Follow the backstreets northeast from the Old Town, and before long you will hit upon a quaint, stubby structure with 4 turrets. This striking oddity is the Chor Minor. Together with the Ark Fortress, the Po-i Kalyan and the Divanbegi madrassa, it is one of the most recognizable monuments of Bukhara.
Its bricklaying mastery and turquoise ceramic toppings immediately situate it in the architectural tradition of the land. At the same time, its layout is unlike anything you can see in Bukhara or even Uzbekistan.
Its quirkiness is even more interesting considering its construction date, 1807, in a time when Bukhara was already in decline for some time, and creative expression was being suffocated by religious extremism – don’t think Islamic Republic of Iran, think ISIS or Al-Shabaab.
Not a time to get original. So where did this original idea come from?
To all appearances, the Chor Minor (4 minarets in Tajik) has its roots in southern India where its patron, the rich Turkmen merchant Khalif Niyazkul, is thought to have travelled. The famous Charminar (4 pillars in Urdu) gateway of Hyderabad very likely served as inspiration.
Gatehouse or mosque?
Which makes sense: the Chor Minor, for once, is not a mosque. It’s simply a fanciful gatehouse for a madrassa that has disappeared. The 4 towers popping out from the gatehouse are not minarets; they are simply decorative. A mosque did exist nearby, as illustrated below.
Have a good look at the decorative elements in the towers: it is easy to spot a Christian fish and cross, and a Buddhist prayer wheel with a bit more imagination. Any interpretation however, is conjecture.
The missing madrassa
With the madrassa gone, Chor Minor now stands shyly, as if caught naked in public. It used to be a lot more crowded. A few hujra cells for students remain on the side, and a now-empty library was once situated on the first floor. To the side, a small hauz still remains.
But the rest of the madrassa has disappeared, and we can trace how the area has changed over time (big up to oldcolor).
The big cleanup started in 1929, when many mahallas were destroyed as part of the socialist reconstruction of Bukhara. Religious figures had long since fled the Soviet Union or been murdered.
In 1998 one tower collapsed during an earthquake. It was restored later under the auspices of UNESCO.
Where did the storks go?
…when Bokhara Sherif (the noble, as the Central Asiatics designate it) appeared in view, with, amongst some other buildings, its clumsy towers, crowned, almost without exception, by nests of storks.Travels in Central Asia, Arminius Vambery, 1863
In Khiva nightingales abound, but there are no storks; the reverse is the case at Bokhara, in which there is not a single tower or other elevated building where we do not see birds of the last-named description, sitting, like single-legged sentinels, upon the roofs. The Khivite mocks the Bokhariot upon this subject, saying, ‘Thy nightingale song is the bill-clapping of the stork.’
Storks occupied many of the domes and minarets in Bukhara until the late 1970’s. They were nesting on the domes of Chor Minor as well, as this picture from 1958 shows. Pictures from the 1980’s show just one paltry nest remaining. Where did the storks go?
In short, their water disappeared.
The groundwater in the larger area of the old town of Bukhara was very high (1 – 2m), and the soil contained a lot of salt. Zachkashi were open ponds dug as a type of drainage system to remove the excess groundwater and reduce the soil salinity. The system worked well, but officials in the 70’s declared them ugly and had them removed.
The soil salinity increased again, and the storks, who were attracted to Bukhara because of the ponds, disappeared (thanks to Rahmatillo Sharifov for the solution).