Kolan Mosque & Minaret,
Bukhara: Frozen in Time
The city is often known as Holy Bukhara, but I call it the Williamsburg of Uzbekistan. Like its namesake, it was perfectly preserved period city. Bukhara was founded around 2,500 years ago and became a huge religious, artistic and scientific center. At its peak it had 300,000 people and 250 medressas -- that's a lot of theology classes. This golden age lasted Genghis Khan did his thing and razed it. The place saw some nice building under Timur but from then on it was downhill. It plunged backwards until finding its way later as an independent khanate along with nearby Khiva and Kokand. These the mini-states entertained themselves by attacking each other until the Russians came and wiped them all out. Bukhara was home to some pretty twisted rulers. One particularly warped Emir was the infamous Nasrullah Khan who murdered most of his family to get the top slot and had tons of slaves. He was also fond of torture and public executions. He threw some visiting British soldiers into a bug pit and had them dig their own graves before executing them. On way into his palace was lined with people undergoing torture. This was not a nice person.
Reflecting its pickled condition, Bukhara was much quieter than bustling Samarkand. It was a quiet old city full of mud houses that is almost perfectly preserved unchanged for centuries. The city was loaded with medressas, old markets and covered markets -- all around a towering imposing fortress called the Ark. The Ark had huge curvy and imposing walls around a huge plaza called the Registan, which is not to be confused with Samarkandís Registan. As it turns out, there have been many Arks in Bukhara. The first was built in the seventh century. At least two more came and went before Genghis Khan destroyed yet another one. The current and presumably final Ark is the remnant of one almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1920, when the last emir fled the Reds.
The Ark and its predecessors were the center of power in Bukhara and were large enough to house thousands of retainers -- in addition to the emir and his family. The Ark literally and figuratively dominated the city and included a palace, harem, mosque, government offices such as a mint and treasury. On the less fun side it also included slave quarters, a prison, and a dungeon. After climbing the stairs into the Ark, I was greeted by Irina, a middle-aged but well-preserved blond. She was the kind of woman who was trying to hold back the years with a carefully made up face, long, bright blond hair and a lot of enthusiasm. Fortunately, for her it seemed to work. Most guys would hope that their wives would look so good at 45. Anyway, Irina told me about how Bukharaís Ark was execution central. They always seemed to be killing someone for some offense, real or imagined. We ended up going up and down lots of stairs and visiting a cool mosque built with lots of wood columns. Most of the Ark was empty. I suppose the locals must have gone a little crazy when the emirs were finally overthrown. The views of the old Bukhara from the top of the walls the best parts of the visit to the Ark.
I gave the Zindon, or former jail a miss. I was told gleefully that it had a torture chamber, dungeons, the famous bug pit and other fun stuff. I've seen enough of these kinds of places in other countries. I didn't feel need to learn more about how eyes are gauged out or what is the best way to tear nostrils. The Prague Torture Museum which details manís inhumanity to man (and woman) was enough for a lifetime. Across from the Ark was the mellow looking Bolo-Hauz Mosque which had a brightly painted porch and 20 columns made form whole tree trunks. It was beautifully set near a pool with fountains. Alas the whole place was plopped under a big gray Soviet-built water tower. In a blow for esthetics, I was told they will blow up the tower next year.
I walked down a
street lined with an arched bazaar which was mostly empty. I ended up in a huge
courtyard marked by the magnificent Mir-i-Arab Medressa, the towering Kalon
Minaret and giant Kalon Mosque. Although the Kalon Mosque was big enough to hold
10,000 people, only a small fraction of the place had prayer rugs (bought with
Saudi help). Of these, only a fraction looked as they were in use any time
recently. The rest of the mosque was a giant courtyard, fountains and massive
archways. Other than the bored attendants sitting behind piles of souvenirs and
film, I was alone. It was hard to believe that in this modern age I could have
such a world class attraction to myself.
The Kalon Mosque had been reopened after being used as a warehouse by the Soviets. It was originally constructed around the massive Kalon Minaret, which was built in 1127. At 47 meters tall; the minaret was once tallest building in the world. It had reinforced masonry as an early form of earthquake control. Over the years, it was used as a beacon, watchtower and means of execution (ugh). Even the wild Genghis Khan didn't want it razed. I think might have enjoyed its latter use. The minaret had 14 ornamental stone bands and fantastic views of the city, especially the stunning blue domes of the Mir-i-Arab Medressa. It was pure magic.
The Mir-i-Arab Medressa was built using money earned from selling Shiite Persians into slavery. Despite these colorful origins (or because of them), it was a working seminary from the 1500's to 1920 and reopened in 1944 to make Moslems more supportive of the war effort. Presumably, Allah also hated the Nazis. It was the only working Soviet-era medressa in Central Asia for most of the post-war period. As of 2001, the school was filled with 250 guys from Uzbekistan who enrolled in late their teens to study Arabic, The Koran and Shariah (Islamic law). Most of the notices inside the building around were in Arabic. Unfortunately, the place was closed to visitors because the Mir-i-Arab was mostly a dormitory. When I went to look, this did not stop lots of enthusiastic but earnest students from staring out at me. Classes were held in the Kalon Mosque.
In front, a man with had an usual variety of musical instruments for sale sprawled on a table. I saw a dutar, two-stringed lute-like instrument with a long fingerboard and a round sound box. Some instruments had strings are made from tendons from horses' and bulls' legs. I particularly liked the tanbur which is usually more than a meter long and has three strings. They are often decorated with shells and are shaped like a long thin guitar with a small round sound box.
Note: This is only a partial
excerpt of the article and photo collection. The entire
article is available on request.