Capital of the (formerly Soviet
) Republic of Uzbekistan
in Central Asia
. It was one of the rich and prosperous commercial centres along the ancient Silk Road
, and still retains much of its former grandeur.
The city has existed on its present site for at least two and a half millenia, and is recognised as a World Heritage Site thanks to the unparalleled state of preservation of its medieval Muslim architecture and street plan. The most famous monument in the city is the Kalyan Minaret, one of only a few surviving from the days before the Mongol invasion of Central Asia - Genghis Khan is said to have all but flattened the city but spared the minaret, being struck with its beauty.
Before the advent of Islam the religion of the people of the region (who are today for the most part ethnic Uzbeks) was Zoroastrianism, and in fact the original site chosen for it is on a hill sacred to that religion. The name derives from the Sanskrit word "vihara", meaning monastery. In the 8th century CE Bukhara came under the Arab caliphate, however, and became a major center of Islamic learning. With its 350 mosques and over 100 religious colleges the city is now ready to resume its position in the Islamic world as a sacred centre of worship.
During the 9-10th centuries the city was the capital of the Samanid state. One of its most treasured monuments is the Mausoleum of Samani, in which three of the Samani family rulers are entombed and to which people in search of justice still came after the death of its builder, Ismail Samani, considering him the true ruler of their city.
After being razed to the ground by the Mongols the city naturally suffered a decline, and during the time of the Timurids (of Tamerlane fame, 14-15th centuries) it did not regain it importance, the capital of the state being neighbouring Samarkand. Bukhara became a state again after the invasion of the nomadic Uzbek tribes, who made it the capital of the Khanate of Bukhara. It retained this position until 1865, when it fell prey to Russia's rapacity and became a protectorate. In 1924, after a long stand off with the Bolsheviks, the territory of the Khanate was devided between the Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Despite their intertwined and related histories, it is evident that Bukhara is a very different and distinct place from its sister Samarkand. You will not find any of the latter's lavish mosaics and heartstopping blues and golds in the city's architecture. Save for the occasional splash of azure the buildings are made from baked mud bricks and is uniformly the same colour as teh desert surrounding it - a tawny golden brown. Far from being a hindrance to its builders, this distinctive style has given birth to a rich and intricate art of brick laying an stone carving. The buildings, both ancient and medieval, are latticed with traditional Muslim motifs and some of them look almost as if they were made of dusty lace.
Not only did the city benefit in the past from the money and goods going through it along the Silk Road, it is also in the centre of a cotton growing region and has a great tradition of exquisite and distinctive textiles, mostly crafted by the Jews of the city. Bukhara rugs are highly prised, as well the colourful striped garments one can still see occasionally on old women in Israel. Bukhara has long had a large and prosperous Jewish community, depleted today by continued immigration to Palestine and then Israel, as well as the modern city of Tashkent, also in Uzbekistan. I have in fact ancestors and living relatives from both places and both sides of my family.
Bukhara has had a lot of bad press over the years. Sheltered from the world, it was a sleepy and unindustrialized city which the early Western visitors, both European and Russian, saw as primitive and even decadent. Bukharans have been reviled as being dishonest, stupid, ignorant, even dirty (the last perhaps with some cause, as the city's water supply was mainly in the form of reservoirs of standing water which were used for both drinking and washing). After almost 150 years of neglect, it is of course far from being a modern city. However its rich architectural, religious and historic heritage is getting it a lot of interest from the west, and one can only hope that it will go forward to become a prosperous and cosmopolitan place once more. Ironically, the city's best features are also its possible downfall - a centre for Islamic worship and study for so many centuries, it is in a prime position to fall pray to fundamentalism and be once more cut off from the world.
One of Bukhara's most celebrated sons is the medieval Islamic physician Avicenna. To find out a bit more about him try http://www.afghan-network.net/Culture/avicenna.html, which also has a map of the region.