The Magok-i-Attari Mosque is situated in a 4-metre deep pit right behind the Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha that flanks Lyabi Hauz. Like descending down the geologic record of a canyon face, examining this building reveals the cultural layers Bukhara accrued over the past 2000 years: a mishmash mosque on top of a Buddhist temple, on top of a Zoroastrian one, in turn covering the tracks of a pagan shrine.
In the spirit of Goethe (man erblickt nur, was man schon weiß und versteht), let’s have a look.
From Mokh to Magok: a pagan cult survives Islam
From Don Croner, with redaction: We first learn about this temple in Narshakhi’s The History of Bukhara, written in the 940’s. He speaks first of the market that existed on the site of the temple or grew up around a temple already located on the site. Twice a year, we are told, a fair was held in this market at which idols dedicated to a moon God named Makh or Mokh were sold. In just one day of the fair 50,000 dirhams, an enormous amount of money at the time, were spent on these idols.
“Later this place,” he adds, became a fire-temple.” By fire temple he probably meant a Zoroastrian temple, although this point has been disputed. Zoroastrianism was present in Bukhara in the pre-Islamic days of the Sogdians, whose contacts from one end of the Silk Road to the other had also brought them in contact with Buddhism, Christianity, and probably Judaism.
The sale of the idols continued after the Zoroastrian temple came into use. “On the day of the fair [where lunar idols were sold], when the people gathered, all went into the fire-temple and worshipped fire”, according to Narshakhi.
“The fire-temple existed to the time of Islam [early eighth century] when the Muslims seized power and built a mosque on that place. Today [in the mid-tenth century] it is one of the most esteemed mosques in Bukhara”, according to Narshakhi. Interestingly, the fair at which lunar idols were sold continued on even into Islamic times. Narshakhi tells of one important local Muslim personage who “was very astonished that this should be allowed.”
He asked the elders and sheiks the reason for this. They said that the inhabitants of Bukhara in olden times had been idol-worshippers. They were permitted to have this fair, and from that time on they had sold idols in it. It has remained thus today. Thus tradition and custom seemed to override the strict prohibitions against idol worship found in Islam.
By this time, the mosque’s name had changed to Magok, meaning pit, referring to the elevated street level around the mosque.
Sin, the Babylonian moon God
Some sources claim Mokh was a Moon God originally worshipped in ancient Assyria and Babylonia.
This god was known as Sin (or Suen) in the Akkadian language and Nanna in the Sumerian language. The chief centers of the cult were the Sumerian city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, which dates to a least 5800 years ago, and Harran in northern Mesopotamia.
The moon God Nanna was considered the tutelary deity of Ur. The Ziggurat of Ur, which contained the shrine of the moon god Nanna, was built in the 21st century b.c. and its partially restored ruins still stand today. Gradually this cult seeped eastward across the Iranian Plateau and eventually northeastward across the Amu Darya River into Transoxiania, eventually seeding itself in Bukhara.
The exact connections between the moon god of Mesopotamia and the moon good apparently worshipped at the Mokh Temple must, however, remain a matter of speculation. In any case, Islamic orthodoxy at some point reasserted itself and the moon cult was stamped out, and by the middle of the tenth-century it was, as Narshakhi noted, one of the most important mosques in Bukhara.
Attar: herbalist bazaar
At the time of Narshakhi, the mosque had become the focal point of a bazaar of spices, potions, perfumes and attar or ittar, essential oils derived from botanical sources. Egyptians were famous for their scents and perfumes, but it was Bukhara native Ibn Sina / Avicenna who came up with the technique of steam distillation of roses and other plants, thus providing the foundation for aromatherapy.
In 937 the 4-pillared mosque was burnt to the ground in a city-wide fire and in the 12th century, around the time of the construction of the Kalon minaret, the present mosque was erected, from which the original southern portal, remains. There is some suggestion that the columns at the sides of this portal may in fact be pre-Islamic, a tantalising suggestion of the appearance of the destroyed Zoroastrian temple.
The Magok-i Attari seems to have survived the Mongol onslaught quite well. In 1547, on the order of Abdulaziz Khan, the domes were added, as well an eastern entrance at street level. Today, the entrance is once again from the south.
Until the 16th century refurbishment, Bukhara’s Jews are said to have prayed at the mosque.
The absorbing receding facade draws from the entire range of decorative techniques of the 10th century: carving, polished brick and glazed tile work. 2 Sogdian-influenced quarter columns lead the eye to complex knotted geometric ornaments (girikh), and fine filigree carved columns support a graceful arch still traced in turquoise majolica tilework.
Carved terracotta is used in decorating the pylons and the vaults of the arches, combined with vegetation patterns with inscriptions covered with blue glaze.
The minimal blue glazing on the arch over the door is typical of Karakhanid building; extensive use of blue-glazed tiles did not happen until the arrival of the 14th century Timurids. The vertical bow-tie with a horizontal line across the center is a Zoroastrian motif, being a reduced form of the faravahar, the central symbol of Zoroastrianism.
The flat roof has 2 octagonal tholobates with latticed arched windows, that carry 2 octagonal domes resembling the skullcap typical for Uzbek men.
Interior and carpet museum
The mosque has been converted to a carpet museum, mostly sporting Bukhara carpets from Turkmenistan.
Charred Zoroastrian remains can be seen in the eastern pit, below a huge mass prayer carpet. You will often find melted candles and evidence of small fires in the exterior niches of the building, a sign that Zoroastrian influence in Uzbek folk culture runs deep.
How to visit
- Opening hours: 9-17, Monday-Saturday
- Entrance: 5000 sum