Bukhara – A Sepia Portrait in the Desert (2003, 2013)

Bukhara – A Sepia Portrait in the Desert (2003, 2013)

Bukhara is a sepia-tinted portrait come alive for more reasons than one.  It is one of those cities where time seems to have stood still for centuries. The present graciously defers to the past and its glory, leaving little room for incongruities. And Bukhara is essentially of the desert. The all-pervasive hue is of burnished copper. The lustrous turquoise tiles that adorn the domes, minars and facades merely highlight the sepia tint rather than detract from it. A rambling citadel of masjids, minarets, medresses and maqbaras, this ancient town was once considered so holy that it was believed that light ascended from Bukhara to the skies. Writing in the thirteenth century, Marco Polo described it as a city most noble and grand. Bukhara was once the glorious capital of the ancient Samanids, who ruled in the ninth century. The kingdom sprawled over a large area that included the whole of modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as well as large parts of Iran and Afghanistan.  Islamic scholars believe that by the turn of the first millennium, the city housed 250 medresses with students from as far away as Andalusia and Yemen and sported a library of 45000 books on subjects ranging from astronomy and philosophy to mathematics and medicine. Many of these medresses and masjids survive to this day.

Glorious, yet Gruesome

Kalon Minaret is the most conspicuous visage of Bukhara, immortalized in a myriad angles in picture postcards, brochures and travel books. Towering at 150 feet, it was once the tallest structure in all of Central Asia. A cylindrical brick structure with a broad base and tapering towards the top, the minaret has some resemblance to our very own Qutub Minar. But Kalon  is a smaller, less ornamental and perhaps more appealing version of the latter.  Believed to have been built originally as a beacon to guide caravans, Kalon minaret has survived the destructive hordes of Genghis Khan only to become an instrument of death, depravity and unmatched cruelty in subsequent centuries.  It provided gruesome entertainment to successive rulers – including bloodthirsty Timur, the lionized icon of modern-day Uzbeks. Anyone who fell foul of royal favour was flung from the top of the tower. The hundred and nine steps leading to the top are uneven, narrow, dark and dingy. As you puff your way up the steps you can well visualize how the unfortunate captives would have been dragged kicking and screaming up these very steps in an era that celebrated cruelty as a mark of royal manhood.

Maqbara, Masjid and Madrassa

Despite its gruesome notoriety, the Kalon minaret and the square in which it stands are a picture of grace and harmony. On one side of the Minaret is the Kalon Masjid with its sprawling courtyard and a turquoise blue dome. Opposite the masjid is the Mir-e-Arab, a medresse built in 1535 from the profits  of slave trade. The medresse is still functional with over 150 students. Its central arched gateway rises steeply and is richly ornamented with coloured tiles forming intricate designs. Once you enter, a courtyard is surrounded by cloisters which house the students.

Behind Kalon Minaret is a rambling maze of medresses and mosques scattered over alleyways. Aromatic shasliks (kebabs) smoking on skewers and old-fashioned chai-khanas cater to tourists alongside modern bakeries offering jam tarts near Labbi Khaus, the tree-shaded sacred pool. Every archway houses a shop and most of the shopkeepers are women in gorgeous traditional gowns with exquisite embroidery and fancy caps. Their wares range from Ferghana silk scarves to exquisite pottery and quaint Central Asian musical instruments. On a narrow street stand two impressive structures with their frontages extravagantly decorated with arabesques and you learn these are the Ulug Beg and Abd-al-Aziz medresses.

Bukhara’s gory past is legendary. Not far from the minaret is the 21 feet deep Black Well where Emir Nasrullah  had imprisoned two Englishmen, Charles Stoddart, a colonel in the British Army and Captain Arthur Connolly of the Bengal Light Cavalry.  Connolly and Stoddart had been sent by Queen Victoria to wean the emir away from an alliance with Tsar Nicholas I, in an early manifestation of the Great Game politics which bedevils the region to this day.  Nasrullah’s cruelty knew no bounds. He had assassinated his own father and four brothers to capture the throne. He brooked no slight from anyone, not even from the mighty Queen Victoria or her representative Lord Palmestron whose missives failed to display the exaggerated courtesies expected by the emir. The British emissaries were flung into the well alongwith specially-bred vermin and reptiles and subsequently beheaded.


As you stroll through the maze of back alleys around old Bukhara town, you will be forgiven for thinking Bukhara is bazaar and bazaar is Bukhara. Straddling the cross-roads of the silk route, Bukhara was once a caravan serai that ministered to the weary wayfarers. The streets of the old town were originally organized according to trades, in typical oriental style – one for gold ornaments, another for skullcaps and gowns, yet another for moneylenders and a fourth for blacksmiths. Now almost all of them hawk handicrafts for tourists desiring to take back a bit of Bukhara’s glory for their living rooms. The lodgings used by itinerant travelers now house Bukharan families who spill out into the surrounding courtyards to sun themselves. Even today, most Bukharans sport their traditional attire – of calf-length velvet gowns painstakingly embroidered and very ornamental caps. You hardly come across any jeans-clad Uzbeks who seem ubiquitous in Tashkent.

A few hundred yards away, but hidden behind lanes is the dazzling Char Minar with four bulbous turquoise domes. It was built in 1807 by a rich merchant as a gateway to yet another medresse which has since disappeared. Your last stop in Bukhara is the maqbara of Ismoil Samani, a perfectly-proportioned fired-brick tomb built for himself by the founder of the Samanid dynasty. Legend has it that camel’s milk was used to bind the mortar. The structure has survived intact, but stands out incongruously next to an amusement park with its giant wheels and mini roller coasters.

(Published in Frontline dated Feb 13, 2004)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *