The world is a caravanserai, with one entry and one exit… (Omar Khayyam)

(*Note. Most of my photos will be in a separate post, later today or sometime. They’re worth waiting for…)

Blogging while on the road is always being a ‘day late and a [post] short. It is Monday the 16th and today’s post or two will be from Saturday and Sunday in Bukhara. And, to prove me even more negligent, what you read will be a 2003 essay about the city written by someone else…fortunately for you the someone else is an excellent writer and wrote exactly the piece I would have wanted to …. she is Sheila O’Malley, a film critic and blogger (The Sheila Variations)  https://www.sheilaomalley.com/


First though a word or two from tired me before Sheila’s smart words and my nice photos. I am so pleased that we started in Uzbekistan, a land at the very heart of religious and mercantile history with wildly and widely ranging tales of gods, greed, and great (in ways both gruesome and grand) men. Uzbekistan has a new president after 25 years of Islam Karimov and is moving full speed ahead into promoting tourism; as a consequence we have had three bright and knowledgeable young guides to get us up to travel-speed in the whys and wherefores of this most pleasant of countries.

But now I’m off to wash my socks, pay my rent from afar, and take a tiny nap before dinner and a healthy walk.

Please note: the photos mentioned in O’Malley’s article are not included. You will have mine to look at later although they’re not labeled as to buildings. Sorry. You can google them if you’re curious however. 


Bukhara was a medieval city-state, a very important commercial center. By the time Genghis Khan sacked the joint in 1220, Bukhara had already been around for over a thousand years. Genghis Khan laid waste to Bukhara, sparing nothing. Only minaret remained, and it still stands today. That minaret, called the Kalan minaret, was a marvel when it was constructed and it is still a marvel today. It is 148 feet high, and once was a beacon to the Silk Road caravans, letting them know that Bukhara was near.

There are bazaars in Bukhara which have been operating, nonstop, for a thousand years. There are madrassahs in Bukhara, built in the 1500s, which still have students today.

Bukhara was once seen as one of the centers of the world. There was a Sufi religious center here, built in the 1300s … a major mecca for Sufi scholars and pilgrims. Everyone passed through Bukhara, and the Silk Road helped establish Bukhara’s position as one of the premier city-states in the known world.

I don’t know much about the Samanids, but they were a dynasty in the 10th century, and under their reign, Bukhara blossomed. They built a great library here that had 45,000 manuscripts in it. The Samanids were eventually destroyed by the Mongols, everything destroyed, nothing survived of that brief great era.

An interesting fact: The Samanids had built a wall around their oasis. But during the time of prosperity, the Samanids let down their guard … they relaxed … they let the wall fall to bits, they did not maintain their wall … so when the Turkic invaders came along in 999 A.D., they easily captured the town.

First off, a quote, from Colin Thubron’s great book The Lost Heart of Asia:

Across this region, for some two thousand years, the Silk Road has nourished caravan-towns — Samarqand, Bukhara, Margilan — whose populace had spoken an Iranian tongue. The Uzbeks were latecomers, migrating south at the end of the 15th century. They took their name from a khan of the Golden Horde, for their origins were Turkic, but already their blood was mixed with Iranians’, and they added only the last layer to a palimpsest of peoples identifying themselves less by nation than by clan. On my map Uzbekistan made a multi-colored confusion. It was shaped like a dog barking at China. A country of 20 million — more than 70% of them Uzbeks — it butted against the Tienshan and the Pamir mountains in green-tinted lowlands and a sudden spaghetti of roads. But it remained an enigma: a land whose Communist rulers had persisted in power under another name, offering only lipservice to Islam, and loosening the economy without promise of democracy.

Thubron rhapsodizes about what the word “Bukhara” has always meant to him:

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.

So the Mongols sacked the joint in 1220, and trashed the entire town. But then along came Tamerlane the Terrible, and in the 16th century the mosques and madrassahs were rebuilt. They still stand today, but nothing older than that survives.

Once the sea route to India and to China was discovered, Central Asia was done. In a matter of 100 years, the place closed shut like a trap, forgotten by the rest of the world. Bukhara (and Samarqand, and others) fell into wretched decay. Nobody passed through. For hundreds of years, Uzbeks never saw someone from the West. The cultural exchange stopped. Technological advances stopped passing through the area. They were forgotten by history.

In 2001, when Uzbekistan let us operate from their bases (Russian-built), during our attacks on Afghanistan, that was the first time that Western soldiers had operated in this area since Alexander the Great passed through in 329 B.C. Incredible, no?

Colin Thubron, who traveled through the region during the first summer and spring of independence from Moscow, describes Bukhara’s own journey (because, like I said, Uzbekistan is not a real country yet. At least not like we would define. People in Uzbekistan, for millennia, have identified themselves as citizens of Bukhara, Samarqand, etc. Now, they are starting to identify themselves ethnically … “We are Uzbeks. Everything good comes from Uzbek culture!” So far, they do not have an identity as a coherent nation yet.) So Bukhara’s own story definitely can stand in for the whole, to some degree.

It was the failure of water, as well as conservative ferocity, which hurried on the isolation of Bukhara. The Zerafshan river, flowing 500 miles out of the Pamirs, expends its last breath on the oasis, and is withering away. To north and west the sands have buried a multitude of towns and villages which the exhausted irrigation could not save.

Even in the 19th century, the accounts of travellers were filled with ambiguity. To Moslems Bukhara was “the Noble, the Sublime”. It was wrapped round by eight miles of walls and fortified gates, and its mosques and medresehs were beyond counting. The Bukhariots, it was said, were the most polished and civilized inhabitants of Central Asia, and their manners and dress became a yardstick of oriental fashion …

Even in decline, the bazaars were rumoured magnificent, and teemed with Hindus, Persians, Jews, and Tartars.

Yet this splendour barely concealed an inner wretchedness. Men who walked abroad like kings returned at night to hovels. The city gates and walls were a gimcrack theatre-set, and the famed medresehs in decay … Ordinary people seemed inured to cruelty and subterfuge. Scarcely a Westerner dared enter before the 1870s.

The decline had begun in earnest during the end of the 18th century. And in the 19th century, there were two vicious and degenerate emirs who were brutal, and terrifying. Their behavior alienated them from their own people. The discontent and anger of the citizens of Bukhara made it relatively easy for the Russians to sweep in in the mid-1800s, and reduce Bukhara to a client state. This was part of the famous “Great Game”, played by Russia and England in the middle of Central Asia.

Here’s a passage about the czarist triumph:

In all their Central Asian wars, between 1847-73, the Russians claimed to have lost only 400 dead, while the Moslem casualties mounted to tens of thousands.

The ensuing years brought the ambiguous peace of subservience. The czarist Russians, like the Bolsheviks after them, were contemptuous of the world which they had conquered. They stilled the Turcoman raids and abolished slavery, at least in name, but they entertained few visions of betterment for their subjects. As for the Moslems, who could stoically endure their own despots, the tyranny of the Great White Czar insulted them by its alien unbelief. “Better your own land’s weeds,” they murmured, “than other men’s wheat.”

Yet there would come a time when they would look back on the czarist indifference as a golden age.

In 1918, Mahomet Alim, the last emir of Bukhara, repulsed the (now) Red Invaders, booting out the Bolsheviks. This wasn’t altogether a great thing for the people of Bukhara because the last emir was a tyrannical lunatic, with a massive harem, who sent tax collectors out to basically terrorize the populace. He wasn’t a great guy. But he did defeat the Russians. However, 2 years later, in 1920, as General Frunze, in the Red Army, advanced again on the oasis, the last emir flipped out, and fled with his harem, leaving the populace to fend for themselves.

And then followed six decades of communism. Stalin closed down all the mosques. He criminalized private property, and entrepreneurship … Uzbekistan was crushed beyond repair. They have still not recovered.

The story of what has happened to the Aral Sea is one of the most disturbing and devastating legacies left by the Russians. It has been described as “the world’s greatest environmental disaster”. It makes me sick to my stomach.

Thubron again, on strolling through the ancient bazaars in the early 1990s:

A hesitant free enterprise was surfacing, but the inflation raging through the old Soviet empire had turned everyone poor. Sad traders peered from their kiosks like glove-puppets, or threaded the bazaars with a predatory vigilance. But they had almost nothing to sell. Once the name ‘Bukhara’ had been synonymous with lustrous dyed silks and the crimson rugs of the Turcomans who traded here, and carpets of Persian design were woven on domestic looms all over the city. But under Stalin, home industries became criminal. Mass production laid a dead hand on all the old crafts. I trudged through the market quarter until dark, but found no trace of handmade silk or rug.

Nobody alive today can know what the ancient Bukhara was like. It’s lost. Lost for good.

I can see why everyone refers to the oasis as “monochromatic”. Everything is the color of chalk.

If you take a look at the lower left picture, you will see the old city gate, which still stands. Part of the remaining wall that has always surrounded the oasis. And the top left, the emir’s summer palace, is the residence of the last emir who flew the coop when he was threatened by Frunze. He and all his many many many lovely ladies. Additionally, in the last post I talked about the Kalyan minaret, erected in 1127, the only surviving structure from Genghis Khan’s attack in 1220. It is 148 feet high, and actually kind of homely, in my opinion, but there was a time on this planet, when that minaret (pictured in the right hand column, second photo down) was as famous a sight as the Eiffel Tower. I have never seen the Eiffel Tower but I know exactly what it looks like. The camel caravans on the Silk Road kept their eyes open for that minaret, knowing exactly what it would look like, counting on it to be there.

Oh, and also notice the bottom right hand picture: the Ulugh Beg madrassahHe was the grandson of Tamerlane, who took over the empire after his grandfather’s death. But Ulugh Beg was a scientist, an astronomer … and actually, quite brilliant. He built observatories and sponsored scientists visiting Bukhara. He wanted the place to be a cultural center, not just a hotbed of fanaticism, and a place to rest in between military ventures and wars. The madrassah you see in the picture was completed in 1420. It was one of the places shut down by Stalin, but now it is open again, and filled with students.

I am a little afraid of what they may be learning in there these days (“And today’s lesson … Americans are Satan.” “Don’t forget to do your homework … write an essay on why you think the Zionists are taking over the world.”), but still: the Ulugh Beg madrassah is an amazing structure, and actually was built by quite an enlightened and educated man. A curious man.

So perhaps that legacy will rub off. I can only hope.

I found some descriptive quotes of Bukhara in Thubron’s book that I wanted to share. It makes me feel as though I can see this famous city with my own eyes. Which is, after all, why I read all of these historical travelogues. I want to see the world. And not just Paris or Rome, although I’d love to go there, too. The places I really want to see are the so-called backwaters of Central Asia and the Middle East. Samarqand, Bukhara, Shiraz (in Iran), the Fergana Valley (in Kyrgyzstan), Herat (in Afghanstan)… all of Alexander the Great’s old hangouts.

Thubron strolls through Bukhara:

…I entered a dust-filled wasteland fringed by a pale host of mosques and medresehs. The din and pall of restoration shook the air. The earth dazzled. The buildings glared in a blank, shadowless uniformity. Dressed in cement-colored brick, they had not the rich plenitude of the tiled mosques of Iran, but were patterned only sparsely with a glaze of indigo or green. For the rest, they were the color of the earth beneath them: a dead platinum. It was as if the dust had hardened into walls and turrets and latticed windows. Everything– even the clay-colored sky — shone with the same bleached stare.

But above, in radiant atonement, hovered a tumult of turquoise domes. Beyond the high gateways and iwans — the great vaulted porches– they swam up from their drums like unearthly fruit, and flooded the sky with the heaven-sent blue of Persia. From a distance they seemed to shine in unified aquamarine, but in fact the tiles which coated them were subtly different from one another, so that they spread a vibrant, changing patina over every cupola: eggshell, kingfisher, deep sapphire.

These mosques and medresehs were mostly raised by the successors of Tamerlane or by the 16th century Sheibanids, the first and most glorious Uzbek dynasty that succeeded them. Little that is older survives…

The blanched aridity all around oppressed me inexplicably, as though the city were dying instead of being restored. Even the dust seemed to have been leached by some ghostly peroxide. But in fact Bukhara was being resurrected indiscriminately: walls rebuilt shoddily en masse, tilework reproduced wholesale. Work had started in the Soviet period, but events had overtaken it, and the mosques which had been reconstituted cold in the service of art or tourism were stirring again with a half-life of their own.

The following descriptive passage is also very interesting because it captures what appears to be the inherent contradictions not only in Bukhara but in all of Uzbekistan. They don’t really fit in with the rest of Central Asia … they are not homogenous, they practice Islam but with elements of shamanism and Sufism, they don’t subscribe to fundamentalism (at least not yet) … They try to resist being sucked into the issues plaguing Afghanistan, the civil war next door in Tajikstan, the tyrannical dictatorship in Turkmenistan next door … They are a milder people. But this struggle is difficult. Very difficult. Because, of course, there are many radical elements in the populations. There are millions of Uzbeks who do not live in Uzbekistan proper, who live in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China, Tajikstan … and these people bring home radicalism, fanaticism.

Thubron discusses the glorious Renaissance that Bukhara experienced in the10th century, a great era of art and literature, and although it was back in the Middle Ages, the tensions he describes in the society still exist, and still simmer beneath the surface.

He visits “The Tomb of the Samanids”, a 10th century mausoleum that stands on the outskirts of the city.

The tomb is all that survives of the precocious Samanid dynasty, the last Persians to rule in Central Asia, whose empire pushed south of the Caspian and deep into Afghanistan. The tomb escaped the Mongol sack because it lay buried under windblownsands, its builders half forgotten, and it perhaps finds its architectural origins in the palaces and fire-temples of pre-Islamic times. But its sophistication — the lavish, almost playful deployment of its brick — betrays an age more daring, more intellectual, than any which succeeded it.

For over a hundred years, until the end of the 10th century, a creative frenzy gripped the capital. Alongside the moral austerity of Islam, there bloomed an aesthetic Persian spirit which looked back to the magnificence and philosophic liberalism of the Sassanian age, extinguished by the Arabs more than two centuries before. As the Silk Road spilt into and out of Bukhara — furs, amber and honey travelling east; silks, jewellry and jade going west — the Samanids sent horses and glass to China, and received spices and ceramics in exchange.

An era of peace brought men of letters and science crowding to the court, and the Persian language flowered again in a galaxy of native poets. It was an ebullient age. Iranian music, painting and wine flourished heretically alongside Koranic learning, and the great library of Bukhara, stacked with 45,000 manuscripts,became the haunt of doctors, mathematicians, astronomers, and geographers.

The short era produced men of striking genius: the polymathic al-Biruni, who computed the earth’s radius; the lyric poet Rudaki; and the great Ibn Sina, Avicenna, who wrote 242 scientific books of stupefying variety, and whose ‘Canons of Medicine’ became a vital textbook in the hospitals even of Christian Europe for 500 years.


The California gang and our smart and enthusiastic tourist guide, Vazira.

I’ll be back.


  1. interesting…but too much information for me….so much for being a history major. I much prefer your writing. What fascinating place.

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