Travel writers, chroniclers and historians are in agreement: Bukhara the Holy, Bukhara the Noble, the Dome of Islam, the Pillar of Religion, the beauty of the spirit, the most intact city in the hoary East, the most interesting city in the world.
The riches of Bukhara span a thousand years. Boasting a different mosque for every day of the year, drawing the finest minds of the East with its cultural and commercial vitality, the city well deserved the title Bukhara the Holy. Everywhere else, it was said, light shone down from heaven; in Bukhara the light shone up.
Central Asia’s holiest city, Bukhara (population 270,000) has buildings spanning a thousand years of history, and a thoroughly lived-in old centre that probably hasn’t changed much in two centuries. It is one of the best places in Central Asia for a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan. Most of the centre is an architectural preserve, full of medressas, minarets, a massive royal fortress and the remnants of a once-vast market complex. Government restoration efforts have been more subtle and less indiscriminate than in flashier Samarkand, and the city’s accommodation options go from strength to strength.
Whether you are drawn to the Ark, the city’s medieval mud-brick citadel, and the grisly history of its Registan and zindan, or to the majestic beauty of the Kalyon Mosque and the buildings of Lyabi Hauz reflected in the gently shifting waters of the tank, everything you see is a treat for the eyes. Many people will quite understandably spend their entire stay wandering the labyrinthine streets of the Old Town, savouring each sight and sound and smell.
Bukhara is the undisputed pearl (or perhaps that should be sapphire, given that its dominant colour is blue) of Uzbekistan. Samarkand and Khiva both have their charms, but they seem but pale mirages when you are standing alone on a late autumnal afternoon staring up at the Kalyon Minar, the most prominent sight on Bukhara’s skyline, and with the vast and unbelievably sumptuous 16th-century Kalyon Mosque at your side.
Those who do venture a little further outside the city will not be disappointed, however. The Bakhauddin Naqshbandi Complex outside the modern city’s confines is considered amongst the holiest sites in central Asia, and huge numbers of visitors come both on pilgrimage and to admire the mazar. Close by is the Sitorai Makhi Khosa, the summer palace of Alim Khan, which gives a poignant insight into the last days of the Bukharan emirate before the Bolsheviks took control, and also the town of Gijduvan, famous for its handmade and finely painted ceramics.
Until a century ago Bukhara was watered by a network of canals and some 200 stone pools where people gathered and gossiped, drank and washed. As the water wasn’t changed often, Bukhara was famous for plagues; the average 19th-century Bukharan is said to have died by the age of 32. The Bolsheviks modernised the system and drained the pools. You’ll need at least two days to look around. Try to allow time to lose yourself in the old town; it’s easy to overdose on the 140-odd protected buildings and miss the whole for its many parts.
An oasis in the enveloping Kyzylkum desert, Bukhara sits 250km downstream of Samarkand on the Zarafshon River. The heart of the shahristan (old town) is the pool and square called Lyabi-Hauz; the landmark Kalon Minaret is five minutes further, the Ark five more. Further west are Samani Park and the main farmers market, Kolkhoz (Dekhon, Markazi) Bazaar. The bulk of the modern town lies southeast of the historical centre.
The majority of sights lie scattered around the old town (shakhristan) and are thus most easily reached on foot. The classic itinerary starts at the Registan and proceeds through the heart of the old bazaar quarter to the area around the Lyab-i Hauz square. Bukhara’s range of interesting sights requires at least two or three days to do the city justice and is the Central Asian city that most rewards the inquisitive traveller prepared to veer off the main tourist routes and immerse himself in the old town.