Bukhara

August 29, 2019: A Luxembourgish Friend

After a long drive from Khiva via Karkalpakstan, my line-dancing friend Paul and I arrived in legendary Bukhara at 19:00. 

Bukhara is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia. It sits on an oasis that has been used by humans for over 5,000 years. In the year 500 BC, the city was officially formed as a vassal state of the Persian empire. It eventually became a major Silk Road trading hub and center of Islamic learning. 

In the year 1220, Genghis Khan sieged the city over a 15-day period. By the end, Bukhara was destroyed save for one tomb and one minaret the Great Khan deemed too beautiful to pillage. He also killed 30,000 people.

But Bukhara would rebuild bigger and more beautiful than ever. Starting in the 1500´s, Bukhara became the capital of an independent Khanate (later Emirate). The Emirs of Bukhara ruled all lands south of Khiva including Samarkand and western Tajikistan. The empire would fall in 1920 when the Soviets took over.

Despite the Soviet influence, the historic core of the city has remained relatively intact. The communities that live in Bukhara has lived there for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Paul and I checked into the Graf Hostel, which had the nicest host. So far, everyone in Uzbekistan has been exceedingly friendly. 

Incredible breakfast spread at the Graf Hostel

We walked into the lively city center to get dinner. The main square surrounds a large pond full of fountains and fake camel statues. The pond is the ancient oasis that caused Bukhara to become populated in the first place.

Bukhara is not known for its food, so we tried hard to find a decent restaurant. After two tries (the restaurants were closed) we found a well-rated place in the back of a hotel. The hotel used to be an old home. It reminded me of a chic version of the palaces we saw in Khiva, complete with a courtyard and many pillars. 

Our beautiful restaurant in Bukhara

As Paul and I started to chat, a guy sitting at the table next to us overheard our conversation. His name was Jean-Marie, and he was from Luxembourg, a small European country wedged between France, Belgium and Germany which I visited in 2019. Jean-Marie said Luxembourg is a boring place to live, but you can make a lot of money and raise a family in a peaceful environment. Jean-Marie ended up sitting with us for our entire dinner. 

August 30,2019: Bukhara 

This was our big day to explore the old city of Bukhara. Almost all the monuments in Bukhara are close together. From our hostel, it was a 15-minute walk to the furthest monument. 

We started by going to that furthest monument, the mausoleum of Ismail Samani (died 907 AD). Weirdly enough the monument is now located in the middle of a small amusement park. 

The tomb of Ismail Samani, hero of the Tajik people

The structure contains the tomb of the founder of the Tajik people. Samani is the namesake of the Tajik currency (the somoni) and his tomb is featured on the 100 bill. Why is founder of Tajikistan buried in Uzbekistan, you may ask? It turns out that this region of Uzbekistan is populated by Tajiks. They speak Tajik as their primary language. Bukhara was always controlled by Tajik-speaking peoples until the Soviet Union placed them in the Uzbek SSR. The locals do not like being called Uzbek, even though they are Uzbek citizens. While most citizens of Bukhara would probably rather be part of Tajikistan than Uzbekistan, there is no revolt on the horizon. If you talk to the locals, most have never been to Tajikistan and know nothing about the government or general well-being of the people there. They might change their opinions if they saw the terrible state of the Tajik infrastructure.

The mausoleum cost 20,000 som ($2) to enter, but due to the tiny size of the mausoleum, you could actually see everything by standing just outside the doorway. So, we did not go in. Our friend Jean-Marie was also here with a guide. He went in and said it was not worth it. We laughed because we all knew there will be more run-ins during the day. 

50 meters away was another mausoleum that covers a well discovered by the Biblical prophet Job (Ayyub, as he is known in the Qur’an is not buried here- he just dug the well). Job is an important figure in Islam (in addition to Judaism and to a lesser extent Christianity), so the mausoleum is a popular place to visit for local tourists.

Nearby was a sprawling market. The vendors were chatty and loved to give out free samples. I ate apricots stuffed with nuts, mojito-flavored fudge, and strawberries. Paul enjoyed chatting with all sorts of random people in Russian. His eyes lit up with excitement as he conversed more and more. We decided to try to find blackberries. Several merchants ended up helping us to find the one merchant who had frozen Russian blackberries. We found them but they were far more expensive than what we wanted to pay. 

One of the many rooms of the Bukhara market

By the end of our hour in the market, I could sense that something had awakened in Paul. He grew up in a Ukrainian household near Los Angeles and was always cognizant of Ukrainian/Russian culture save for visiting his extended family in Ukraine. However, he never saw much of a real-world application of this cultural and linguistic knowledge…until now. I could tell that this would not be Paul´s final time in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. 

Paul making friends

The largest attraction in Bukhara is the Ark or palace. This was once the home of the Emirs of Bukhara and has been in existence since the 500´s. Unfortunately, the Russians destroyed 90% of the fortress during their takeover of Bukhara in 1920. The ark contains 40-50ish rooms of artifacts (and taxidermy animals) to see but it is not as grand as you might expect. The highlight for me was the outdoor throne room where you can pay 10,000 som (less than $1) to take a picture wearing traditional royal robes.

Amazing picture taken for less than $1

Just beyond the Ark is the old prison. It doesn´t look like much, but it is home to one of the worst prison cells in the history of prison cells: the bug pit. Accessible only by a rope lowered from the center of the ceiling, this bedroom-sized chamber was filled daily with rats, scorpions, and insects. Oh my!

Entrance to the bug pit

In 1839 Colonel Charles Stoddard arrived in Bukhara to warn the emir that the British were going to invade Afghanistan. The emir was unimpressed by Stoddard as he bore no gifts, had a letter signed by the Governor General instead of Queen Victoria, and committed the terrible sin of riding his horse up to the Ark (he should have dismounted and walked). The Emir was so insulted that he threw Stoddard into the bug pit where he languished for over a year. 

In 1841, Captain Arthur Connelly came to rescue Stoddard. The emir decided to throw Connely in the pit too. 

In 1842, the British withdrew from Afghanistan. Thinking that the British were a second-rate power, the emir decided to have the two executed. To the sound of drums, fifes, and a cheering crowd, Stoddard and Connely were marched from the bug pit to the front of the Ark where they were forced to dig their own graves and then beheaded. 

The execution became the biggest news story in the UK. The UK government decided not to pursue justice, but the families of the deceased raised enough money to send an Anglican priest to Bukhara to verify the news. The emir probably would have killed the priest too but found the robes so funny that the emir let him go.

Before lunch, we stopped to see the main religious complex and most photographed spot in Bukhara. The square contains the largest mosque in Bukhara, the minaret that Genghis Khan spared, and a huge, green-domed madrassa (Islamic school). Unlike most sights in Uzbekistan which are now museums, this complex is still active. Worshippers regularly visit the mosque and students live in the madrassa. 

Beautiful Bukhara

A guy outside tried to sell us guiding services. Even though we kept rejecting his offer, he got more aggressive, which made us less likely to accept his offer. It took 15 minutes of saying no for him to finally leave us in peace. The people in this city seem to be more aggressive, although this is nothing compared to Egypt. 

Incredible madrassas of Bukhara

The rest of the afternoon was spent touring the many vacant madrassas (Islamic schools) in Bukhara. We must have visited at least 10. They are impressive but honestly once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Most of the madrassas are filled with trinket sellers desperate to make a sale. One lady even followed us across the street to get us to buy a 50,000 som ($4.50) hat. The huge drop in tourists due to the pandemic has really hurt these people. I felt bad for them – they are aggressive because they are desperate. 

One of many madrassas

Our final stop for the day was the Charminar, a small mosque that happens to be on the cover of the Lonely Planet Central Asia book. There, we ran into our Luxembourgish friend once again. Outside the mosque were grape trees. Paul wolfed down at least 30 grapes in just a couple minutes. Seeing him rapidly eat food and chug drinks at every meal cracks me up. 

On the way to dinner with Jean Marie, we stopped by a Jewish synagogue. It was closed, but a man who worked at a nearby hotel said that he could arrange a visit for me tomorrow morning. I accepted his offer. 

August 30, 2021: The Summer Palace

At 8:30, I arrived at Bukhara´s main Jewish synagogue. There, a teenage boy walked me over to the Jewish cemetery about 15 minutes away. 

It turns out that Bukhara has a storied Jewish community. Jews came to Bukhara 2,500 years ago at the invitation of the Persian king Cyrus the Great. Since then, Jews have continuously lived in the city in peace with their Zoroastrian, Buddhist, and later Muslim neighbors. Due to a variety of reasons, Bukharan Jews have been disconnected from the rest of the Jewish population and have developed their own unique culture. 

In the 1980´s, there were 23,000 Jews living in Bukhara. However, most of the population emigrated to Israel and New York City during the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, the Bukharn Jewish community is strong…but they are not really in Bukhara. Now, there are just 50 Jewish families in Bukhara and about 5,000 Jews in the rest of Uzbekistan. Despite the religious differences, the Jews have a good relationship with the Muslim majority. The cemetery director said that there is no bigotry, hate or persecution by Muslims or by the Uzbek government.

The cemetery is both gigantic and ancient. The oldest graves are over 1200 years old! The cemetery seemed to be in good shape. Before leaving, the director asked me to donate to the cemetery restoration fund and the World War II memorial.

Jewish cemetery in Bukhara

The cemetery director then drove me in his car to see a second synagogue. The complex is in very good shape. The Bukharan community must be supported by the Bukharans abroad. He then gave me a quick 5-minute tour around the two prayer rooms. There, he asked me to donate to the synagogue and again to support the widow of the late Rabbi. After leaving, he asked me to give him a personal donation. When I questioned him, saying I have already donated 4 separate times today, he got angry. At the end, I felt like I got swindled. The Bukharan Jews were so rude to me, especially when compared to the rest of the population which has been exceedingly nice. Even though I am Jewish, I did not feel any connection to these people. 

Inside the Jewish synagogue

After that weird encounter, Paul, Jean Marie, and I met up and hailed a taxi to the emir´s summer palace, located just outside the city. Unlike other monuments in Bukhara, this one is relatively modern. The palace was built in 1917. Only one emir, Mir Mohammed Alim Khan, and he only lived there for 2 years because the Russians took over in 1919. The Soviets immediately turned the palace into a museum, so all the artifacts remained. 

Incredible room in the Emir´s summer palace.

The emir lived quite a life for those two summers (he “wintered” in the Ark). Every morning when he woke up, he would walk out of his bedroom and the entire palace would stand and greet him. His palace was the only building with electricity in all of Bukhara- the generator was a gift from a European diplomat.

Near the main palace building was the famous harem. There, his 4 wives and 40 concubines lived. Legend has it that the emir would watch his ladies swim in a pool and then toss an apple. Whoever caught the apple got to sleep with him. 

With that, Paul and I headed to the train station to catch our train to Samarkand. 

Final Thoughts:

Bukhara is incredible and every itinerary to Uzbekistan should include it. The sheer number of monuments is insane. The monuments are more impressive, and the town is much larger than Khiva. Something that is nice about Bukhara is that the people live amongst the ancient monuments, which is not the case elsewhere in Uzbekistan. The city is ancient, but still feels lived in and relevant today.

It would be nice if Bukhara implemented a combo ticket just like Khiva. The entry tickets sneakily add up and drain all your cash. The restaurant scene is also weak. Those are my only complaints. 

Also ignore the synagogue.  

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