Bukhara’s silk road glory days

Toqi Zargaron trading dome bazaar complex (ca.1569)

Bukhara felt more lived in than Khiva’s heavily restored old town centre, with regular homes in a winding maze of medieval streets, and unrestored madrassa in various stages of dereliction.

Backstreets of Bukhara
Backstreets of Bukhara

The sheer number of these schools serves as a reminder of a time when Bukhara wasn’t a byword for cruelty under Emir Nasrullah “The Butcher”.

Intellectual life in Transoxiana reached a peak under the Samanids (9th and 10th centuries), when Bukhara rivalled Baghdad as cultural capital of the Islamic world. Poets, artists, mathematicians, astronomers and geographers came from across the Muslim world, drawn to the Siwān al-Hikma (“Storehouse of Wisdom”), a vast library stacked with some 45,000 manuscripts.

As Colin Thubron writes in The Lost Heart of Asia, these luminaries included “al-Biruni, who computed the earth’s radius; the lyric poet Rudaki; the great Ibn Sina, Avicenna, who wrote 242 scientific books […] and whose ‘Canons of Medicine’ became a vital textbook in the hospitals even of Christian Europe for five hundred years”.

Traces of those glory years can be found in the squares behind the Ark citadel. The Kalan Mosque complex is the best-preserved, with its elegant central courtyard.

Kalan Mosque complex
Kalan Mosque complex

Across the square, the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa (ca. 1536) continues to train religious scholars who live in its honeycomb of student cells. It was the only madrassa permitted to operate during the Soviet era.

Mir-i-Arab Madrasa

Other remnants of the period haven’t weathered the centuries as gracefully. 

The Ulugh Beg Madrassa (ca. 1417) named for Timur’s astronomer grandson — a figure we’ll have more to say about in another blog — is one of a handful of Timurid buildings that survive in Bukhara. The iwan is inscribed with a calligraphic admonition that reads “Aspiration to knowledge is the duty of every Muslim man and woman” in homage to the astronomer khan’s lifelong obsession with learning. 

Ulugh Beg Madrassa

The madrassa was once surrounded by several mosques, a bazaar and a caravanserai. Today the cells near the entrance are occupied by souvenir stalls, while the back of the courtyard was encased in scaffolding where men worked on crumbling stone.

Ulugh Beg Madrassa interior courtyard

Across from the entrance, the Abdul Aziz Khan Madrassa (ca. 1652) was a grander structure from a more ornate time. The iwan is tiled with wavy plant designs, its arch encrusted with ganch stalactites. Unfortunately the entrance was as for as we got. 

Abdul Aziz Khan Madrassa
Ganch work, Abdul Aziz Khan Madrassa

This madrassa housed yet another bunch of souvenir vendors, all selling the same unoriginal junk. I walked past them for a look at the courtyard but was stopped by someone demanding an entry fee. I chose to pet a stray cat instead.

When in Bukhara always stop to pet a cat

The oddest structure in this part of Bukhara is surely the squat four-towered Chor Minor. Its purpose is unclear, but it is believed to be the gateway to a madrassa that no longer exists, built by a Turkish merchant in the early 19th century. The blue tiled towers weren’t minarets but storage spaces, with one serving as staircase to the roof.

Chor Minor

This quarter is also home to one of the city’s most attractive squares. The ‘hauz’ in Lyabi-Hauz doesn’t refer to a dwelling but a stone pool. Such pools acted as sources of public drinking water in an arid region, and the city was scattered with them, but the Soviets declared them a source of disease and drained most or filled them in during the 1920s and 1930s.

The Lyabi-Hauz survived, perhaps because of the magnificent architectural ensemble of madrassa and religious buildings surrounding it, including a khanqah (Sufi lodge).


My eyes were drawn to the swirling tiled iwan of the Nadir Divan-begi Madrassa (ca. 1620), whose spandrels show strange mythical birds facing a solar disk with a human face — an un-Islamic bit of decoration that echoes its near-contemporary, the Sher Dor Madrassa in Samarkand.

Nadir Divan-begi Madrassa

Nadir Divan-begi Madrassa’s layout is also unique, resembling that of a caravanserai — a combination hostel and warehouse for travelers — rather than a madrassa, perhaps because that was its intended function. Trade was declining by the early 17th century, but educational institutions continued to flourish.

We wandered the district for the rest of the afternoon, poking into crumbling structures and stopping for coffee to shake off the winter chill.

When slanting shadows marked 4pm we walked back to the Ark, and the Bolo-Hauz Mosque opposite the citadel. Built in 1712, it served as a Friday mosque at a time when the Emir was under the Bolshevik thumb in the 1920s. I wanted to see the magnificent 12-metre high iwan and its 20 wooden pillars reflected in the pool, multiplying their spindly number. The carved pillars are made from two tree trunks joined end-to-end in walnut, elm, or poplar.

Bolo-Hauz Mosque

Behind it, a busy street led to Samonid Park, where the frantic flow of people through a nearby gate lured my wife to the Central Bazaar. 

I am a mission-based shopper of the get-in-quick-and-get-the-hell-out variety. I only enjoy browsing in secondhand bookshops. And so I trudged reluctantly in her wake past stalls selling goods we had no intention of purchasing. My aura of boredom should have repelled all but the most desperate vendor; instead it acted as a challenge. But I could not be converted.

Central Bazaar
Central Bazaar
Central Bazaar

I wanted to walk back to the park to gaze at Bukhara’s oldest Muslim monument. The compact Ismail Samani mausoleum (ca. 905) is said to be the oldest surviving Islamic tomb in Central Asia, incorporating elements of earlier Sassanian fire temples in its design. 

Ismail Samani mausoleum

Its baked bricks were laid in a pattern that resembles a wickerwork basket topped by a dome. Soviet archaeological excavations conducted in 1926-28 found several burials inside the necropolis, including that of Ismail Samani (reigned 892 – 907), the most esteemed ruler of the Samanid dynasty (819 to 1005). The mausoleum is believed to have served as the dynasty’s family tomb.

Ismail Samani mausoleum

This final resting place is where we’ll have to end your whirlwind tour of Bukhara. A plate of grilled shashlik was calling my name, and we had a train to catch the next afternoon: the high speed Afrosiab to Samarkand.

I’ll meet you there in the next blog.

My high school self could have done great things with that stockpile of ammunition

Photos © Tomoko Goto 2023

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Add Comment


Sign up for my entertaining email newsletter and claim your FREE gift!

Recent Posts