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Bukhara beyond history

Friday, December 07, 2018
Pics: Raul Dias

The Ark

Once an integral pitstop on the legendary Silk Road, the ochre-coloured city of Bukhara is today the cultural jewel in Uzbekistan’s crown with its ancient monuments and old-world charm, says Raul Dias who traipses through this ancient wonderland!

As much as I pride myself on being a seasoned world traveller, with a respectable 60 countries under my belt, I knew very little about the Central Asian, former USSR country of Uzbekistan. And even less about Bukhara, its cultural and historical stronghold. My reference point to anything ‘Bukhara’ was the scrumptious stewed lentil preparation called Dal Bukhara that is served at the ITC Maurya New Delhi’s iconic restaurant of the same  name—Bukhara.

But all that changed a few weeks ago, when I took advantage of the newly launched Uzbekistan Airways’ direct flight linking my home city of Mumbai to Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent. I followed that up with a super-fast, three-and-a-quarter hours long ride on the Afrosiyob bullet train from Tashkent and there I was in the beautiful and ancient city of Bukhara.

Kalon Mosque

First Things First

An important pitstop on the iconic Silk Road that once linked the Orient with the Occident, along which trade of all sorts—but primarily of silk—flourished, Bukhara provided that much-needed halfway respite from the arduous journey. Additionally, during the golden age of the Samanids, Bukhara became a major intellectual centre of the Islamic world, second only to Baghdad.

Today, with its 140 architectural monuments, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is a virtual ‘city-museum’, with wondrous sights at almost every turn you take. Sights that I simply couldn’t wait to treat my eyes to the minute I had finished checking into my hotel. One of the first places my enthusiastic hotel receptionist suggested…nay, insisted, I pay obeisance at was what he called the “greatest of all of Bukhara’s gems!” i.e. The Ark.   

Built as a fortress in the 5th century AD, the walled Ark, in addition to being a military structure, was almost a town in itself and was inhabited by the various royal courts that ruled the region surrounding Bukhara. Its ‘Ground Zero’ of Bukhara role continued right until the early 20th century, when it fell to Russia in 1920. Today as a museum, it houses several informative exhibits of weaponry, armoury and coins and is a great place to get an orientation of ancient Bukhara. 

Somsas on sale in the bazaar

Historic Jewels Aplenty!

Slap bang opposite the Ark, I sauntered towards the multi-columned Bolo Hauz. Built in 1712, the beautiful mosque, fronted by an ornamental pond served as a Friday mosque during the time when the Emir of Bukhara was being subjugated under the Bolshevik Russian rule in 1920s. A few metres behind Bolo Hauz was a monument I had heard of and was dying to visit.

Chashma-Ayub, or Job’s Spring, is said to reflect a legend that states the prophet Job (or Ayub in the Quran) visited this place and brought forth a spring of water with a blow of his staff on the ground. The water of the well inside is said to be exceptionally pure and is regarded for its supposed healing qualities. Taking an obligatory sip of the allegedly miraculous water (the magical properties of which have yet to be revealed to me!), I headed out to my next stop, the Po-i Kalan or Kalon/Kalyan Mosque complex.

One of the first things you see in this vast complex is the vertiginous Kalon minaret looming large. Also known as the Tower of Death, legend has it that it is the site where criminals were executed by being thrown off the top. The mosque itself is built in the typical Central Asian architectural style with its rectangular arch covered in brilliantly blue coloured tiles. Completed in 1514, the mosque can accommodate 12,000 people. Making for brilliant photographs, the maze of 288 monumental pylons serves as a support for the multi-domed roofing of the galleries encircling the courtyard of the mosque.

Chashma Ayub or Job's Spring

Getting a Feel of Bukhara

If there is one ritual that I follow religiously whenever I find myself in a new place, then that would have to be a visit to the local market. And in the case of Bukhara the covered bazaar! So, sustaining myself with a juicy lamb and onion somsa—which is similar to an Indian samosa, but with a flaky, puff pastry shell—that I bought from a small hole-in-the-wall shop near Po-i Kalan, I headed towards the bazaar. Actually, make that bazaars. The four remaining covered bazaars give a fascinating glimpse into commerce in the city from old times.

The intersections of the main streets of medieval Bukhara served a purpose of trade that resulted in the construction of these domed structures called taq (dome) and tim (covered market). Till today, these bazaars remain important shopping places in Bukhara, where you can find many souvenir shops selling everything from beautiful ikat printed winter jackets to Russian fur hats called ushankas. Your choice is unlimited. Each bazaar is covered with numerous domes and holds its unique name. Taqi-Zargaron (dome of jewellers), Taqi-Sarrafon (dome of moneychangers) and Taqi-Telpakfurushon (dome of headwear sellers) are the three covered bazaars that survived till today.

All that walking around had gotten me exhausted. And so, as a treat to myself, I ended my day about Bukhara in the way the ancient merchants perhaps did—by going to the hammam. The 16th century Bozori Kord hamam in the bazaar was where I was steamed, soaped, soaked and stretched like a pretzel. All that, leaving me refreshed and ready to face a new day along my very own 2018 version of the Silk Road journey…

FACT FILE

Getting there

Uzbekistan Airways (www.uzairways.com) recently started its thrice a week, direct flight from Mumbai to Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent with a flight time of just four hours. There are several daily flights on Uzbekistan Airways from Tashkent to Bukhara and also the swanky Afrosiyob bullet train service once a day, with a travel time of under four hours. Travel within Bukhara is very easy with cheap and plentiful taxis and buses. The easy-to-procure visa to visit Uzbekistan can be obtained online and takes just two working days to process for a fee of US $20.

When to visit

Though Bukhara is a great year-round travel destination with cold winters and cheery summers, the spring months from April to June and the autumn months from September to November are the best times of the year to visit.

Accommodation

Bukhara has an excellent selection of hotels to choose from to suit all budgets and tastes. Two such recommended accommodation options are:

  • Lyabi House Hotel (www.lyabihouse.com)
  • Asia Bukhara Hotel (www.asiahotels.uz)
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