Silk Road Part 13 of 17.
Another comfortable train journey brought me to Bukhara. My driver, Tolmas, picked me up and dropped me to my hotel where Rustam, my guide, joined us. After a whirlwind history of the city and the emirate around it, Rustam brought me to the tomb of Ismael Samani, founder of the 10th-century Samanid dynasty. A golden age of learning and equality flourished under his leadership. Having converted from Buddhism to Islam, his tomb is the oldest Islamic structure in the city, but betrays traces of Buddhism and even Zoroastrianism. Built with fired bricks and long covered by sand, it survives remarkably intact with just the dome having been rebuilt. It has a simple design with complex brick textures and is one of my favourite buildings of the trip.
Rustam explained that the Islam practised today in Uzbekistan still betrays traces of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. When someone dies, their family burns candles to attract their spirit (a Zoroastrian tradition), then walks around holy places three times and asks for a wish. This is something with Buddhist roots found throughout Central Asia. Nearby, there are stretches of the old city walls which were once 12 kilometres long, with 12 separate gates. Only traders, sufis, and those specifically invited would be allowed into the city.
Over lunch, Rustam and Tolmas explained that the lingua franca here was Tajik, basically farsi (Persian). Both Bukhara and Khiva were majority Tajik and when Stalin divided up the “Stans” he divided them to be mixed, both linguistically and ethnically, perhaps with a view to keep them disunited and easier to control. When Tolmas spoke on the phone however, words of Russian, Uzbek and sometimes English got mixed in with his Tajik. The same was true of Rustam, but to a lesser extent.
After lunch, we drove out to the holiest site in Bukhara, the mausoleum of Bakhauddin Naqshbandi, founder of the most successful sufic order in Central Asia. Multiple visits here are said to equal one Haj (pilgimage to Mecca). Locals come here to be cured, pay their respects and drink or bottle the holy water from the well. The shrine is in a beautiful courtyard with lovingly decorated ceilings. Our next stop was the summer palace of the “butcher king”, Amir Nasrullah Khan, called Sitora-i-Mokhikhosa. Said to have killed at least one person every day for his 35 years on the throne, it is safe to say his hands were stained.
Containing three sumptuous buildings with Russian-style exteriors and oriental interiors, the site was supposedly chosen by hanging sheep carcasses and building where the slowest one to rot was found. An elaborate octagonal building was built for a Tsar’s daughter he took a fancy too but spurned his advances. A pool sits beside the final building where his 4 wives lived. Here he would toss an apple amongst his wives and 40 concubines to choose who would spend the night with him. The chosen lady would then go and bathe in donkey milk before proceeding to his royal quarters.
Our final stop for the day was Chahr Minar, a madrassa with 4 towers, possibly based on the one in Hydrabad in India of the same name. Originally built in 1807, it has been significantly restored, including the complete rebuilding of one of the towers after it collapsed in an earthquake.