At the turn of the century Bukhara boasted 127 working madrassahs and a mosque for every day of the year. Many are still standing, in varying states of disrepair and disregard, hardly touched since they were locked up after the fall of the emirate. Most are unfortunately still locked and the best views you will get of them is through padlocked wooden doors. Many are hidden deep in Bukhara backstreets where, unlike Khiva, Central Asian life reveals itself. Dogs yap, goats wander, children play in the dust and a whirling dervish lies hidden behind every corner.
None of the sights compare to the grandeur of the more famous tourist monuments of Bukhara, all are on a far more personal scale, but the timeless alleyways offer a valuable insight into the character of Bukhara city and the life of its people. You will get lost (in the words of Tom Bissel, ‘Bukhara is no place to deliver a pizza’), but that is part of the fun. Recognisable sights are never far away and you might even get invited to dinner.
The following is divided into four sections arranged purely by geography, each starting from the Lyab-i-Hauz for convenience.
East from the Kukeldash Madrassah lies a collection of religious buildings with secular functions. The bristling dome of the Kokuli Khurt Mosque rises over the Zebiniso Cultural Centre and clothes shop, while the adjacent Domlo Hassan Madrassah (18th century) sells a curious mix of holy texts and car parts. Next door are two perpetually shut museums but with good timing and persistence you may gain access to the Bronze Museum in the Oibinok Mosque (1894) and the Varakhsha Museum in the Ibraghim Okhund Madrassah (1854).
Behind them lurks the 19th-century Isteza Madrassah, now home to the Centre Francais ‘Caravan Saray’. Further east, former Lenin St has been transformed into Nakhshbandi Street in Bukhara, from godless revolutionary to Sufic mystic, but still leads to the tiny Attor Madrassah (Said Kamol), whose student cells now receive hotel guests after transformation similar to the nearby Mekhtar Ambar Madrassah. Cross over to Ambar Street in Bukhara and continue further east to the small Imam Kazikhan Shrine, then north to the Chor Minor, and west to the local Khoja Taband Mosque. This thriving local mosque is the centre of the makhallya neighbourhood council and on Fridays is awash with striped cloaks and pampered beards.
North from the Lyab-i-Hauz, following Samarkand Street in Bukhara, leads to the dilapidated but refreshingly unrestored Poi Ostana Mosque and Madrassah, whose faded paintwork points to a past beauty and to Bukhara before the renovation teams moved in. Just before the mosque turn left and left again to a madrassah courtyard, whose saints tomb is one of the most popular places in the city for young women to pray for plentiful children.
Two hundred metres (656 feet) north along Khorezm Street in Bukhara lies the concealed madrassah, mosque and tomb of the Mavlana Sharif ensemble and behind it the ruined Chukor Caravanserai, whose name means ‘deep’ and refers to the sunken ground level of its courtyard. Both are tricky to find, but are visible from behind the Abdul Aziz Madrassah. Close by is the Tok-i-Zargaron and the Mir Kemal Madrassah (1707) to the north. This part of the old town is one of the oldest in the city and the site of the original core shahhristan. Return eastwards to Samarkand Street in Bukhara and further north lies the fortress-like Tash Serai (Stone Palace) Madrassah and the recently re-opened Sheikh Aksavi (Shaya-khsi) Mosque.
South from the Lyab-i-Hauz, past the Jewish Synagogue and Mubinjon homestay, turn right into the heart of the Eshoni Pir district in Bukhara and the Eshoni Pir local mosque and madrassah, where UNESCO sponsors carpet weavers to work with traditional, natural dyes. Nearby on a triangular crossroads is the shrine of a local saint adorned with pre-Islamic motifs such as a silver hand and sun, and the Islamic crescent and star.
From here continue south down Arabon Street in Bukhara to the local Arabon Mosque and Salakhana Complex, where rich merchants from India and Persia would set up shop, working out of caravanserai hotel rooms, much the same as modern foreign businesses do today in Tashkent. Further south, outside the city walls, lies the Jewish cemeteryand the Vabayi Paraduz Mausoleum, a well-attended tomb under a high dome and holy white flag. From here, follow Abdulla Tukay Street westwards.
At the crossroads with Nomozgokh Street in Bukhara, turn right for the beautifully inscribed entrance to a rich merchant’s house on the left and the high dome of the popular Turki Zhandi Mausoleum on the right, where the local imam will say a brief prayer for you before you take a deep breath and dive back into the town labyrinth. Retrace your steps and continue along Abdulla Tukay Street in Bukhara, skirting the edge of the old town, to reach the House of Faizullah Khodjaev, Uzbekistan’s first president, now an interesting museum. At the next junction turn right up Jubor Street in Bukhara to the 17th century Mirzoi Sharif Gaziyon Madrassah, with its impressive main recessed iwan and the modern but functioning mixed baths opposite. Jubor St finally emerges into central Bukhara by the Gaukushan Madrassah.
West from here, Nakhshbandi Street in Bukhara passes the 19th century Pocho Kul Khoja Mosque on the left, now a butcher’s store, and the empty Emir Rashid Madrassah to the right. The large madrassah further up the street to the right with the characteristic green pillar tilework is the Tursanjon Madrassah (1796), presently used by potters who make huge tandyr ovens here out of straw and clay. The madrassah is in good condition and lies open for exploration. Behind the madrassah lies the Khoja Zainuddin Mosque and also the functioning sixteenth century Khunjak women’s baths where women can receive a cheap massage in the diffused natural light of a warm, sunken chamber and enjoy a rare opportunity to meet Uzbek and Tajik women away from family and male pressures.
Sights Outside the Old Town
Scattered outside the shakhristan lie a series of monuments marooned in Soviet socialist suburbia. The following tour follows an arc clockwise from the northeast to the northwest, but the monuments described can just as easily be visited individually.
The huge Faizabad Khanagha (1598-99) dervish hostel to the northeast of the old town follows the established khanagha design with a cruciform hall open on all sides and hujra cells arranged on several floors. Its stepped facade and side porticos lend it a grace and symmetry left largely undisturbed by visitors. The building is normally locked. The next door chaikhana offers refreshment for flagging tourists.
Further south is the old Fathabad suburb of the town, a centre of pilgrimage and festivals up until the turn-of-the-century which was once dense with shrines and hostels. In the days of the Uzbek SSR, the district was prosaically renamed Shark II (East II) and played host to the local railway station which had eventually crept its way into the old town after decades spent loitering ten kilometres outside the city walls at Kagan. In the midst of the railway shunting yards stand two 600-year-old mausoleums.
The Saifuddin Bukharzi Mazaar is the larger and older of the two buildings and honours the tomb of local poet and holy man Saif-ad-din (1190-1262). Shortly after the saint’s death a gurkhana (tomb) was raised over the richly carved wooden cenotaph and a subsequent 14th-century ziaratkhana (prayer hall) and 15th-century portico added a monumental austerity to the construction. In 1978 an earth tremor damaged the dome and the building had to be reinforced with iron braces.
The smaller and more intimate Buyan Kuli Khan Mazaar (1358) honours neither poet nor holy man, but rather a Mongol nobleman and descendent of Genghis Khan killed in battle in Samarkand in 1358. Its eastern portal is a saturated web of floral ornamentation and inscriptive calligraphy older than the Shah-i-Zindah in Samarkand, and the intense flashes of its violet and white majolica merely serve to highlight its neighbour’s modesty. Structurally, it also marks an early development from the single (e.g. Ismael Samani in Bukhara) to the double-roomed monumental mazaar. The mausoleum is normally locked, but if your guide can get hold of a key it will open doors to a beautifully tiled chamber and secret passage. The building was recently preserved with British funding.
The aggressively modern Hotel Bukhara marks the Soviet centre of the town, whose fallout takes control wherever the huddled and cramped old town peters out. To the north lies the World War II Memorial ‘Grieving Mother’, eternal flame and huge plaque detailing the names of Bukhara’s 18,000 fallen. To the northwest lies the former site of , a similarly fallen Lenin, replaced with the Uzbek national insignia. In the 1990s, the butchered parts of the leader rusted in shunned neglect, like just another victim of the Emir, in the city library garden next to the hotel.
A few hundred metres due east of the Hotel Bukhara lies the Bukhara Gold Embroidery Factory at 14, Muminov Kuchasi (tel. 2233502), where Uzbek women perform, and sell examples of, this once exclusively male craft.
From the hotel follow Tukay Street in Bukhara west for five minutes, skirting the edge of the old town, to no. 70, the House Museum of Faizullah Khodjaev, or the ‘House of the Rich Bukhara Merchant at end of the 19th century’ as it is widely known, since it was deemed politically unsafe to name the museum after a man condemned to death by Stalin in the 1930s as a class enemy, and reviled by some locals as the man who let the Russians into Bukhara. Khodjaev was a founder of the Young Bukharans, an early communist chief and the Uzbek SSR’s first president, yet one look at his family house, fourth of six in the city and the one where Faizullah was born, shows that the young Bolshevik’s class background was far from proletarian. It was said the Karakul fleece empire of Khodjaev’s father was so lucrative that the emir himself would regularly came to the house in search of a loan.
In 1996, the centenary of his birth, and 30 years after official rehabilitation, a small museum finally opened in Khodjaev’s honour, inside the guestroom of the male courtyard. Archive photos and newspapers document the Red Army’s arrival, and Khodjaev’s rise, all the way to his show trial in Moscow. His wife died in Siberian exile, but a grandson survives in Tashkent. The female courtyard is better restored, with winter quarters and stove on the left and summer quarters, cooled by a high iwan, on the right. There is little furniture to clutter the small rooms as all ornaments were kept in niches in the wall and the family slept on mattresses, as they do today. During the Soviet invasion, the rich ganch ornamentation of the walls was covered in clay, partly to protect the decoration, partly to protect the family, but today the walls shine again. Travel agencies organise tea drinking ceremonies and dinners here, when visitors can try on traditional cloaks, including, for women, a real horsehair paranja veil.
To the south, M. Ikbol Street in Bukhara runs east-west past the Gulistan Hotel and the Namazgokh Mosque (Nomozgokh) (1119), located deep in the heart of the former Shemsabad gardens. The Bukhara mosque is a holiday mosque, used during the great Muslim festivals of Ruza and Kurban Hayit, when men from both the city and its surrounding kishlaks would congregate for mass celebration and prayer, and thus its construction is quite different from the normal mosque design. Because of the large numbers involved, a namazgokh mosque had no side walls, merely a single huge mihrab wall to orientate the congregation and a minhar from which an imam addressed the crowd. The original Karakhanid mihrab wall with its finely carved terracotta plates still stands as a rare pre-Mongol survivor, but the colonnaded gallery and glazed polychrome tiles of the portal were only added in the 16th century.
Further west at the next road junction stands Thejubor Madrassah, a functioning female madrassah where some 70 young Uzbek and Tajik girls learn embroidery, etiquette and the Koran, and the Volidoi Abdul Aziz Khudaydad Mosque, a recently re-opened 17th-century district mosque. From here Followjubor Street in Bukhara southwest for a few-hundred metres to ponder the site where the Soviet Army first entered the holy city of Bukhara, the old Sheikh Jalal gates. Alternatively head north up Khavzi Nav Street in Bukhara into the old Iranian section of the town and then turn two blocks west to the crumbling Kaliph Khudaydad Ensemble.
This crumbling 18th century collection of a mosque, khanagha and submerged sardoba (covered pool) is in a sorry state but the beautifully-carved wood panels are undergoing loving restoration by a renegade band of old men who, impatient with the pace of Islamic reconstruction, have taken the initiative. Sardobas were once a matter of life and death to this desert oasis and were scattered throughout the town and its caravan routes. A second example, the Sardoba Ishan-i-Imla, lies a few hundred metres away in a schoolyard.
A five-minute walk north of the Ark leads to the Khazreti Imam Cemetery, where engraved reflections of the deceased lead the way to the high dome of the central mosque and associated hauz, tacharatkhana, and six hujra cells. The open-air tomb of Khazreti Imam lies on a northern bank, next to an underground chamber heavy with the scent of Zoroastrian beliefs and adorned with the symbols of sainthood.