The palace of Kagan is, much like the Sitora-i Mokhi Khosa on the other side of town, an opulent contradiction. On the one hand, it shows off the incredible wealth of the Bukharan emirs at the turn of the 20th century. At the same time, it underlines, both through its design and its location, the declining power of the Bukharan emirate, and the creeping Russian colonialism that would eventually destroy it completely.
Cotton and the Trans-Caspian Railway
You are likely to come to Kagan for practical reasons: to arrive or depart from Bukhara by train. It’s been like that since 1888.
To grow its economy in the 1800s, Russia needed access to cheaper cotton, the prime commodity of that time, and reduce its independence from (especially) American cotton. 200 years ago, this meant a search for colonies, and Central Asia was a prime target because of its excellent cotton climate.
The Russian commander in chief in the Caucasus, Baron G. V. Rosen, had envisaged as early as 1833 that the cotton growers there “would be our Negroes.” Yet as late as 1857, such efforts reaped few rewards—Central Asian cotton supplied only 6.5 percent of the needs of the Russian industry.
To efficiently colonise what was then called Turkestan, Russia needed a railway. On the one hand, to move its armies around swiftly as they mopped up the different khanates and emirates, and on the other hand, to export the raw cotton back to Russian factories.
In the 1880’s, Russian authorities sought permission for a train station for the Trans-Caspian Railway in Bukhara. The emir, feeling the hot breath of the encroaching Russian empire, was rightfully wary of the heathen shaitan arba, or devil’s cart (a name used primarily for the equally satanic bicycle, actually). But he knew he could not hold them back forever. For a sizeable sum of German silver, permission was granted for a Russian settlement called Kagan to be built 15 kilometers outside of Bukhara.
The railway station of Kagan opened in 1888 (or 1887, not sure). Russian colonists started moving in. A bazaar rose up, and an orthodox church was built; both are still worth a visit. To this day, the mikrorayons of modern Kagan still house a large Russian minority.
Palace of Kagan
In 1895, it transpired that Tsar Nicholas II was going to visit Bukhara. The Emir, Abdul Ahad, wished to accommodate him in style and engaged the Russian architect Benoit to build a palace in Kagan. Benoit had already made a reputation in Turkestan at that point by building a Lutheran church and a palace for the exiled Grand Duke Nicholas Romanov, both in Tashkent.
Portending Mafia Baroque by a century, the palace is an eclectic mix of Moorish, Imperial Russian and Bukharan styles exploding into an extravagance of turrets, domes and horseshoe arches. The interior is reminiscent of the Sitora-i Mokhi Khosa; local stucco artistry with Islamic motifs looking down on European furniture.
The palace was finished, but Tsar Nicholas never arrived. For some time the residence was a hotel for visiting dignitaries, heathens who were not permitted to enter the holy city of Bukhara. Later, the palace was adopted by the tsarist Russian Political Commissar until the Soviets handed it over to the railway proletariat as a social club in 1920.
Today it houses an unimpressive Railway Museum. Luckily, the museum does not detract from the sumptuous architecture both inside and out. The palace is one of a number of historical locations around Bukhara tour groups can rent out for soirees in style.
How to visit
- On the map: OSM / Gmaps
- Opening hours: 9-17
- Entrance: 8000 sum
- Getting there:
- Kagan is situated at a 10-minute drive east from the old town. Take marshrutka #268 from Lyabi Hauz or #262 from the modern city center (there are others).
- A taxi would cost around 12 000 sum. Watch out if you understand Russian: Vokzal now also refers to a bus stand where the train station used to be, in the center of town. Mention Kagan.