Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

Architecture of Bukhara
By Eileen K. Gunn

Most of historic Bukhara is made of baked bricks. Thus the color of old Bukhara is the same color as the loess of the steppes, a yellowish tan, the color of every patch of land in Uzbekistan that isn't irrigated. This uniformity of color calls attention to the extraordinarily varied textures of Bukharan buildings. The Kalon Minar, for instance, seems almost crocheted out of brick, giving it a remarkable delicacy for so imposing a structure.

Bukharan architecture — even that of the Timurids — is more muted than the blazing glories of Samarkand, and Bukhara in general is a less extroverted city than Samarkand. Architecture of Bukhara covers a range of about a thousand years, thanks to the survival of several buildings from before Genghis Khan's arrival, including the Samanid mausoleum and the Kalon minaret. (The mausoleum apparently was partially buried in the dust of the steppes, and thus escaped the wrath of Genghis.)

One of the defining urban details of Bukhara was its hundred or so reservoir pools, called khauz. Once fed by irrigation canals and sluices, now they are mostly kept dry, after a successful Soviet effort to eradicate the guinea worm, a parasite that was only the most ghastly of a number of waterborne Bukharan diseases. Bukharans used the khauz for ritual bathing and washing — and for drinking. If my own experience drinking the water of Central Asia is any indication of its quality, the Bukharans have always been a very hardy people. Among medieval travelers, its water was famously undrinkable.

Bukhara is a living city, and its buildings are in use and are part of its life. Thus it has so many significant buildings, some ancient, some merely very old, that we can include only a few in this article.

Ismail Samani Mausoleum (Early Tenth Century)

Dating from before 907, this is the oldest building in Central Asia. Built for Ismail Samanid, who ruled Bukhara from the end of the ninth century to the beginning of the tenth, this very handsome mausoleum is almost a cube, about 31 feet on each side, with a low dome set on top, and a small Sassanian-style egg-shape dome at each corner of the cube.

Its design derives from the techniques of pre-Islamic Sogdian architecture, whose building materials were wood and sunbaked bricks. The inward-sloping walls have huge inset columns at the corners, like the trunks of a tree, and much of the ornament is reminiscent of carved wood.

The creativity with which the designer used simple brick gives joy to the beholder — they are placed in 18 different patterns, in two and three dimensions, to give a riot of different effects. You'll see the influence of this brickworker, whose creation has survived every threat Central Asia could could come up with, in many other buildings in the region. Think about it: There must have been a number of times when this was the only building standing for hundreds of miles.


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