Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

The Architecture of Bukhara, II
By Eileen K. Gunn

Chasma Ayub (1384)

Its name means "Well of Job," and the Chasma Ayub commemorates the site where water gushed forth from the desert at the request of the biblical Job. There is in fact still a spring here, and visitors are encouraged to drink the water. (But, giving a thought to the guinea worm, I'd filter it first.)

An earlier shrine was built here in the 12th century, and was rebuilt in the 1380s by Timur, with rooms to accommodate pilgrims and dervishes (Sufi monks). The conical dome is foreign to Transoxiana, and may have been designed by workers brought by Timur from Urgench, after his sack of that city near Khiva. In the interior, alabaster stalactites hang in the corners in triple rows, in a pattern of 12-sided stars.

Poi Kalon Ensemble

This ensemble, in the center of Bukhara, consists of three buildings from different periods that form a harmonious whole.

Kalon minaret (1127): This is the Great Minaret, the famous Tower of Death, so beautiful that Genghis Khan himself spared it. Built by Arlsan Khan, it was used as a signal for caravans approaching Bukhara at night. One hundred and fifty-five feet high, on a foundation 30 feet deep, it was probably the tallest building in the world when it was built. It's made of baked bricks, and has a brick lantern at the top, on a circular terrace with 16 narrow openings.

The surface design is a series of unrepeating ornamental bands worked in the bricks, with a band of turquoise-glazed tiles near the top under the lantern, one of the earliest examples in Central Asia of colored decoration used in architecture.

Kalon mosque (15th century): The Masjid-i Kalon mosque, which is connected with the minaret, is a large cathedral that replaced an earlier 12th century mosque.

Mir-i Arab madrassah (1535): Built in a period of religious zeal, using money gained from selling Shi'ite Persians into slavery, this madrassah has remained the most important educational institution in Bukhara, and even in Soviet times, when almost all religious schools were closed, it was permitted to operate. Its decoration uses blue and white incised majolica tiles similar to earlier Timurid-period designs, and incorporates inscriptions in elegant, cursive Thulth script rather than the more rectilinear Kufic. The decoration also favors vinelike designs and patterns of color-glazed bricks.

The Ark Fortress

The Ark and its predecessors were the center of power in Bukhara, large enough to house thousands of retainers, in addition to the emir and his family. The Ark dominated the city, literally and figuratively, and its buildings included a palace and harem, a mosque, government offices such as a mint and treasury, and buildings with darker functions, such as slave quarters, a prison, and a dungeon.

There have been many Arks. The original, the first of many, was built in the seventh century, and at least two more came and went even before the one Genghis Khan destroyed. The current Ark is the remnant of one that was almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1920, when the last emir fled. Now it serves as a museum, and enough of it remains that the visitor with imagination can call up the feeling of dread that must have accompanied every audience with the unpredictable 19th-century emir Nasrullah.

The Registan

Like the Registan in Samarkand, this served as a marketplace and public meeting area, and as an area for public executions, of which there were quite a few in the last five hundred years.

The Zindan, or City Jail

The Zindan was the site of the notorious Bug Pit, where Nasrullah imprisoned the hapless British diplomat Charles Stoddart for more than three years, and eventually his would-be rescuer, the adventurer Arthur Connelly, for nearly two. Like the Ark, it will inspire horror in those of macabre imagination. And if you have no love of the macabre, then what are you doing in Bukhara, anyway?


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