and left.
The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time, when he asked the same question, the people replied “yes.” So Nasreddin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time!” and left.
Now the people were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and once again invited the Mulla to speak the following week. Once again he asked the same question: “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now the people were prepared and so half of them answered “yes” while the other half replied “no”. Nasreddin said, “Let the half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t,” and left.
For more of his tongue-in-cheek tales, check out this link
2. Explore Bukhara’s most ancient site: Ark Citadel, the city’s former administrative centre
Bukhara’s most ancient site is the Ark Citadel, its rulers’ stronghold, said to have been first built by Siyavush in the 5th Century AD. Siyavush, the legendary Central Asian hero, defamed by his infatuated step-mother, and first greeted and then murdered by King Afrasiab, is also credited with the founding of the city. Reconstructed multiple times over the centuries, the Ark in the Middle Ages comprised an entire city. The most interesting part of the Ark is its gigantic walls, 16-20 meters high enclosing an area of nearly 4 hectares in the shape of the Big Dipper constellation. The other is the associated legend: Siyavush was tricked by Afrasiab to build a palace that would fit under the skin of a bull as a condition to marry his daughter. Siyavush was smarter. He cut the skin into thin strips, joined the ends, and built a palace, the Ark, within this boundary. 🙂
3. En route to the Ark Citadel, stop at the royal mosque—Bolo Hauz Complex—and go “wow”
Just across the Ark Citadel and the adjoining Registan Square is Bukhara’s imperial mosque (1712) used for daily worship by the Emir; a lovely concoction of soaring wooden pillars capped with stalactite capitals and vibrant painted ceilings rich in floral and geometric forms. The pillars and ceiling were added in the 20th Century. Bolo Hauz is both imposing and beautiful enough to make one gasp in awe, and on a clear, calm day, the waters of the reservoir (hauz) reflect a mirror image of the mosque and minaret.
4. Marvel at the perfect geometrical symmetry of the 9th Century Samanids Mausoleum built solely of burnt bricks
Over a thousand years old, the Samanids Mausoleum’s brick-cube edifice topped with a hemispherical dome demands appreciation for its faultless symmetry and latticed façade. But there are finer nuances to be read in it too; the forms mirror the symbolism of two faiths, Zoroastrianism and Sufism—the cube represents the earth, the dome is a manifestation of the sky, and together they mirror the universe in its entirety. The mausoleum was built by Ismail Samanid, the founder of the Samanids dynasty, for his father, and later became a family burial vault; Ismail (d. 907 AD) and his grandson Nasr II ibn Ahmad (d. 943 AD) are both buried here.
5. Break into a tête-à-tête with the salwar kameez clad, bindi adorned gypsies at Chashmai Ayub Mausoleum and Magoki Attari Mosque
A breakdown of Uzbekistan’s population reads: 81.1% Uzbek, 5.4% Russian, 4.0% Tajik, and 3.0% Kazakh. Somewhere in the 2.5% “others” are its gypsies, the Lyulis, referred to as Multanis [because some of them emigrated from Multan in 1380 AD] or Ghurbat [lonely]. Multan on a personal note is my ancestral home-town and is in modern-day Pakistan. You will find the Lyulis everywhere, in isolated impoverished pockets dressed in salwar kameez and bindis, radiant smiles gleaming across their dark faces.
I met my gypsy friends at the 14th Century Chashmai Ayub Mausoleum built by Amir Temur, where according to legend, Ayub [Saint Job] brought forth a spring of water by the blow of his staff, and the Magoki Attari Mosque. The latter’s 12th Century decorative brick façade was buried under 4.5 meters of soil till 1930, with the public using a later 16th Century portal instead over the centuries. Both monuments are much like the gypsies, wouldn’t you say? Steeped in legend, buried under time, and when they resurface, taking us by surprise.
6. Have a late afternoon stroll around the architectural wonders of Poi Kalyan Complex, “Pediment of the Great”
The grand ensemble of architectural monuments comprising Poi Kalyan Complex is Bukhara’s most historically significant site. Translated “Pediment of the Great”, the Mir Arab Madrasah, Kalyan Mosque, and Kalyan Minaret vie yet complement each other in grandeur and grace. A functioning Islamic centre for worship and learning for the past 500 years, the Mir Arab Madrasah dates back to the 16th Century, whilst the 15th Century Friday Kalyan Mosque can seat 10,000 worshippers.
Kalyan Minaret is the city’s symbol. Nine meters wide at its base, 46.5 meters high, and decorated with 12 unique bands, the minaret is inscribed by its year of construction (1127), name of the contributor [governor of Bukhara, Arslankhan] and architect [Usto Bako]. It is and was impressive enough for Genghis Khan to claim, “I have never bowed before anyone, but this construction is magnificent enough to deserve a bow.”
7. See the sights of Lyabi-Hauz Complex, a 17th Century trading square in the heart of Bukhara
A second architectural ensemble to take one back in time is the Lyabi-Hauz Complex in the heart of Bukhara. In keeping with its role as a trading square, it bustles with shops, fountains, cafes, music, and laughter, unchanged in essence since 1620 AD. Three mammoth edifices flank the central pool. To the north is Kukeldash Madrasah, one of Bukhara’s biggest madrasahs with 160 rooms; Khanaka Nadir Divan-Begi to the west; and Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah to the east. There is an interesting story to Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah. Originally meant to be a caravanserai, it was by mistake introduced as a madrasah in its opening ceremony. To validate the misnomer, dorms, portals and towers were soon after added. However, a classroom was not, and still is absent!
8. You thought the Char Minar was synonymous with Hyderabad; Meet Bukhara’s version
Yes, there is a Char Minar aka Chor Minor in Bukhara too, and it is uncannily similar to the Hyderabad version in India, the latter considered as its prototype. Built in 1807 by the wealthy Turkish Caliph Niyazkul near the city gates to attract suitors for his four daughters, the madrasah has four towers topped with blue domes. The minarets are each decorated with a cross, Christian fish, and Buddhist praying wheel, which together with Islam depict the four religious streams.
9. Pay homage to the 14th Century Sufi saint Bakhouddin Nakshbandi, and descendants of the prophet Muhammad at Chor-Bakr necropolis
Bakhouddin Nakshbandi Complex is Bukhara’s most sacred place. Serene, quiet, wrapped in whispered prayers—the colonnaded terrace surrounds the grave of the founder of Nakshbandi Sufism and spiritual mentor of Amir Temur, Sheikh Nakshbandi (1318-1389). The sect, a Sunni spiritual order is built on the premise “the path to god is reciprocal communication and not asceticism.” Not far from the complex is the Chor-Bakr necropolis, another holy and revered place for pilgrims, and with zilch tourists. Chor means “four” and Bakr is the name of the four wise and holy descendants of the Prophet Muhammad buried here.
10. Get nostalgic over a time gone by at the Ulugh Beg Madrasah
An air of melancholy pervades the Ulugh Beg Madrasah in Bukhara’s third architectural ensemble. The tiles have fallen off their niches, the paint long erased with time. The vast courtyard inside stands deserted. It was not always such. Ulugh Beg’s Madrasah was in its time one of the leading centres of learning. Built in 1417 in commemoration of Ulugh Beg’s scientific genius, Beg was Amir Temur’s grandson (b. 1394). Described by medieval authors as “in geometry he was similar to Euclid, in astronomy to Ptolemy,” he was murdered in 1449, accused of heresy by conservative factions. Just across the road, Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah (1652), in contrast, shines in restored glory, with luxurious ornamental stalactites on the Iwan and intricate murals.
11. Blink at some kitsch in the last emir’s palace “Stars Meet the Moon”
And blink some more! The Sitorai Mohi-Hosa Palace or “Stars Meet the Moon” palace was the countryside residence of the last governing emir of the Emirate of Bukhara (1785-1920), Sai’d Alimkhan, and was constructed in the east-European style by Russian architects. It is not everyone’s kind of place, except it illustrates rather well the role the period signified—the onslaught of Russian political and cultural influence in the country, paving the way for firstly, the transition into the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic on 2 September 1920, and thereafter the Uzbek SSR on 27 October 1924 which lasted till independence from the Soviet Union on 31 August 1991.
12. Visit the Jewish Synagogue with its Torah claimed to date back to the Babylonian Exile (6th Century BC)
In a little lane off the Lyabi-Hauz Complex is the Bukharian Jews Synagogue, a place of worship used by Bukharian Jews over the centuries. Bukharian Jews, also called the Binai Israel, are descendants of the Israelites who never returned after the Babylonian captivity (6th Century BC). Their name is derived from their new home, the Emirate of Bukhara (1785 to 1920), which once had a substantial Jewish community. Since the disbanding of the Soviet Union, most of them left Bukhara and immigrated to Israel or to the United States. In the 1980s, when Bukhara was still under Russian rule there were close to 40,000 Bukharian Jewish families—today, 25-30 families are all that remain. Over 10,000 graves lie in the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the town.
If you would like to know more about the Bukharian Jews, there’s a great article by the National Geographic here
13. Be enchanted with traditional folk dances by Russian artists to 1950s Indian Bollywood tunes under the stars at the Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah
Every evening the Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah courtyard morphs into a stage for a 90-minute show comprising a regional folk dance and fashion show to a purely touristy audience. The high point? The light-footed Russian dancers in exotic outfits swirling to Uzbek tunes which every now and then give way to a Raj Kapoor melody with much ease, and this is not to score points with any Indian audience. The dinner is mediocre and overpriced. Instead, just watch the show, sip on the complimentary green tea and nibble on the candies.
14. Stay in a 19th Century home now K.Komil Bukhara Boutique Hotel
I walked into K.Komil BuKhara Boutique Hotel purely by chance whilst wandering down a medieval lane in the old quarters. The large carved wooden doors, slightly ajar, opened into a 19th Century home, frozen in time. It all seemed pretty unreal, till I realized it was now a hotel—unrestored, unaltered from its original form, replete with 24-hour room and travel services, and gorgeous, paint peeled décor. No, I did not stay here. I was at the Rustam and Zukhra’s Guest House bang in the middle of the Lyabi-Hauz Complex. If I ever return to Bukhara, this is where I would like to stay for sure, for ambiance sake.
15. Gorge on dates and white chocolate, and get yourself an Uzbek souvenir from one of Bukhara’s Tokis
In medieval times Bukhara was a major trading post and part of the Great Silk Road, a tradition which still continues in its bazaars and Tokis or crossroads covered with domed buildings. The Tokis are an interesting architectural form named after the products sold under its roofs since inception—hence, we have Toki Zargaron, the jewellers dome, Toki Sarrafon, the money-changers dome and Toki Telpak Furushon, the dome to go to for headgear of all types.
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Note: Bukhara was part of an independent road trip I undertook from Nukus to Tashkent in Uzbekistan.