Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

Holy Bukhara
By Eileen K. Gunn

Bukhara is called the Holy and the Noble, but from the perspective of the past 600 years, it's hard to tell why. Famous as a slave market, it was reputedly a city of open sexual license, though perhaps this was remarkable only to visiting Victorians. It was ruled harshly by despots, including the legendarily cruel Nasrullah, who tossed his enemies into the infamous Bug Pit. Even into the latter part of the 19th century, miscreants were tied into sacks and hurled off the Tower of Death, which was also the minaret from which the faithful were called to prayer.

When Ibn Battuta visited in 1417, he reported that all but a few of its buildings still lay in ruins, and that the people of Bukhara were such well-known liars that their testimony in legal cases wasn't accepted in Khorezm. (Quite a criticism, given Khorezm's own reputation.) And, even worse, he says,"there is not one of its inhabitants today who possesses any theological learning or makes any attempt to acquire it."

But before its destruction by Genghis Khan in 1220, perhaps Bukhara deserved its reputation as a city of pious scholars. In the tenth century, under the rule of the Samanids, it became known as a center of Islamic learning, and established a reputation that survived succeeding centuries of scholarly darkness. Bukhara had wide paved streets and a population of 300,000. Its 250 madrassahs attracted students from as far away as Arabia and Spain. The most famous son of Samanid Bukhara, Hussain ibn Abdullah ibn-Sina, known to the West as Avicenna, wrote his famous medical encyclopedia there, making the city renowned in the Islamic world. But all that was lost when the city was overrun in 999. Avicenna himself fled, and wandered most of the rest of his life. No buildings of the Samanids remain, except, appropriately, a mausoleum.

During the next century of turmoil, however, there must have been some continued respect for learning, or at least for architecture, because it was during that time that the tall and exquisitely beautiful Kalon minaret was built, to call the faithful to prayer five times a day, to serve as a signal tower at night, and to give notice to travelers that this was a city of pious Moslems. And certainly there was a fine city there when the Korezmshah, ruler of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva/Urgench, gave grave and deliberate offense to Genghis Khan. First, he executed as spies some 450 Mongol merchants. Then, when Mongol ambassadors were sent to seek reparation, he had one of them killed and shaved the beards of the rest. (This seems excessive, but both the merchants and the ambassadors probably were spies.)

In retribution, as the Khorezmshah might have expected if he'd known the khan just a little bit better, Genghis pounded Samarkand into dust and reduced Bukhara to a level plain. "I am the scourge of God," he proclaimed in Bukhara. "If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me." He spared only the intricately worked Kalon Minaret, the Tower of Death, from which prisoners were thrown to their deaths. It's been suggested that he was taken more with its usefulness than its beauty.


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »