Nowadays, Bukhara is a sleepy backwater, peaceful and clean, earning its money mostly from tourism. As the sky falls, old people water their gardens. While their dads gather around an ice cream stand, teenagers have started blasting the evening away in dark internet cafes.
The glorious days when Bukhara was the Dome of Islam in the East, when famous scholars like Avicenna came to Bukhara to meet and discuss, lie 1000 years in the past at this point, remembered only by books and bricks. By the time the Russians ousted the Emir of Bukhara in the 19th century, the city had been destroyed many times over by marauding Mongol and Turks, and had become a cesspool in every sense of the word. The locals bathed in ponds fertile with skin disease, guinea worms and a particularly nasty parasite called reshta, that would enter the bloodstream only to emerge out of its host’s leg days later as a giant white worm. The megalomaniac Emir of Bukhara, who was said to have kept 40 dancing boys in his quarters for entertainment, would send criminals to their death tossing them from the Kalyan minaret in a sack sewn shut.
Until the Soviet Union, Bukhara was always Sogdian, Persian or Tajik, and even now, inside Uzbekistan for so many years, the Tajik influence persists. Unibrowed women trade gold on the bazaar, while Soviet-sanctioned industry never found much enthusiasm here. Bukhara had always been a city of teachers, travelers and traders. Thousands of students still study in Bukhara, but even though many madrassas still stand in the old town, those interested in getting a good Islamic education will now continue their studies elsewhere.
So with all this faded glory, where then lies the magic of Bukhara? The story, is in the bricks. Professor Hillenbrand, an authority on Islamic art, asks, when speaking about architecture in Turkmenistan before the Mongol invasion, to speak not of Persian brick work, but of Persian brick magic. Although many of the buildings in Bukhara are from a later period, when Uzbeks ruled, the brick magic holds.
No other town or city in Central Asia manages to convey such a strong sense of place as Bukhara. Unlike Samarkand, whose fame rests on its landmark buildings spread out throughout the city, Bukhara captivates with its unified townscape, a model for the urban planning of Islamic cities throughout medieval times. It embodies the interior designer’s oriental dream: desert-sand ecru backed by air castle blue, color-blocked by the occasional billiard-green of a palm front.
Those with an interest in Islamic art and history can wander around Bukhara and its wider oasis for years, like Don Croner, tracking down pre-Sogdian ruins, Mongol relics and Sufi sites that channel Shambalic vibrations. The beauty of brickwork is everywhere, and often the interiors aren’t half-bad either.
Early morning, before the tourists rise and find that the heat is already upon them, is the best time to wander the streets. The light is soft, shadows are long, and street sellers have yet to set up shop. Kids and women are already up and running, breathing life into the backstreets, where you might happen upon a missed mosque, crumbling out of sight of the masses. You might consider briefly, that you are in the most beautiful city in the world.
Pictures: #1 Adam Jones, #8 Don Croner