Central Asian splendour

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

A visitor's impressions of Bukhara, the clay brown city steeped in ancient and medieval history, and Samarkand, the glorious capital of Timur, which is changing with the times.

Text & pictures: SUDHA MAHALINGAM recently in Bukhara and Samarkand

THE flight from Tashkent to Bukhara in Uzbekistan takes about an hour. The An-24 flies low enough to offer you through its moving rotors tantalising slices of the Uzbek countryside. Neatly laid-out wheat fields, criss-crossed by a latticework of water channels, stretch as far as the eye can see. The alchemy of the morning sun has turned the water into molten silver, setting off the golden brown of ripened wheat. The aeroplane flies over a knot of barren snow-dusted mountains crowned with a lone lake that glitters like a jewel. And soon you are descending on a labyrinth of baked-mud single-storey settlements that give little away of the architectural splendour that is Bukhara.

Bukhara is a sepia-tinted portrait that comes 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, madrassas and maqbaras (tombs), this ancient town was once considered so holy that it was believed that light ascended from Bukhara to the skies. In the 13th century, the famous Italian traveller Marco Polo described it in his writings as a city most noble and grand. Bukhara was once the glorious capital of the ancient Samanids, who ruled in the 9th 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 madrassas with students from as far away as Andalusia (in Spain) and Yemen and had a library with 45,000 books on subjects ranging from astronomy and philosophy to mathematics and medicine. Many of these madrassas and masjids survive to this day.

The Kalon Minaret, immortalised from a myriad angles in picture postcards, brochures and travel books, is the most conspicuous visage of Bukhara. Towering at 150 feet (45 metres), 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 the Qutab Minar in Delhi. 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, the Kalon Minaret survived the destructive hordes of the Mongol warrior Genghis Khan only to become an instrument of death, depravity and unmatched cruelty in subsequent centuries. It provided gruesome entertainment to successive rulers, including the Mongol warrior-king Timur, the lionised icon of modern-day Uzbeks. Anyone who fell foul of the royalty was flung from the top of the tower. The 109 steps leading to the top are uneven, narrow, dark and dingy. As one puffs one's way up the steps, one can well visualise 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.

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 madrassa built in 1535 from the profits of slave trade. The madrassa is still functional with over 150 students. Its central arched gateway rises steeply and is richly ornamented with coloured tiles forming intricate designs. Inside, there is a courtyard surrounded by cloisters which house the students.

Behind the Kalon Minaret is a rambling maze of madrassas 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. The 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 - these are the Ulug Beg and Abd-al-Aziz madrassas.

Bukhara's gory past is legendary. Not far from the minaret is the 21-foot-deep Black Well where Emir Nasrullah 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 of England to wean the emir away from an alliance with Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, in an early manifestation of the Great Game politics that has bedevilled 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 along with specially bred vermin and reptiles, and subsequently beheaded.

As one strolls through the maze of back alleys around old Bukhara town, one will be forgiven for thinking that Bukhara is a bazaar and bazaar is Bukhara. Straddling the crossroads of the Silk Route, Bukhara was once a caravanserai that ministered to weary wayfarers. The streets of the old town were originally organised 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 travellers now house Bukharan families who spill out into the surrounding courtyards to sun themselves. Even today, most Bukharans sport their traditional attire - calf-length velvet gowns, painstakingly embroidered, and ornamental caps. One hardly comes across any jeans-clad Uzbeks in Bukhara, though they seem to be 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 madrassa, which has since disappeared. My last stop in Bukhara is the maqbara of Ismoil Samani, a perfectly proportioned fire-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 is intact, but stands out incongruously next to an amusement park with its giant wheels and mini-roller coasters.

THE drive from Bukhara to Samarkand takes just under four hours and the highway is world class. It was not always this easy to reach this beautiful city. Some of the earliest European impressions of Samarkand come from Don Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, ambassador of Henry III of Castile (in Spain) to Timur Lane's court in 1404. He had journeyed 15 months to reach Samarkand; first by ship to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) and on to Trebizond (in northeastern Turkey), then by land for 3,000 miles (4,800 km) through eastern Turkey and northern Persia to Balkh (in Afghanistan) and across the Oxus river by way of Termez and Shahri-Sabz (both in Uzbekistan) to Samarkand. Today, one can fly into Samarkand in less than three hours, be it from Moscow or from New Delhi.

Unlike Bukhara, Samarkand gives one the impression of a city that has moved on. Today Samarkand is a modern city like any other with broad tree-lined avenues, shopping malls in the fashionable Satara Prospect and speeding cars jostling for space with vendors of nons (the local bread) and nuts and dry fruits that are heaped on carts. Samarkandis seem oblivious to the grandeur all around as they go about their daily business amidst exquisite ancient monuments that make tourists gape and stare in wonder. Besides, Samarkand is above all a Timurid city. Not the barren Bukhara browns for this glorious capital of Timur. The city comes alive in rainbow colours, thanks to the painstaking restoration work done by the Soviets using coloured tiles, manufactured on a mass scale, that mimic the originals so much that a lay observer would hardly notice the difference.

Clavijo, who was an esteemed guest at the nuptials of six of Timur's grandsons, including Ulug Beg and Ibrahim Sultan, sons of his son Shakh Rukh, writes: "The various orchards and palaces... belonging to His Highness stand close up to the city of Samarkand, while stretching beyond lies the great plain with open fields through which the river flows, being diverted into many water courses." At the beginning of October 1404, when Timur ordered the Great Horde to gather, "twenty thousand tents were pitched in regular streets all round the Royal Camp and as many spread all over the surrounding plain and many more tribes coming in every day from outlying districts, and butchers and cooks and bakers and even bath attendants to minister to their needs," writes Clavijo.

Timur had eight wives, of whom Bibi Khanum was undoubtedly the First Lady. She was a Chinese or possibly a Mongolian princess of such beauty and grace that Timur ordered a magnificent mosque to be built for her exclusive use. Legend has it that the Persian architect entrusted with the task fell in love with her and paid with his life. Now the mosque, described by Clavijo as the finest in Samarkand, is being restored and therefore half of it is barricaded. Inside the complex, the shooting for an English film is in progress, with scores of actors dressed from head to foot in black riding shining black horses and brandishing swords. Not far from the mosque is the ruins that once supported a magnificent cathedral mosque built by Timur in memory of his favourite mother-in-law. Before it fell to its present sorry state, it had even served as a cotton market.

Gur Emir, another monument that rises majestically in the urban landscape of Samarkand, was originally built around 1404 as a mausoleum for Mohammad Sultan, Timur's favourite grandson, who died of wounds suffered in the great battle against the Turkish Sultan Bayazid. The original building did not measure up to Timur's expectations, hence he ordered it to be rebuilt in 10 days' time. Originally, it was part of a sprawling complex of assorted buildings, which included a guest house and some madrassas, but none of these survive. Their place has been taken by modest single-storey dwellings, which mercifully blend unobtrusively with the background. A few children play hopscotch under the shade of the trees.

Gur Emir is a lofty structure with a fluted turquoise dome studded with fine blue and gold tiles and rising from an octagonal base. The walls were lined with jasper and alabaster. Today it houses the remains of Timur, his three sons, Omar Shaik, Miranshah and Shakh Rukh, and his grandson Mohammad Sultan. Mir Sayeed Barka, a famous sheikh, is also buried next to Timur. As in the Taj Mahal, the tombs are in the basement. Timur's tombstone is carved out of a single piece of green jade. According to the guide, the tomb is inscribed with the warning that anyone who opens the tomb will bring upon the country an invader worse than Timur himself. Disregarding the warning, in the year 1941, Professor Mikhail Gerasimov, a Russian archaeologist, opened the tomb and scooped out the skeleton of Timur, at which moment, according to the guide, he received news that Hitler had just crossed into the Soviet Union. In the corner of the courtyard lies the Blue Stone, a bluish grey marble carved with arabesques, believed to be the base of Timur's throne. Next to it is a circular object believed to be Timur's bath.

By far the most impressive monument in Samarkand is Registan, the cobbled square with an ensemble of ancient structures right in the middle of a modern avenue. In Uzbek language, Registan means `sandy place'. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, called Registan `the noblest public square in the world'. No sophisticated lens can really do justice to the grace and grandeur of the square. Wide-angle lenses collapse and distort the exquisite proportions and render a somewhat flat image that is an apology for the actual structure. Unlike Humayun's tomb or the Taj Mahal, the elegance comes not from symmetry, but from balance. Registan is enclosed on three sides by perfectly proportioned structures, while the fourth faces the main road. On the north is the Tilla Kari or the Golden Mosque madrassa, built in the middle of the 17th century by the ruler of Samarkand Yallangtush. As you face Tilla Kari, to your left is the smaller madrassa built by Ulug Beg in 1417. To your right, facing the Ulug Beg madrassa, is the Shir Dor or the Lion Bearer, also built by Yallangtush. The large circular silver disc of the moon dazzles like diamond between Tilla Kari and the Ulug Beg Madrassa, and renders the evening magical. The fluted turquoise domes shimmer in the moonlight, while the archways with their black interiors appear mysterious. But the monument is not open to visitors after sunset. One has to be content with a telephoto view of moonlit Registan.

The next day, I come back to explore Registan. The Ulug Beg madrassa has a majestic portal flanked by perfectly proportioned minarets. The mosaic panel over the arch is decorated by stylistic geometrical patterns. In the inner courtyard is a statue of the great astronomer-builder surrounded by his students. There are deep galleries along the axes, which have all been taken over by hawkers of handicrafts and reproductions of ancient Silk Route maps. The brochure assures you that Ulug Beg himself delivered lectures on science and astronomy here. Tilla Kari is a gilded dome and its courtyard is flanked by dormitories and cells where the devout who came to pray stayed. The Shir-Dor Madrassa is of more recent origin, having been built in the 17th century. It is not considered to have the high standards of `Samarkand architecture', but together the three structures that form the Registan Ensemble, though built in different periods, present a picture of harmony.

Atop a hill is the must-see Ulug Beg observatory with its giant sextant. Ulug Beg ascended the throne in 1447 after his father Shakh Rukh's death, but was murdered by his own son Abd al Latif two years later. He was an accomplished and renowned astronomer of his time. He built a magnificent observatory in 1429. It was discovered by a Russian archaeologist in 1908 and was excavated in 1948. It houses the original marble sextant with a radius of 40.21 m and has been acknowledged to be so accurate as to produce readings with an error margin of only a fraction of a second.

You cross a busy square with chaotic traffic on the way to Shakh Zinda, the Shrine of the Living King, on a hillside. It is believed that Kasim Ibn Abbas, the cousin of Prophet Mohammed, is buried here. He came to Samarkand during the Arab invasion in the 7th century and stayed on to convert Nestorian Christians to Islam. Shakh Zinda is a cluster of structures built over several centuries from the 11th to the 19th and houses several mausoleums and an exquisite mosque. A lone woman prays silently in a corner. From atop Shakh Zinda, you get a view of the bustling city of Samarkand, its bazaars, its traffic and its sprawling settlements. Samarkand, you conclude, is a symbol of continuity as few cities of the world are. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment