Silk Road Part 14 of 17.
After rising early and walking through the city streets while they were still quiet, savouring the atmosphere as the city woke up and the Afghan birds called from the mulberry tree in the courtyard of the Masjadi Kalon, I had a quick breakfast and met with Rustam again. We started by walking out to the Bolo Hauz mosque, a 1712 construction that was used as a dormitory for dervishes on spiritual quests. The wooden gallery was added in the 20th century and features elegant columns of elm, poplar and walnut by the last Emir of Bukhara. It is the only building here to have survived the Soviet period. It is also known as “Chehel Sotun” (40 pillars, 20 real, 20 reflected in the water), a name that those who have been to Iran may well recognise.
Close by was the entrance to the famous Ark, the city’s oldest building. According to the Persian epic Shahname, the city was founded here by Siyavush, a Persian prince, after escaping the attentions of a wicked stepmother. First built on a hill within a swamp, stone bases were made for the wooden columns of the Friday mosque to prevent damp, while camel wool placed in between protected against termites, the smell being a sort of termite kryptonite it seems. The ark was also the winter residence of the emirs of Bukhara. The Grand Vizier (effectively the prime minister, who administered the emirate while the emirs amused themselves) also lived here, unable to leave the ark without permission, so in effect he was the highest-ranking slave. His quarters have been converted to a small museum, housing various interesting artefacts from Bukhara’s long history. Near the back of the ark is the “Zindan” or prison. Inside are two cells and the “bug pit”, built 6 metres deep and filled with rats and bugs when in use. It was here that the British Great Game adventurers, Connolly and Stoddart were imprisoned before being beheaded by the Butcher King in 1842, after he heard of the routing of the British in Afghanistan and assumed their influence was on the wane. A chill ran up my spine as I looked into the pit.
After a quick coffee we reached Poi Kalyon, the most beautiful square in Bukhara. Dominated by the imposing 12th-century Kaylon Minar, this structure was built by the architect, Bako. After building foundations 10m deep using bulls blood and camel milk, he disappeared for 2 years much to the annoyance of the king. On his reappearance, he explained that the foundations needed 2 years to set and, had he stayed, the king would have been impatient and forced him to start building, so it was necessary for him to disappear. The king accepted this as probably true and so he was allowed to start on the minaret. He built it 46.5m high, supposedly as his house was that far away and were it to fall it would fall on his house – a quality guarantee of sorts. The minaret served multiple functions – a muezzin tower for calling the faithful to prayer, a watchtower to spot enemy advances and a desert lighthouse, helping travellers to find the city. Under the emirs it also was used to hurl those so sentenced to their grisly end, earning it the moniker “the Death Tower”.
The Masjadi Kaylon mosque was built by Persian craftsmen and based on the Naqsh-e-Jahan square in Isfahan. The courtyard contains a statue erected by the last emir to commemorate the babies slaughtered by Genghis Khan. The 16th-century Mir Arab Madrassa opposite managed somehow to operate during the Soviet era and has many powerful and important alumni. It is the only active madrassa for men in Bukhara today. Not far away are another pair of Madrassas, one built by Ulug Beg in the 15th century and opposite it, a 17th- century construction by Indian masters who managed to sneak a couple of subtle peacocks into their design.
After lunch, we visited a small-but-interesting photo gallery documenting Bukhara Jews, gypsies and Persians. Our next stop was Magoki Attari mosque which is the oldest mosque in Bukhara. It was a Buddhist temple before it was a mosque and below it can be found the walls of a Zoroastrian Fire Temple which predated the Buddhist temple. During Soviet times it became a disco. The nearby Jewish quarter once housed 35,000 Jews, but only perhaps 350 remain today, many having left during Soviet times or after independence to Israel or the US.
Many Jewish merchant houses still exist, some converted to small hotels. Our final stop was the Lab-i-Khauz Ensemble, a square with a pool and elaborately decorated madrassas on either side dating from the 16th and 17th century, as well as a tea house that has been operating since the 16th century, though it looks rather new. The square also has a statue of the probably mythical figure of Hoja Nasruddin on a donkey. A sort of mischievous Robin Hood type figure, he was said to have saved a drowning rich man here. Having fallen into the pool and bumped his head, people gathered round the rich man urging him to give them his hand but he seemed unable to hear. When Hoja Nasruddin stepped forward and said “take my hand” he finally reacted and he was pulled out. Hoja Nasruddin later explained it was the choice of verb that made the difference – “give me” was much less likely to elicit a response from a rich man than “take”!