Located in the outskirts of the city, the Summer Palace of the last emirs of Bukhara is a fascinating place to dive into the lifestyle of the court in a time of great upheaval. It’s also just nice to have a look at all the cool stuff they had, and the unique architecture they built around them.
The palace was first built by the third-to-last Emir of Bukhara, Nasrullah Khan. Nothing is left of that original palace, except for the name and the location. Nasrullah Khan was a mad and cruel khan, but he loved his wife dearly. When she died in childbirth, he named the palace after her. He likened her beauty to the moon, her name was Sitorabony. Thus it became Sitora-i Mokhi Khosa Saroy, the palace of a star like the moon. (sitora means star – shows you how close Persian and English sometimes are in the family tree of Indo-European languages).
According to legend, the Emir requested the aksakals (white beards) of Bukhara to recommend a location for his summer residence. They told him to quarter a lamb, and hang the pieces at the 4 corners of the city. The piece that had been hung in the north was still fresh after some days (really?) and therefore the site was chosen as the coolest area for a summer palace.
Nasrullah Khan’s grandson, Abdul Ahad Khan, rebuilt the palace in the mid-19th century. The entrance portal, a wild clash of traditional majolica and Russian-influenced geometry, still stands.
His son Alim Khan, the last Emir of Bukhara, built the summer palace we know today. Completed in 1917, he did not enjoy it for long, though. 3 years later, Bolshevik commander Mikhail Frunze (who once lent his name to what we now call Bishkek) led his army into the streets of Bukhara.
The Emir was chased away to Afghanistan, while the soldiers enjoyed their reward: carrying off one the 400 women in the Emir’s harem. Communism had arrived.
Alim Khan’s version of Sitora-i Mokhi Khosa has a unique style, fusing European and Oriental features. Russian architects designed the facades and external structures, while local artisans decorated the inside. The fine line between art and kitsch was crossed back and forth with abandon as artists from both sides pushed each other to present the best of their cultural traditions.
By the time the summer palace was built, the royal family of Bukhara actually did not spend much time anymore in their official residence, the Ark Fortress. Instead they divided their time between the (now-destroyed) Shirgaron Palace and their summer residence in Karmana near Navoi. Winters were spent in Shahrisabz.
Increasingly russified, the emir of the ‘Dome of Islam’ now took his private train to frequent social events in St-Petersburg, where he could visit his son who was attending the military academy there (like his dad before him). The whole family holidayed in style in Crimea.
With his cosmopolitan lifestyle, the emir tried to balance the 2 worlds that were so painfully ripping apart all certainties between them, as the modern collided with the medieval; listening in at a scientific salon in the tsar’s Winter Palace one day, discussing 14th-century theology with the mullahs in the Kalon Mosque the next.
Thus the Sitora-i Mokhi Khosa, half-Russian, half-Bukharan, neatly symbolizes the uncomfortable straddle of a man and a society trying to reconcile 2 polar opposites.
The summer palace consists of 3 buildings, set in rose gardens and surrounded by courtyards, a Persian-influenced style that harks back to Timurid days.
As you enter through the opulent gate, the outer courtyard harbours a bookshop (formerly the emir’s wine cellar – yes) and servants’ quarters. The inner courtyard contains some of the Emir’s private possessions.
White Hall & courtyards
Next-door, the White Hall is a masterpiece of typical Bukharan stucco (ganch), niches and mirrors. Master craftsmen Shirin Muradov also decorated the Bukhara lobby in the Tashkent opera. The hall is lit by a huge chandelier brought from Poland; the door locks and door handles were brought from England and most of the furniture was imported from Russia. Venetian mirrors can be found in the rooms and the tiles for fireplaces were brought from Germany.
The rooms surrounding the courtyard include a banquet hall, a chess room and a chaikhana (teahouse), decorated with luxury items of the day like an early refrigerator, photographs of the emir and a mirror that multiplies 40 times. Alim Khan’s porcelain collection is displayed in the adorable chaikhana, while only a few remaining carpets of approximately 4000 exemplars his father collected now cover the hallway floors.
Guesthouse, harem & zoo
Behind the main palace buildings, an octagonal guesthouse for foreign visitors stands. It now holds an exhibition of national costume. Admire the expensive robes (the most elaborate one took 2 years to embroider with gold thread) and fear the horsehair veil (paranja), a garment so rough it would scratch open women’s noses. Robes in Central Asian society were a status symbol, for men to display their wealth, for women to signal their marital status (married women had their sleeves sewn together).
Let your imagination run wild for the final bit: the harem, consisting of a 2-story building and a pool. The emir would use the adjacent viewing platform to enjoy the scene and make his pick…or not: the emir had 40 ‘dancing boys’ he enjoyed, and he was an incurable voyeur: the palace is riddled with peepholes and hidden staircases.
The chosen girl would then be washed in donkey’s milk (another of the emir’s kinks) and delivered to his bedroom.
Today the harem is decorated with suzanis from Urgut and Shahrisabz and traditional furniture. During Soviet times, the harem and the octagonal guesthouse were occupied by convalescing kidney patients from the sanatorium nextdoor.
All the way at the end is the site of the former zoo. Peacocks still strut here, but the elephant is gone.
- On the map: OSM / Gmaps
- Opening hours: 9-19 Apr-Oct, 9-17 Nov-Mar. Tuesday 9-14.
- Entrance: 9000 sum
- Getting there:
- Bus #70 and #77 serve the bus station from the northern end of the intersection of Naqshbandi and Karimov (Nisomi) str. in front of school #4. That is still 4km from the summer palace, though, but they might go closer: ask around.
- A taxi should cost around 8000 sum.