It was the fifth morning of our trip around Uzbekistan. T, our driver, was waiting outside our hotel in Bukhara’s Old Quarter. It was freezing outside and I was thankful for the heating inside the car. We waited patiently for A, our guide, to join us.
“Schwarza–anegger,” T remarked as A walked slowly towards the car. A shared his name (although spelled and pronounced differently) with a famous Hollywood celebrity. We burst into laughter as a puzzled A entered the car. It was the perfect start to another long day of exploration and walking.
The Samanid Mausoleum was built by Ismail Samani — the founder of the Samanid Dynasty. This architectural marvel of fired bricks was constructed, in the late 9th Century, for the father of Ismail Samani. The mausoleum also contains the tombs of Ismail Samani and his grandson.
This monument is believed to be the oldest example of Islamic architecture in Central Asia and is particularly important because of its distinct architectural style. Geometry dominates the framework of the mausoleum and its true beauty lies in the simplicity of design. Interestingly, the mausoleum is inspired by Zoroastrian elements — indicating a confluence or shift in cultural beliefs at the time of construction.
The mausoleum is surrounded by a manicured park and tranquil gardens. Few souvenir shops were open in the morning. We passed by a metal engraving workshop. The technique was passed from one generation to the next — father to son. It was fascinating to observe dents turn into beautiful artwork on metal plates. The family had its roots in Iran and their work was a blend of cultures. They also had a fine collection of old coins and souvenirs. We bought some coins to add to our collection back home. Bear in mind: antiques above a certain value need to have a receipt for customs.
Chashma-Ayub (Source of Job)
Chashma Ayub is short walk from Samanid Mausoleum. The external facade of the monument has a rather unconventional shape.
According to local legend: Saint Job (Ayub) created a source of water for the parched people in the desert — by striking his staff on the ground. The healing power of this water attracts pilgrims from all over. There’s also a small museum with ancient objects used during the silk route and a map of how the Aral Sea dried due to excessive irrigation.
Cats of Bukhara
We met different cats on our walking tour of Bukhara. Some were hostile, some indifferent, and some were friendly enough to give me a cat rub.
Registan (central square) is a prominent feature of most ancient cities of Central Asia. In Bukhara, none of the other historical monuments have survived the test of time in its Registan — except for Bolo-Khauz Complex.
The mosque, in the complex, was built in the 18th Century by Emir Shahmurad. It is believed: the Emir wanted to pray with the common people. The aiwan (front verandah) has 20 wooden pillars that support an ornate roof. Intricate carvings and floral motifs decorate the wooden pillars and rooftop.
“Are you Muslim?”
The imam was curious after he opened the doors of the mosque for us. Many pilgrims had visited from our home country and he was happy when A told him where we’re from. But, we shook our heads. He nodded in acknowledgement and walked towards the mihrab — to turn on the lights.
On our travels, we’ve visited: Hindu & Jain temples, Buddhist & Taoist monasteries, Christian & new order churches, and even shaman sites of worship. Belief hasn’t always been my strong suit and I’ve spent most of my life doubting rather than believing. However, as I grow older, I’ve opened up to the possibility of finding peace in spiritualism. When life treats me as a punching bag — faith gets me through those rough days.
The mosque was silent and the blue paint turned iridiscinet with the light. Empty places of worship have been my favourite sanctuary to find calm. The architecture was an ode to the beauty of mathematics and patterns found in nature. Isn’t that what God is about? And that’s how travel opens our minds. Here were two catholics — spending the morning of Christmas Eve — in an ancient mosque.
We paid a small donation (the imam’s condition for letting us in) and walked towards Bolo-Khauz (children’s pond). The complex also has a minaret that was built at a later date.
The Arc Citadel is across Registan Square. Bukhara has its own city sightseeing bus that stops at all the popular tourist sights. Although, its very easy to cover most of Bukhara’s ancient monuments on foot.
The citadel is perched on top of a steep hill and cleverly camouflaged by a towering fortress wall. The citadel was constructed in the 4th century and went through a period of destruction and reconstruction with the passage of time. Back in the day, the citadel was occupied by Bukharan rulers, scholars and common people.
The mosque inside the citadel is one of the smallest mosques that we’d seen in Uzbekistan. The mihrab was painted in blue and gold paint.
Low tourist season is bad for sales and most artists sold their art without any profit. We bought a couple of postcards with illustrations of the artist. Out of nowhere, a young girl asked me for a selfie, and before I could truly resist, the snap was clicked.
“Amreeki,” she gleefully told her male companion. She was gone before I could correct her and tell that I was her sister from South Asia. It’s interesting how language can change the identity of a person.
The Emir’s throne room was empty and had a replica of the the throne under the aiwan. It was eerily silent and cold under the shade. The stables offers panoramic views of the city below. There’s a museum with history of the rulers of Bukhara and Uzbekistan.
A continued his monologue right upto the museum and seemed to be particularly proud that Emir Timur’s Empire had spread to the Indian subcontinent. Most guides expect tourists to blindly believe every word they remembered. History (like the news) is a matter of perspective and each side records it to their liking. He wasn’t particularly pleased when I corrected him about history — from my perspective, and was sullen for the next few minutes.
Bukhara’s fortress wall isn’t as captivating as Khiva’s fortress wall. The festivities for the New Year were set up and kids danced on the main stage.
We walked from Arc Citadel to Poi Kalyan Complex. The complex looked very different in the day.
Poi Kalyan Complex
The Poi Kalyan Complex is the the jewel in Bukhara’s Old Quarter — also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex has some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture and enshrines the Mir-Arab Madrasah, Kalyan Mosque, Kalyan Minaret, and Amir-Allim Khan Madrasah.
The Mir-Arab Madrasah is still functional and visitors are only allowed to enter the front gate of the madarasah. The madrasah’s architectural style indicates it was built in the late 16th century.
Before noon, the sun turned the towering monuments of the complex into shadows of themselves.
Kalyan Mosque and Mir-Arab Madrasah are built in Koch style — the entrance arches face each other. This mosque was built, in the 15th Century, over the ruins of an earlier mosque.
The inner courtyard of Kalyan Mosque took us by surprise. It was the most elaborate work of architecture that we’d seen so far. The mosque had all the traditional elements of Islamic architecture. However, as A rightly pointed out, the architectural style had evolved to include more intricate patterns.
The pillar-domed galleries, on the outer perimeter of the courtyard, are perfect to observe how light trickles into the darkness.
Towering arches create an eerie atmosphere, but are perfect for photography.
Like Khiva, some smaller buildings have been converted to souvenir shops and local workshops.
Abdullazizkhan Madrasah & Ulugbek Madrasah
Abdullazizkhan Madrasah was built in the 17th Century and is just across Ulugbek Madrasah (15th Century). These two monuments weren’t listed on our itinerary and we’ve got to thank A for showing us more than we expected from our tour.
We had finished one half of the tour and we had decided to take a break for lunch. En route, we stopped by a metal workshop. A gave us an introduction to the process of creating different objects. We bought two scissors, crafted in the shape of Bukhara’s symbol: a pair of birds (male & female). The knives were a work of art, but we weren’t sure about the rules of taking them back.
The owner of the workshop was friendly and gladly posed for a photograph for us.
We walked back to Lyabi house and completed the tour. A went over the details of the collection of monuments. We didn’t spend much time here because he had already given us an explanation on the earlier night. There’s a nice restaurant near the lake and we had lunch with A. T had taken the day off after dropping us off at the Samanid Mausoleum and didn’t join us for lunch.
Most tourist trails, in Uzbekistan, will only take you to the important Islamic monuments. However, Uzbekistan also has its fair share of Jewish synagogues (Bukhara/Samarkand), Orthodox Christian & Catholic churches (Tashkent/ Samarkand), and Buddhist shrines (in the south). A took us to the Jewish Quarter (next to Lyabi House) that was tucked in one of the alleys. Read more here.
The synagogue was closed and I was disappointed. We have never visited a synagogue before. A lady asked us where we from and smiled.
We walked back to Lyabi House. A tourist police officer approached us and asked if she could talk to us. We would be recorded on camera. We were the only tourists walking with a guide and that made us more conspicuous. It was probably a drill for their training.
A gave us the rest of the day to spend on our own. We took some rest in our hotel and walked back to the Old Quarter in the evening. Most tourists had left and local residents were returning back to their homes.
We bought some paintings from an artist — we had visited earlier. The artist used to be a college professor before he gave up teaching to pursue his passion. He gave us a history class on the main characters in his painting and that guaranteed him a sale.
Sunset at Poi Kalyan Complex
We wanted to watch the colours change at Poi Kalyan Complex — on A’s recommendation. We got lost in a maze of winding alleys and made it just in time for sunset.
Golden light bathed each tile and brick in the complex. There were more local tourists gathered here. However, their babbles didn’t take away from the experience.
Christmas Eve Dinner
We visited Chinar for Christmas Eve Dinner. The restaurant was packed and one floor was reserved for a party. The upper floor had a lively group of Koreans as well as other foreigners. We couldn’t resist trying Uzbek wine. It was Christmas Eve after all.