Bukhara the Noble, The Dome of Islam. Bukhara, the city where light floods from the ground up and not from the heavens down. Or perhaps, in the words of traveller and linguist Ármin Vámbéry, ”Bukhara, whose whole society was crippled by boundless hypocrisy, crass ignorance, drunk in the swamp of immorality”?
Clearly, people have had strong opinions about Bukhara in the past. And today is no different. Is Bukhara the overrun tourist town, its heritage butchered by callous government officials? Or is it the aesthetic and spiritual high point of Central Asia, charming as ever, resilient and adaptive in the face of new pressures and possibilities?
Both, obviously. We’d say it remains the most charming of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road towns, definitely worth a couple of days. Always revealing new sides of herself, with lots of side trips available, Bukhara does well as a work-from-anywhere base for a longer stay of several weeks or months.
Situated at the crossroads between Merv, Konye-Urgench, Termez and Samarkand, Bukhara was bound to profit from trade along the Silk Roads. It likely grew out of a community centered on a Buddhist monastery, vihara in Sanskrit, around the 7th century BCE.
The Bukhara oasis was the home of Iranian Sogdians, the quintessential Silk Road traders connecting east and west. A community of Jews wandered in to develop its own distinct identity around the 5th century BC. Like the rest of the region, the oasis formed part of the multi-ethnic, religiously syncretic empires of Cyrus, Alexander, Seleucus, Kanishka and others after them. In the 7th century, Arab conquerors swept through the area and destroyed the thriving nearby merchant towns of Paikend, Romitan and Varakhsha, paving the way for the rise of Bukhara.
Islam would gradually crowd out Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Indo-Iranian cults, after which Bukhara started to play an important role in the development of the new religion, with key figures like hadith collector Muhammad al-Bukhari and Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari, founder of the Naqshbandi Sufi order.
The golden age of the Sogdians came under the rule of the Samanids (9th-10th century), when a strong state fostered open trade routes that brought wealth and new ideas. Philosopher and founder of modern medicine Avicenna, national poets Ferdowsi and Rudaki, and all-round genius Al-Biruni all lived in Bukhara during that time. Persian poetry fused with court Arabic as Bukhara’s library expanded to become the most famous in the Islamic world and attract other notables like Omar Khayyam. Irrigation networks were expanded and rapid urbanization swelled the population to over 300 000.
A long period of decline arrived with the raids from successive waves of Turkic conquerors, followed by Genghis Khan and sons who obliterated the place, rebuilt it, then destroyed it again several times over. Centuries of infighting between warlords and small-time kings meant that Bukhara lost its economic importance as a center for the slave trade, but its spiritual importance remained as Islam took a mystical turn with the development of Sufism, even while Samarkand became the magnetic capital of the Timurids.
Bukhara’s revival came in the 16th century under the Shaybanids. Abdulla Khan united the Uzbeks and rebuilt the city; much of the current face of the city can be traced to this time.
In the 19th century, British and Russian spies looking to expand their colonies found all their orientalist fantasies had come to reality in the khanate, and retold them in bestsellers for an eager audience at home.
Russia gained trading concessions in the Bukharan emirate in 1868 and Bukhara became a Russian protectorate. The Trans-Caspian railway arrived in 1888, physically linking the city to Russia.
The emirate of Bukhara, and its status as a great centre of Islamic learning, finally ended with the Bolshevik Revolution. The emir fled to Afghanistan, mosques were converted into offices, madrassas became stables and mullahs were purged.
Things to see and do
Walking through Bukhara at 6 am before everyone else wakes up is the best breakfast east of Van. At this time of day, everything is worth a picture. A schoolboy going for bread, a flash of ikat across mud-brown adobe, a builder cycling through the trading domes on his way to work.
Bukhara is not a big place, but there is a lot to see and do, if you manage to go slow enough. Sip tea at the Lyabi-Hauz square, have a chat with a gaggle of whitebeards or a bazaar trader, admire the silk and ceramics on display, marvel at the intricate play of bricks and tiles all around you, hunt for treasure in the backstreets.
A lot has already been written about Bukhara in the past. We always like to offer something new to deepen your experience (what you know is what you see), but that takes a lot of time, and we haven’t gotten round to writing all of it yet. Besides the Lyabi-Hauz, we have already discussed the many-layered Magok-i-Attari Mosque, the iconic Chor Minor and the even more iconic Kalon Minaret. Finally, the Ark, the Registan and the Shukhov Tower in front have also gotten the Caravanistan treatment.
For more about the architecture and the story behind the historic buildings in Bukhara, we refer you to the authoritative Oriental Architecture.
It is so easy to spend hours exploring the ancient caravanserais and madrassahs, now housing artisans workshops, antiquarians, fabric boutiques and knife makers. Search out masters like miniaturist Jahongir Ashurov, shop for ikat at Feruza’s store, hunt carpets in the Abdullah Khan tim or find contemporary photography instead. Just a few examples.
The nearby city of Gijduvon is known for its distinct school of ceramics. Master Alisher Narzullaev was the star here once, and his workshop has since become a stop on the tour-group circuit, but we feel the next generation lacks the talent and dedication of their dad. When it comes to prices, you can definitely do much better deals elsewhere in Gijduvon or with the re-sellers in Bukhara.
Bukhara also has artisan puppet makers.
Faizulla Khodjaev museum
Faizulla Khodjaev was a scion of a Bukharan merchant family. He was involved in the overthrow of the Emir and later became the first leader of the Uzbek SSR. In 1937, he was purged by Stalin.
An important figure who lived through interesting times. Alas, the exhibition in his old home is very underwhelming. You don’t learn much. There is no guide, only a caretaker who admits she doesn’t know the history.
The house itself, however, is a wonderful example of a typical 19th-century Bukharan merchant house. Well worth a look if you are not already staying in a historical merchant house turned into a bnb, like Hovli Poyon, Caravan, Sukhrob, Adabon, Komil or others.
If you are, though, you can save yourself the 7500 sum entry (5000 sum for photos) and have a meal at the adjoining restaurant Suzana instead. Good food, reasonable prices, and best of all a fantastic collection of suzani for you to get lost in while tucking into your plov.
Fine arts museum
Somewhat forgotten, the old Central Bank building between the first and second trading domes has been repurposed as Bukhara’s fine arts museum, with a collection of late 19th-, early 20th-century paintings. If you have been to other fine arts museums in the region, the themes will look familiar.
Nonetheless, devoted fans of the arts will enjoy paintings by Pavel Benkov, Mikhail Kurzin, Alexander Volkov and Nadejda Kashina, who all have paintings hanging in the Savitsky as well, where they get a lot more attention. In contrast. here you will likely have the place to yourself.
The Bozori Kord hammam (Gmaps) has lost its once-colourful interior after six centuries of use, but it retains a lot of its atmospheric charm. It is now firmly focused on tourists: a massage-and-bath combination costs approximately $20 and lasts about an hour and a half. Ask for the “soft” massage (trust us). Open to all until 6pm and then by reservation only until midnight.
The Kunjak hammam near the Kalon minaret (Gmaps) is also tourist-oriented, but only for ladies.
Not everyone is a fan of Bozori Kord or Kunjak, either because it is relatively expensive, or because they think the treatments aren’t that great. In that case, go where the locals go. Try for instance the somewhat rundown hammam across from the Goziyon madrassa (OSM). For 20 000 sum you get 1 hour access to the sauna, a 30 minute massage is 30 000. Cold beers are delivered right to the sauna.
Naqshbandi mausoleum and 7 saints’ tombs
On the outskirts of Bukhara lies the mausoleum of Baha-ud-Din Naqshband. If you are one of the estimated 60-100 million followers of the Naqshbandi Sufi order, this is likely the reason why you have come to Bukhara in the first place.
If you are not, definitely visit as well. It is an excellent opportunity to learn more about a branch of Islam that doesn’t make headlines, but is no less important than more explosive interpretations like Salafism or Wahhabism.
If you are a devotee, you will probably want to visit the tombs of the 7 saints of Bukhara as well. We recommend Don Croner’s book as your guide.
Necropolis and archaeological ruins
West of Bukhara you can find the Chor Bakr necropolis (OSM / Gmaps). It is another pilgrimage site. It is not a must-see, but it’s a lovely, quiet place off the tourist trail if you are headed that way anyway.
One reason you might be in the neighbourhood is when searching for the ruins of the ancient towns of Varakhsha (OSM) and Paikend (OSM / Gmaps), or Vardanzeh (Gmaps). These are archaeological sites, ergo the best stuff has been taken out to museums, what is left are earthen walls.
Vabkent minaret and Gijduvon
20 km northeast of Bukhara stands the Vabkent Minaret, a 39-metre-tall tower built in 1196. It is the second-largest minaret in the Bukhara oasis after the Kalon Minaret, and it was part of the Karakhanids impressive minaret-building spree that has echoes in Kyrgyzstan’s Burana tower.
Gijduvon is a lovely provincial town. Tourists know it for its ceramics, architecture and pilgrimage sites, among Uzbeks it is famous for its cuisine.
Lakes and nature reserve
Bird Life International classes Dengizkul Lake, near the border with Turkmenistan, as an Important Birding Area. If you come in the winter months it is possible to see plenty of migrant species that have flown south from Siberia.
Keen birdwatchers will get particularly excited about spotting Dalmatian pelicans (the world’s largest freshwater bird), marbled and white-headed ducks and ferruginous pochards.
Lake Tudakul also has birds, but it mostly does service as a local swim spot. Tips and reviews in the Tudakul forum thread. Electronic music festival Stihia brings a different vibe to the shores of Tudakul once a year.
Transport and accommodation
In certain parts of the world, the hotel is the destination. In Central Asia, that’s quite a rare occasion; only village homestays and yurtstays in the mountains tend to qualify. But Bukhara is an exception.
With a lot of careless renovation and destructive touristification going on in the city’s public spaces, Bukhara’s privately managed bnb’s and hotels have become important guardians of heritage. Staying in a former madrasa or at the centuries-old mansion of a rich trader family will definitely add to your understanding and enjoyment of life as it once was in this ancient city.
Read our recommendations in the Bukhara accommodation guide.
For transport advice, see our Bukhara transport guide.