A homom in Bukhara

By Rob Packer

I decided to spend my last afternoon in one of Bukhara’s hamams (homom in Uzbek). It was easiest the warmest place in Bukhara, so was an easy escape from the cold that stalks the city in the late afternoon.

I had my first hamam trip for about ten years in Marrakesh earlier this year and my first four thoughts were exactly the same. Firstly, the architecture of them is stunning, and this Bukhari hamam was a classic multi-domed brick structure with marble slabs everywhere. Secondly, wow, isn’t it hot! Thirdly, for all that the mystique that is written about them in guidebooks and elsewhere, it really is just a bunch of old guys having a wash. And fourthly, I wonder how many times this place has had a deep clean in the last five hundred years, especially the one I went to in Morocco, which was just a simple mosque hamam where all cleaning and massaging was done on the floor, not like the more tourist-friendly one in Bukhara, which had posh marble benches in wall niches.

Forhod, the masseur, was a busy man, so I was told to go to one of the wall niches to lie on my back, then stomach (easy) and then to go to a much hotter room and stand up in one of the niches (ok for ten minutes, but otherwise impossible). Once I was suitably warmed up, I was scrubbed, helpfully called peeling in Russian. This is really not my favourite part of the homom massage process: why do they have to do it while I can see what’s coming off? Can I request a blindfold next time? And then it was time to lie down for the massage: I normally have trouble working out which way I should turn my head when being massaged on a marble surface, but Bukhara adds an extra little something. I first chose to turn to the right where I had a view into another room and could see an old Bukhari shaving his bits. With the image indelibly seared onto my retinas, I turned my head the other way and Forhod started demonstrating that some of those yoga moves really are possible. Pretty soon, another old man started doing the same thing on that side too! Luckily by that point, it was all too painful so I closed my eyes and hoped it’d be over soon. My bones had been cracked who knows how many times and then Forhod took his final revenge by smearing powdered ginger over me, telling me to sit in one of the side rooms for 10 minutes and then wash it off. If you had spread chilli paste on sunburn and then sat in the sun, you’d probably feel something similar. Needless to say, I had to wash it off pretty quickly, but it carried on burning for hours after.

Hamams hurt, and although I’m never sure how clean I really am after one, I feel like I’ll keep going back for more and am already thinking about a send-off from Bishkek with birch twigs at the banya.

Bukhara al-Sharif

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.

The view of Bukhara from the Ark. It was weird to have Disney and Edward Said pop into my head at almost the same time.

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.

Inside Bukhara's Kalon Mosque

The deserted Taqi Telpak Furushon, what was once the cap makers' bazaar of Bukhara.


Bukhara's Registan with the Ark behind (Registan means something along the lines of sandy square in Tajik). I saw an old photo of this square covered with a teeming market that looked like a 19th-century Orientalist's fantasy.

In the winter, though, you continually get the feeling that everyone is somewhere else, Read more of this post

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