“How grand it must have been!” This unassuming thought emerges as we gaze at the ancient city of Bukhara,opening a doorway through time, beckoning us to behold its splendour through the eyes of an erstwhile traveller ofthe sands. Riding a camel through the dunes, our traveller would have approached the thriving medieval trading hub, catchingsight of the majestic silhouette of the Poi-Kalyan minaret towering against the golden sky. He must have heardlegends about this 12th-century structure rising 48 meters high, soaring above everything else around.
The powerful warrior Genghis Khan, infamous for leaving a trail of destruction behind him, spared this marvel,captivated by its masterful brick decorations. From afar, the weary trader hears the reverberating summon for prayer coming from the minaret. He knew that the minaret had also been used as a wartime watchtower. But little doeshe know that centuries later, there shall also be legends of criminals being tossed off from the minaret, earning itthe cruel title of ‘Tower of Death’.
Before reaching the spiritual heart of the city, our fatigued voyager seeks respite at what his friends call ‘Labi Hauz’ —a welcoming oasis nestled around a tranquil pond. This architecturally marvellous complex was built in 1620 CE,consisting of madrasas, a mosque and a central hall for gathering. As he rests, he hears locals talk of the talebehind the Hauz— a metaphorical tug of war over property between nobleman Nadir Divan-Beghi and a Jewishwidow. His relaxed gaze is drawn to the exquisite tile work of the madrasa, depicting birds, white deer, and even a human face. Isn’t that unusual in Islamic architecture, he wonders!
It’s time to cleanse away the desert grime at a hammam bath complex. Literature from the 10th century attests thatrejuvenation in bathhouses was a beloved pastime in Bukhara, with the renowned Hammam Khan leading the way. Located within bustling bazaars, these domed buildings had a lobby, a dressing room and a washing chamberinside. They catered to men and women separately on designated days. Two of the bathhouses, Hammam BozoriKord and Hammam Kunjak, continue to function till today. They provide traditional washing and healing services,just like our medieval merchants would have experienced.
Refreshed and invigorated, our trader steps out, traversing the narrow streets of Bukhara, passing through long archways that connect five trading domes. Typically, these domes feature a large central hexagonal space,surrounded by smaller domes housing various shops. Each of the five domes focuses on a specific kind of merchandise. One dome resonates with the clinking of exchanged coins, while another buzzes with fabric andcarpet bargains. Dazzling jewellery workshops thrive in one dome, while fashion finds its definition in leather andfurry hats in another. It’s a vibrant kaleidoscope of colours, scents, and sounds — a symphony of bargains and thegratitude-filled utterances of rakhmat(Uzbekistan’s thank you for greeting) as businessmen seal their deals withgolden smiles. Four of these domes will stand the test of time, recreating an authentic shopping experience eventoday, complete with the lively haggling.
With chaikhanas (teahouses) and caravanserais (resthouses) dotted around the domes, this neighbourhood catersto merchants passing by. The political centre of the city, however, lies slightly to the west, in a massive enclosed5th-century citadel. With its architecture inspired by stars and constellations, and influenced by astrological elements, this is the Ark of Bukhara — an enormous fortress where royalty and scholars reside, housing palaces,government offices, libraries, and stables. For centuries to come, the Ark shall witness the rise and fall ofkingdoms, sieges, destructions, and restorations, eventually transforming into a museum that retells its livedhistory.
Strolling beyond the northern trading domes, our trader finally arrives at the Kalyan complex, gazing up close at theminaret. Adjacent is the architectural masterpiece of the Masjid-e-Kalyan, an expansive complex erected in 1515CE. Its imposing 30-metre-high dome boasts intricate geometric patterns of blue and white tiles and glazed bricks.
Shafts of sunlight cast an ethereal glow upon the prayer hall, inviting our protagonist to embrace the sereneatmosphere and immerse in prayer.As our protagonist closes his eyes, we are swiftly transported back to the vibrant and sunny Bukhara of today. Thecity stands as a living museum, where the legacy of the Silk Road continues to breathe life into every corner.
Thelist of must-visit places is endless — the 10th-century Samanid Mausoleum showcasing a fusion of Islamic styles,the 18th-century Bolo Hauz mosque adorned with painted wooden ceilings, the harmonious quartet of turquoiseminarets known as Chor Minor, the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa with its intricately carved facade and serene courtyard, andcountless other madrasas and libraries that symbolise the region’s scholarly heritage. With each monumentthoughtfully restored to its glory, Bukhara deserves a salute for its conservation work. Every turn in the meanderingalleyways of this old town evokes you to deeply wonder, “How grand it must have been!”
(Published 28 October 2023, 20:02 IST)