The Ark of Bukhara is a citadel, a military stronghold to protect the town-within-a-town where the rulers of Bukhara held court for about 1500 years. Once synonymous with the absolute power of one man over his dominion, its presence now graces almost every postcard of Bukhara.
A Brief History of the Ark
Believed by archaeologists to be built sometime between the 5th and 6th centuries CE, the Ark’s original rectangular structure included a palace, administrative areas, guardrooms, and a Zoroastrian fire temple. It became the centre around which the town of Bukhara was built with the main functions of the town taking place within its old walls.
Collapse and Reconstruction
The Ark’s history is turbulent. Since its construction by the Sogdians, it was rebuilt many times. Local soothsayers finally recommended the fortress be remodeled to reflect the Great Bear constellation, believing this to be the only solution to avoid its repeated collapse.
In 713, the first ever mosque in Bukhara was built on the smoldering ashes of the Zoroastrian temple by Arabs, in order to assert their Islamic hold on the city. Next it passed into the hands of the Samanids and Karakhanids from the 9th to the 12th centuries. They added a series of ramparts to fortify the structure. The Karakhitai and Khorezmshah built and destroyed the Ark 3 times more before it was finally obliterated by the Mongols in 1220.
The Ark as it is known today began to take its form in the 16th century under the Uzbek Shaybanids. The artificial hill on which it stands had acquired a lot of historical dust by this time.
During this time, it housed the Emir, his family and retinue, as well as many government officials. Home to 700 to 1500 inhabitants, it consisted of a palace, harem, throne room, reception hall, administrative offices, treasury, mosque, gold mint, dungeon and slave quarters.
The big building in front of the gate was the arsenal. It’s where the following picture was made by Prokudin-Gorskii in 1907.
Finally, in 1920, the Ark was almost totally destroyed by air bombings from the Red Army during the Battle of Bukhara. Only 20% of the buildings survived the bombardment. Some say it was not, in fact, the Russians that reduced the Ark to rubble, but that it was instead blown up on the orders of the Emir himself, to prevent the Bolsheviks from desecrating it.
1929 saw a new wave of destruction as the Soviets tried to remove the vestiges of the old regime. That’s when the arsenal was removed, as well as a bunch of mosques surrounding the Ark.
Restoration as a museum
What was left of the ark’s buildings became a museum during Soviet times. To this day, the handful of restored museum buildings hide the heart and bones of the Ark.
A walking tour of the Ark
The Western Gateway
The Ark would once have been entered through the southern Kalon Gate, leading directly to the Juma (Friday) Mosque. Today, visitors enter through the austere western gateway that juts out of the bulging sand castle walls of the fortress.
Built by Nadir Shah in 1742, the gateway has a pair of towering bastions, linked by a balcony. Until the turn of this century, it showcased Bukhara’s only mechanical clock, made by Italian clockmaker Giovanni Orlandi, captured by Turkmen slave raiders and sold to the Emir, but finally tossed from the Kalon minaret, or perhaps beheaded.
Other stories say the clock was captured from the Kokand Khanate as war loot, or brought by a Russian politician on the run called Karatayev.
The Court Mosque
The court mosque with ornately carved pillars and a colourful mihrab stands at the top of the walkway. Now hosting an exhibition of calligraphic art, it includes exhibits from Navoi and Jami’s diwan poetry and 2 pages from a Koran dating back to the 10th century.
If you can read Arabic, you will notice that some of the inscriptions on the objects displayed do not make any sense. In those days, many people could not read. The Koran was written in Arabic, and having some of these signs on your belongings already conveyed an element of holiness. The actual meaning of the words was less important.
The Reception and Coronation Court
Second on the left is the extensive Reception and Coronation Court. It is the oldest surviving part of the Ark, although it suffered greatly during the 1920 bombardment when its roof collapsed. Coronations took place here up until the 20th century when Alim Khan was coronated in 1910.
The 2-storey nagorakhana, or orchestra, can be seen from the final courtyard. It is from here that the drumbeat would ring across the courtyard to herald the next brutal execution. The royal stables were also located in the main courtyard. When horses were washed down, the water would run down the channel to drench the unfortunate souls in the torture cells beneath.
The Emir’s viewing pavilion is visible to the left of the courtyard. It is here that the Emir, and his female retinue, would gaze over Registan and delight in the last living moments of their prisoners.
From the Royal Apartments to the Torture Chambers
The remains of the royal apartments are at the end of the corridor, around the salamhona (Protocol Court). The salamhona is where the protracted public audience with the Emir would take place every day, as dignitaries stood in line to bow and pay their respects to the Emir.
The tradition ended with the last 2 Emirs. They took up full-time residence at their summer palace rather than at the Ark as the apartments fell into repair.
They now host several museums covering the history from the Shaybanids to the Tsars. Imported artifacts such as a massive samovar from Tula in Russia are on display, as well as the Emir’s throne. The ornate final robe to be worn during a coronation ceremony is found in the first room. It was worn with a 20-metre turban that doubled as a shroud should the Emir die during a journey.
A winding arcade known as the dolom runs from the stone ramp entrance past a raised booth. Here the Tupchi Bashi, commander of the fortress, would receive reports from his spies. The narrow passage leads by the ominous khanahkaneh, a row of cells and torture chambers, and climbs into the dark heart of the Ark.
This was the favourite part of Soviet tour guides, to highlight the terrors of feudal despotism compared to enlightened Communism. Luckily we are more self-aware these days! Ahum…
The Living Quarters and Archaeological Museum
The elchihona, the former living quarters of the Emir’s Kushbegi (prime minister), once the receiving room for foreign ambassadors, now houses an archaeological museum about Paikend, Varakhsha and Romitan, nearby Silk Road trading posts that have long since turned to dust.
To the side of the Ark lurks the sombre zindan, or city jail. 3 hellish cells were once home to debtors, murderers and political prisoners. The most infamous cell, the Black Well, was a deep pit covered with an iron grill and only accessible via a 6-metre rope. Rats, scorpions, lice, cockroaches and other vermin were added to the pit to further torment the unfortunate prisoners. It is here that British Officer’s Stoddart and Conolly famously spent their final days.
In 1882, English missionary Henry Landsell was given a tour of the jail. He noted how the woeful prisoners, manacled and chained at the neck, were largely unfed. Every Friday, common criminals, still shackled, were released from the Zindan to beg for food in the marketplace below.
Today the only inhabitants of the gloomy jail are a few dummies and dungeon memorabilia. A famous photograph of the bloody back of Sadriddin Ayni, Tajikistan future national poet, who was publicly whipped in 1917 for his reformist Jadid ideas, is also displayed here.
- 9 – 19:30 Wednesday to Monday, with exhibition rooms closing at 16
- 9 – 14 on Tuesday
Entry: 4$ with a guide, 2$ without. We highly recommend you to take a guided tour.
In front of the fortress lies the Registan, the main square of medieval Bukhara. Up until the end of the century, the Registan was teeming with butchers, bakers, beggars, barbers, and merchants of all types. You could buy everything from cabbages to a Russian or Persian slave here (slavery was abolished around the same time as in the USA, but much like in the USA, it continued under another name, and to the same ends: cotton).
Wilhelm Harteveld, a Swedish composer and ethnographer, saw all of his orientalist fantasies come true here:
Of all the cities and localities that I had seen in Turkestan, nowhere did the authentic East came alive so vividly as it did on this square in front of the palace of the Bukharan sovereign. Its images immediately carried you over to the tales of “A Thousand and One Nights,” and the heroes of my childhood, Sinbad, Ali Baba, and others were quickly resurrected before me.
A huge crowd on the square traded, laughed, quarreled, reconciled and frantically bawled in all the dialects of the East. Haji’s picturesque costumes in white turbans alternated with the pointed hats of Afghans, and the bronze face of a tall Indian flashed in the crowd of Bukharians and Sarts.
– Among loose sands and severed heads: Travel sketches of Turkestan (1913)
In the 1920’s, the Registan was still considered the heart of the city, where meetings and parades were held.
Lovers of constructivist architecture will have long started looking beyond the Ark into the opposite direction, where a Shukhov Tower stands. 33 metres high, it was constructed for use as a water tower in 1927 by genius engineer and architect Vladimir Shukhov, a key player of the Soviet industrial leap and the inventor of the hyperboloid structure of which the tower is a shining example.
About 200 of these water towers were built across the empire. These days, few are left, but Uzbekistan is a rich hunting ground for the Shukhov-fanatic. The Uzbek hyperboloids are all located near train stations. In Bukhara, have a good look around Kagan train station to find a rusty exemplar.
In the first half of the 1970s, the water supply system of Bukhara was changed (see Where did Bukhara’s storks go?). The Shukhov Tower lost its original function and was not used for some time. In 1975, the wooden water tank burnt down, but for once, Uzbeks decided to keep their heritage instead of tearing it down.
In the 90’s, a local entrepreneur installed an elevator and converted the tower into a restaurant and viewing platform, but the elevator stopped working soon after and the business went bankrupt.
The tower was closed for access for a long time, but was converted into a viewing platform and reopened to the public in 2019. Enjoy!
Park, Bolo Hauz, Lenin and beyond
The Bolo Hauz chaikhana in the park opposite is a good place for tea or lunch. Quick and tasty.
During Communism, Lenin took centre stage in the park here. He disappeared in 1992. Just behind it you can find another water reservoir, the Bolo Hauz, and the Bolo Hauz mosque, and behind that, a large park with the Samanid mausoleum and the Chashma Ayub.