December 11, 2009 Leave a comment
By Rob Packer
Like Samarkand, Bukhara (Buxoro in Uzbek) sounds impossibly exotic and seems to conjure up orientalized images of teeming bazaars, caravanserais and domed mosques, not too different from Disney’s Aladdin. As I was standing on Bukhara’s ruined Ark, its royal palace, I was struck both by Disney’s vision of “the East” and the late Edward Said’s brilliant Orientalism.
There is something quite other about Bukhara in the winter. It’s a city of 300,000 with over 200 madrasahs and a similar number of mosques and its centre is packed full of bazaars, but you won’t find the exoticized, romanticized image of bustling markets. There’s barely anyone about at all. It’s almost as if the other here is history. Bukhara, known as Bukhara al-Sharif, or Noble Bukhara, was a major stop on the Silk Road between China and the Middle East and became a major centre of Islam, but with the decline of the Silk Road, the city lost its way and struggled to create a bigger role for itself than the capital of a despotic emirate. After Russian imperial expansion took Bukhara under its sway in the 19th century, the city became more tied into the Russian-speaking world and after the royal palace was bombed by the Red Army in 1920, the city became part of the USSR. Any legacy of being such an important centre of Islamic thought seems to have come to an end under seventy years of Communist rule: despite the enormous number of madrasahs, a Bukhari told me that anyone serious about a career as an imam leaves Bukhara after their madrasah studies for further study in Egypt. Only since independence has the city managed to reinvent itself as a centre of tourism for the country: everyone you speak to in Bukhara tells you how many tourists there are in the summer.
In the winter, though, you continually get the feeling that everyone is somewhere else, like a Kyrgyz hostel owner I met in Bishkek who told a friend about his plans to close his hostel for the winter and spend the cold months on the Andaman Islands. I’m not sure that Bukhara market stallholders make so much money in the summer that they can migrate for the winter, so it could be that the defences against the winter cold make everything look closed. Either way, there are only so many open shops in the bazaar and there’s barely any foot traffic apart from a tour group of Malaysians I saw four or five times today. The whole place is eerily quiet, which makes it all the more atmospheric, except when a hat seller hones in on you as the only outsider within a hundred-metre radius.
If you compare Bukhara with its larger cousin, Samarkand feels like an actual city with Nexias constantly buzzing past and with monuments impressive in scale, but sitting pretty in sanitized parks or squares. Pedestrianized Bukhara on the other hand, barely has any kind of traffic and you’re surrounded by yet another spectacular madrasah or mosque at every turn. It seems that Bukhara is trying to make you think that its buildings just happen to be there. Of course, most of the buildings have been restored, some overzealously. I found the charm of the place comes from wandering at random and finding beautiful building after beautiful building. More than a few times I walked out of a madrasah and suddenly thought “I’m in the most beautiful place in the world”.