I’m finally posting about Bukhara! As it happens, I know scandalously little about Bukhara, despite a long history rich in romance, adventure, intercontinental trade along the Silk Road, patricide, fratricide, artistic innovation, nomadic invasions, espionage, scientific breakthrough and more.
What I do know is that the city’s name comes from the Sogdian βuxārak, evidently meaning “lucky place” (thank you Wikipedia). At various times home to luminaries of Islamic, Persian, Mongol and Turkic arts and sciences – e.g. the philosopher-physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna), the ruler-astronomer Ulugh Beg and the poet Ferdowsi – it is a living monument to the cultural heights previously attained by Central Asian peoples. It was also until recently home to a small but thriving Jewish population that has moved en masse to New York. In a past life, one or the other of two Bukhari Jewish brothers used to cut my hair at their barber shop on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn.
Perhaps because it is the subject of so much investigation – both of the serious historical type and of the more frivolous type such as that conducted by writers of historical fiction and Disney films – I have yet to be seduced by its magic. There is, I admit, a part of me that finds both the mysterious history of the great steppe and the social, proletarian history of the Soviet period more engaging. Plus, I like 20th century history (because I can still ask living people for some of the answers), and Bukhara’s heyday ended long before 1900 (even though its nominal sovereignty as an emirate ended only in 1925).
That said, I can highly recommend Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game for some thrilling episodes involving Bukhara in the late 19th century as Russian and British agents vied for favor in the emir’s court. And, once again, Bukhara features heavily in Soucek’s A History of Inner Asia. If anyone else can recommend a very good book on the city, I’d appreciate it.
But even for the non-historian, Bukhara is striking for its architecture. Though representing a mix of styles and historical periods, the architecture of the old city coheres into an ensemble based upon shared shapes and shared colors. The word “turquoise” supposedly derives from a word meaning “color of the Turks.” Having been to Bukhara, I understand why this was so: the blue stands out brilliantly against the sand-colored bricks out of which almost all the historical buildings are constructed. Furthermore, on most structures other than the Samani Mausoleum, the extensive use of blue tile-work provides a constant as one’s eye wanders across a millennium’s worth of Islamic architectural masterpieces.
Given all of this, I think it best that I let the pictures of this beautiful, historic city in the desert do most of the speaking. I will also post more pictures on my Facebook page.