And yet those ponds of Bukhara are wonderfully beautiful. In the evening, after the muezzin has sounded from the minaret the call to prayer, the men of the city gather around the ponds, which are bordered by tall, silver poplars and magnificent black elms, to enjoy a period of ease and leisure. Carpets are spread, the ever burning chilim is passed from mouth to mouth, the samovar steams away, and lightfooted boys hand round the shallow bowls of green tea.
Here the meddahs, or story-tellers, the musicians and the dancing boys assemble to display their craft. And perhaps a conjuror or a juggler comes, performing the most amazing and incredible feats of skill. An Indian snake charmer joins the throng and sets his poisonous snakes to dance, while over all reigns the peace of a Bukharan evening. No loud speech breaks the spell; items of scandal and the news of the day are exchanged in discreet whispers. So it was centuries ago in Bukhara; so it is today. There are things which not even the Soviets can alter.
– Gustav Krist, Alone Through the Forbidden Land, (1937)
But altered it has. These days, Lyabi-Hauz is entirely given over to tourism. It’s still a pleasant place to sit and enjoy a pot of green tea, and the architecture remains spellbinding, but we prefer the fast-moving shade cast by a mulberry tree at 3 pm instead of the buzz of a summer’s evening, madrassas soaked in neon green.
Afternoons are quiet: tour groups are on the trot in the city while backpackers take cover in air-conditioned safety. More space for you to have a chat with the lounging white beards, always keen for a photo-op. Or you can just ruminate on times past as you take in the view of the surrounding madrassas, occasionally chasing away a Mugat beggar child.
History of the hauz
The Lyabi Hauz Square is centred on an artificial reservoir (a hauz in Persian) constructed on the orders of the Grand Vizier (in today’s parlance, the Prime Minister), Nadir Divanbegi, around 1620. It was the largest of the city reservoirs, fed directly from the main canal or Shah Rud (Royal Canal) which still bisects the old town. It was built with stone steps to allow the city’s water carriers to easily fill their leather buckets, regardless of the reservoir’s current water level.
Today the hauz lies idyllic, but during the time of the emirate the stagnant water supply was infested with a variety of waterborne diseases until the Soviets drained, restored and refilled it in the 1960s. The mulberry trees that line its shore date from 1477.
Guinea worms are now almost eradicated worldwide. It wasn’t always so. Across central Asia, city dwellers and nomads alike feared the reshta.
In the dry summer months the city’s irregular water supply could be cut off for months at a time, with local Bukharans drinking, washing and cleaning in canals alive with skin disease and guinea worm. Visitors to the city soon became acquainted only too well with the horrors of the reshta, a parasite that entered the bloodstream only to emerge from the host’s leg as a two foot white worm which had to be slowly wound around a match over a period of days.
If the worm broke, it would split into a dozen pieces only to reemerge days later amidst the host’s agonized cries. Bukhara’s sanitation system was set afloat in a sea of its own filth and in an attempt to control its regular epidemics, those with serious skin diseases were quarantined in a closed section in the north of the city and any Bukharan was empowered to slay on sight a leper found outside his quarter.
– Calum McLeod & Bradley Mayhew, Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand
Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha
Commissioned at the same time as the hauz by Nadir Divanbegi, the khanagha is placed at the perfect distance so its reflection in the surface of the water can be admired from a topchan across the pond.
The khanagha is a squat construction, unabashedly solid with an attractive manliness to it. It consists of a central cruciform mosque surrounded by a series of four hujra cells set on 2 floors which would offer accommodation to mendicant holy men.
At the centre of the building is a mosque. Its mihrab is brilliantly decorated with coloured muqarnas, reminding the visitor of the cave of Hira, where Muhammad received his first revelation according to the Quran.
Nadir Divanbegi Madrassa
The Nadir Divanbegi Madrassa closes the eastern side of the ensemble and, built by the same man as the Khanagha, dates from the 1630s.
It is one of the finest examples of figurative tilework in Uzbekistan. One’s eyes immediately drift up towards the famous tympanum and its 2 Simurgh birds with two white deers clasped in their talons, watched over by a personified sun with Mongol features. With the Islamic prohibition on figurative art in a religious context in mind, its beauty immediately strikes one as sinful, much like the Sher Dor madrassa in Samarkand.
How did such a mishap come about? Well, it was never meant to be a madrassa in the first place.
At the rope-cutting ceremony of the new caravanserai built by Nadir (of which he was hoping to make a handsome personal profit in the years to come) the Imam-Quli Khan spoke highly of the new madrassa.
The Divanbegi bit his lip. No one contradicted the khan of Bukhara, not even his uncle (Imam-Quli Khan was his nephew, we can assume a family feud).
And thus, the portal was rebuilt and corner towers were added, as befitted a religious seminary, but to this day the madrassa still lacks a traditional layout, equipped with neither mosque nor lecture hall.
So what about that Mongol-faced sun? As Don Croner reminds us, the “sun-rayed face” is generally thought to be a symbol of Mithra, which in Zoroastrianism represents an intermediary between God and Man personified. It would appear that underground currents of Zoroastrian existed in Bukhara up until that time at least and may indeed continue into the present day.
For a more detailed account of Zoroastrianism in Bukhara, see the page on the Magok-i Attari mosque (coming soon).
Keep in mind though, that what you are looking at, relies more on the imagination of local contemporary craftsmen rather than history. Extensive restoration happened in the 1970’s. As this picture from earlier times shows, basically nothing was left from the original tilework.
In front of the madrassa Khodja Nasreddin, the ‘wise fool’ who appears in Sufi teaching-tales around the world, sits on his donkey.
The massive Kukeldash Madrassa, north of the hauz, pre-dates all three of Nadir Divan Beghi’s constructions, having been built in the late 1560s by the philantropist Kulbaba Kukeldash (whose ritzy name means foster brother of the Khan).
This is the largest madrassa in Central Asia (60 by 80 metres). Its heavy brick facade conceals some elegant interior tilework and complicated vaulting systems. The madrassa’s most famous student was the 20th-century writer Sadriddin Ayni whose house museum is located across from the Registan in Samarkand, and has the crossroads town of Ayni named after him in the Tajik Zerafshan Valley.
The Kukeldash Madrassa has now been restored to its original condition, if not its original function, and you can step inside the cool interior to admire the vaulted ceilings, colourful tilework and, of course, the numerous hujras.
To the south of the Lyabi Hauz Square spreads the Jewish Quarter of the old town, now a prime location for small bed and breakfasts. Jews were an important minority in Bukhara until the break-up of the Soviet Union, when the vast majority relocated to Israel and Queens, New York.
Their pivotal role in the growth of international trade, especially with the Russian Volga, and their domination of certain industries such as cold silk dyeing belied their relatively small numbers, but unfortunately for the Bukharan Jews economic prosperity was rarely converted into political or social influence.
From Goodnight, Mister Lenin by Tiziano Terzani:
The Jews of Bukhara have a long history. According to one version they arrived here in the ninth century. According to another – the one the Jews themselves like to tell – they are descendants of prisoners taken by the Assyrian-Babylonian kings and brought to Central Asia seven centuries before Christ. The community has always been of a few thousand people. At the beginning of the nineteenth century some Western travellers spoke of 4000 Jews living in Bukhara, most of them employed as dyers. A few were rich. The Jews were quite recognizable because, unlike the Muslims, they were not allowed to wear coloured scarves as belts round their waists to close their caftans. They could only use a rope. “So if a Jew had to be hanged for some crime, the rope was always at hand.” He is joking, but not entirely. […]
“One of the advantages of their condition,” says Soliman, is that being ‘impure’, they could not be sold as slaves.”
The synagogue, in the central backstreet (OSM / Gmaps), holds regular services and keeps a small history museum as well as a functioning Jewish school just around the corner. A second synagogue is supposedly located within walking distance (is it the Rubinov house? clarification welcome!). Ask to be guided at the first location. On the southern edge of town lies the Jewish Cemetery, where the stars of Lenin and David mix uneasily.