Bukhara – the Religious Capital of Uzbekistan

Today was a loooooong day. I met my guide, Nilufar, shortly before 9:00 a.m. and we did not stop moving until 5:00 p.m. I thought I saw every nook and cranny of old town Bukhara, but apparently there is more to see since we are meeting again at 9:00 a.m. for a half day tour. I guess I should have realized that a city with a 1,000 year history there is a lot to see. So most of our day was spent in mosques and madrassas. Bukhara is considered Uzbekistan’s holiest city, so the majority of major sites involve religious structures.

Ismail Samani Mausoleum

Anyway, Erkin drove Nilufar and I to the far side of old town Bukhara. By the end of the day, we walked the entire length of old town and back to my hotel, which sits at the other end of old town. After Erkin dropped us off, Nilufar and I walked through a park to the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, which was completed in 905 AD. The mausoleum is Bishkek’s oldest Muslim building and yay for us …. we arrived early enough to beat the tour groups

Ismail Samani Mausoleum ceiling

The building was mostly original terra cotta brickwork. However, the ceiling is what really put the building over the top for me. The ceiling was made with layers of brick. The only part of the building that had been replaced was the top part of the curved dome. However, the restoration was done so well that it was impossible to tell where the old part of the dome ended and the new part began. The brilliant part of the dome is that the bricks built upon themselves to create a dome shape. It was incredible to think that a large part of the dome was constructed in 905 AD.


After the mausoleum, we continued to walk through the park and past a copper smith who was working on tapping a design into the copper. His work was pretty amazing given that if he made a mistake it pretty much ruined the work. (I doubt he could reverse a hand hammered mark in copper.) I watched over his shoulder and was terrified the entire time that I would make him screw up. Fortunately, no accidents as we moved on to another mausoleum: the Chashma Ayub mausoleum. The construction for the building began in the 12th century and parts were slowly added on to the building until construction was finished in the 16th century. This building was a little puzzling since there was no one buried in the mausoleum. If there is no corpse is it really a mausoleum? The building was apparently constructed over a spring and you can drink from the spring water.

Chashma Ayub mausoleum
Man with gift of birds

While we were visiting the mausoleum, I rant into an elderly gentlemen who was carrying a cage filled with tiny little birds. Now here’s the interesting part. He had purchased the birds at the bazaar that morning and was planning on taking them to his grandchildren as gifts. I found it hard to believe that children would want birds as gifts, but maybe I need to readjust my mindset away from North American values. (I’m pretty sure the little man (my grand nephew Casen) would not want anything to do with live birds.)


Anyway, after the second mosque visit, Nilufar wanted to stop for tea. She had apparently been battling a bit of a cold and her throat was giving her some trouble. We ended walking down a dirt road under construction (there is a lot of construction going on in the old town as Uzbekistan has been named an up and coming tourist destination so they are renovating a lot of madrassas and old homes) before reaching a lovely little tea house in a park like settling. We ordered black tea with lemon and then proceeded to battle the bees that were all over the place. Unfortunately, Nilufar was stung on her leg when swatting the little buggars.

Bolo-Hauz Mosque
Inside Bolo-Hauz Mosque

After the tea, we walked across the street to the Bolo-Hauz Mosque, which had been built in 1718 and was the emirs’ official place of worship. The mosque fronted a reflecting pond and the interior prayer room was actually quite pretty. While the exterior had minimal restoration, the interior had clearly been redone.

We then walked through to the end of the mosque grounds and across the street to the rather large “Ark”, a royal town-within-a-town. The Ark was continuously occupied from the 5th century until 1920, when it was partially destroyed by the Soviets. Unfortunately, the only remains are a 17th century Friday Mosque, the coronation and reception courtyard and some rooms that were apparently former living quarters.

The Ark

The Ark is the oldest surviving buildings in Bukhara (it is not a Muslim building so is actual older than the mausoleum we visited earlier) and has quite the gruesome history. In addition to being the residence of the emir, the Ark also housed prisoners. Now the prison conditions were horrific (and even then that word is kind). Prisoners were housed below the horse stable and when the stables were cleaned all the runoff went down below. Many of the cells had sand floors where poisonous insects nested. And two British soldiers, who were ultimately executed, were housed in a cell with lice, rodents and scorpions. Given the conditions, it was probably a relief to be executed.

17th century throne

Anyway, we took a look in the Friday mosque and then wandered around the coronation courtyard where I thought the most impressive part of the courtyard was the marble throne that was built in 1669. After a picture of the throne, we walked into some of the living quarters which are a sort of museum housing relics from the days of the royal court. There were some amazing frescoes that had been uncovered as well as pottery and weapons, but the most fascinating was the relics from the horse stable that included jewel encrusted blankets and saddles. (And yet those poor prisoners languished in the bug pit!)

When we left the Ark, I ended up stopping for a bag of chips. I was extremely light headed from the intense heat and the amount of walking, which had apparently resulted in low blood pressure. When I had previously bent down to look at an old iron pot in the Ark, I almost passed out when I stood up again so figured a dose of salt would help. Fortunately, one bag of cheesy Lays chips later and I was back on track.

Kalon Mosque entrance

Our walk through the old quarter next took us about a half mile down the road to the Kalon Mosque. The mosque was built in the 16th-century mosque to replace an earlier mosque destroyed by Ghengis Kahn, and has a massive square that is large enough to house 10,000 people. However, in this secular nation, there is seldom more than a few hundred people attending prayers.

Me under the dome at the Kalon mosque
View from under the dome in the Kalon mosque

I ended up wandering around to take some pictures and ran into a nice man just leaving after prayers. He did not speak English, and I do not speak Uzbek or Russian, but through hand gestures we ended up being able to chat just fine. He ended up giving me some kind of blessing and then said goodbye.

After the lovely communication, I wandered into the main part of the mosque housing the dome, and as Nilufar had instructed me to do, stood under the dome and was able to take the most beautiful picture of the courtyard.

Massive courtyard at Kalon mosque

As I wandered back to find Nilufar, I found her chatting to a nice young man who wanted to be a tour guide. His English needs a bit of work, but he did not lack for enthusiasm. Nilufar asked if I would mind if he tagged along for the rest of the afternoon, and I, of course, said yes.

Kalon minaret

So with our little party now expanded to three, we wandered outside the mosque to see perhaps Bukhara’s most photographed structure, the Kalon Minaret, which was competed in 1127. At one time the minaret was the tallest building in Central Asia and was even spared by Ghengis Khan because of its impressive size and beauty. And I have to admit the minaret was absolutely gorgeous. The minaret had different patterns on the 14 bands that made up the tower and included a band with the first use of glazed blue tiles. I sat on the steps of the Meir-i-Arab Madrassa and starred at the magnificent structure while Nilufar described the various legends that surround the minaret, including how the minaret came to be built.

Inside Mir-i-Arab Madrassa

We finally left our little viewpoint and went inside the 16th century Mir-i-Arab Madrassa, which is back in use today after being shut down by the Soviets. Unfortunately, because the madrassa is a working school, we could only go as far as the entrance. However, I was able to see the gorgeous stone work down one hallway and could see through latticework into a tree covered courtyard.

Ulug’bek Madrassa

By now we were all hungry so we stopped for some dumpling soup at a little restaurant in a small section of a bizarre close to the minaret. After lunch we walked back towards the minaret and down the street to the Ulug’bek madrassa that was built in 1417. The madrassa was the oldest madrassa in Central Asia, but is no longer operating as a religious school. The madrassa is apparently undergoing some restoration with the hope that it may reopen. Nilufar told me that it is believed that Ulug’bek taught here during his reign although there is no proof of this.

Inside Abdul Aziz Khan Madrassa

I actually liked this madrassa quite a bit. It had lovely tile work, a very pretty courtyard and just generally had a nice feel to it. Unfortunately, I did not have the same feeling about the Abdul Aziz Khan Madrassa across the road from the Ulug’bek madrassa. This madrassa was filled to the brim with vendors selling souvenirs, scarves, carpets and everything in between. It completely took away from the atmosphere of the 16th century building. And while the madrassa may have lost its mojo and was in need of some restoration work, there were still a couple rooms that provided hidden gems. First, we entered a student room where the tile and art work on the walls was still visible. Second, the prayer room had lovely decorative ceiings with stalactite tile work.


We left the madrassas behind and walked through the last three remaining domed bazaars in Bukhara. And while the Soviets may have changed some of the atmospheric buildings, we were still able to walk through the three historic sections that one time housed, hat makers, moneychangers and jewellers. The hat makers still appeared to occupy the space, however, the remainder of the bazaars appeared to be a mishmash of vendors selling miniature paintings, metal works, clothing, spices and carpets. I ended up buying some fabulous smelling (and tasting) tea and a tiny little miniature piece of artwork featuring a group on the Silk Road that was slightly bigger than my hand, which I purchased from the artist himself.

Caravanserai remains
Bathhouse remains

After we left the bazaars we began to walk towards the Maghoki-Attar mosque. However, before we reached the site, we passed a 2011 excavation that had uncovered an 18th century bathhouse and a caravanserai (rest house). The excavation site had revealed some staircases down in the caravanserai and many seating areas in the baths. What was particularly fascinating was to see the different elevations from the 18th century to now. Clearly, the present day city had been built on top of ruins, which had resulted in a higher elevation for the present city.

Maghoki-Attar mosque

Once I finally tore myself away from the ruins, we stopped at the Maghoki-Attar, a 9th-century mosque that had been reconstructed on the inside in the 16th-century. The mosque is considered the oldest mosque in Central Asia. Now, however, instead of operating as a mosque, the building houses a carpet museum for Bukhara carpets. I found the building incredibly interesting, but the carpet museum was a little to dark to be able to fully appreciate the carpets.

Lyabi-Hauz Plaza

We left the mosque and walked to our final destination of the day: the Lyabi-Hauz, a plaza built around a pool in 1620. We wandered around the gorgeous plaza, which appears to still be popular with the locals who were sitting around tables drinking tea. We made a quick stop at the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassa on one side of the plaza, which was built as a caravanserai. However, at the opening of the building, the king thought the caravanserai was a medressa and so the resting place was converted to a religious school in 1622.

Nadir Divanbegi Madrassa Facade

Now the most striking feature of the madrassa was the amazing tile work that featured birds, lambs and a sun with a man’s face in the middle. It was quite a remarkable breach of Islamic rules that usually forbid living beings from being depicted on buildings.

Just outside the madrassa was a statute of Hoja Nasruddin, a semi-mythical clever fool who appears in Sufi tales around the world. Apparently this joker is incredibly popular in the Islamic world, but quite frankly I had never heard of him. However, some of the little tales that Nilufar related to me were quite humorous. (Hoja once told the king he could make a donkey talk. The king did not believe him, but told Hoja he would pay him a fortune in gold if he could. Hoja told the king he would need 25 years and the king agreed. The king paid him the gold, and when Hoja’s wife found out she was terrified. “There is no way you will teach a donkey to talk. The king will be furious” Hoja replied “Yes I will. And it really doesn’t’ matter because in 25 years either the king, the donkey or I will be dead.” Butta bumm!

Hoja Nasruddin statute

We made a quick stop into an artisan development shop, where ancient crafts are preserved, and saw a man using an eight foot peddle to weave cloth with very colourful designs that are the hallmark of Bukhara clothing. After the brief stop, we began the last quarter mile walk to my hotel, We ended up stopping in the Jewish quarter where we visited an old Jewish residence. The former owners had sold the home to a lovely family who was in the process of adding on a small B&B to the front of the home. Now the exterior of the homes in the old quarter are very plain, but once you walk through the doors, the homes reveal their beauty. This house was no exception. It was filled with antiques and amazing tile designs. And the hostess could not have been nicer. It turns out that she was one of the few who kept gold thread embroidery alive during the Soviet era and her needle work was amazing. She now teaches others the craft. Her designs were simply gorgeous.

Inside former Jewish residence

After the lovely visit, we left and finally reached my hotel at just after 5:00 p.m. As I said at the beginning, it had been a loooong day. I would see Nilufar for a half day tomorrow. In the mean time, I was ready for a nap.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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