Genghis Khan’s leniency and dead British soldiers are just some of the episodes contained within the annals of Bukhara’s past. Paul Stafford explores what currently makes the Silk Road city tick.
“Do you want to climb onto my roof?” It was an odd question, but it made some sort of sense as I had been manoeuvring around pillars and vehicles for a few minutes in an attempt to get a better photo of Bukhara’s revered Kalyan Minaret and Mosque.
The man behind the question was Akramov. He wore a white skull cap and long black chapan to stave off the early morning chill. When I eagerly said “yes” he pulled out a rudimentary ladder constructed of rough bits of wood nailed loosely together. He called a colleague over to mind his ceramics stall while he tended the ladder; it seemed this wasn’t the first time he had offered roof time to someone.
Akramov wore snazzy trainers that seemed incongruous with his clothing. He carefully leaned the ladder against a flat roof constructed of two layers of uncemented bricks atop plywood. It was precarious. From the roof the view was partly obscured by his neighbour’s corrugated roof. The risk from the climb was greater than the benefit. I snapped a couple of photos, more out of politeness than desire. But I also felt a little cheated, the view from the street was far more magnificent.
Art of the deal
Having descended back to safety, Akramov grinned a cheeky, brass tooth-capped grin and asked for a little money. This was the Silk Road after all, where the spirit of commerce is still alive and well. He then tried to sell me a plate decorated with images of pomegranates. Plants and fruits are still common decorative motifs in modern Bukhara. Depicting any sentient being, animal or human, was once strictly forbidden in much of the Islamic world. Cynically, I wondered whether the continuation of such a tradition in Uzbekistan today, where religious devotion is diluted in the wake of decades of Soviet rule, was more for the tourist dollar. Many of the plates had clearly been artificially weathered to feign authenticity and antiquity.
My cynicism was not an unfounded inclination. It was supported by the experience garnered during my time in Uzbekistan. From the markets (where I was quoted prices of roughly $2 per apple) to the museums, prices were fluid like warmed mercury. At least for outsiders they were. Museums in Bukhara rarely had an official price list; on arrival the custom was to inquire as to the visitor’s nationality first. Prices would then be conjured forthwith.
Admitting to being British was not proving to be a successful bargaining tool. I first noticed this when visiting The Ark, Bukhara’s robust bulk of a fortress. An Argentinian couple in front of me had paid three times less for their tickets than the quote I was given. On inquiry, I was told that they had a limited ticket, yet it gained them access to all the same areas as my own, costlier ticket. White lies come thick and fast in Bukhara.
The building that won a monster’s heart
Bidding farewell to Akramov, with a little money fairly paid for use of his ladder and roof, I wandered to a square separating the imposing facades of Kalyan Mosque and Mir-i-Arab Madrasa. It was empty and eerily quiet.
The Soviet Empire silenced the call to prayer and it has barely returned. In my entire two week trip in Uzbekistan I didn’t hear the muezzin’s call once. And so it was calm. The madrasa’s students were on holiday and tourist season was months away. The only chatter came from stall holders, clutching their flasks of tea and wondering whether they’d sell anything that day.
Kalyan Minaret has a number of silent fenestrations around its upper level, where the call to prayer would once have blared out. The stout, immovable pillar tapers upwards, blooming once more at its upper rotunda. The exterior is graced by exquisite brickwork forming alternating, concentric patterns, occasionally broken by a frieze bearing inscriptions.
Genghis Khan’s Mongols were wont to destroy everything in their path. Kalyan Minaret, which dates back to 1127, was spared. Genghis, having never seen anything quite like it, allowed it reprieve. But if the minaret impressed a monster, so too did it provoke monstrosity. Criminals are thought to have been thrown from the rotunda to their death. It points to a darker side of Bukhara; one that is buried in the loose earth of the past. It was also one that offered another reason to hide my Britishness, besides inflated prices.
Brits weren’t always welcome
More than a millennium ago Bukhara was one of the world’s most important Islamic intellectual hubs. Bukhara had long been a Silk Road bastion, fed to prosperity by flourishing commerce and the exchange of ideas along this seminal conduit of ancient international progress. Although left to rot by the Mongols, it was revived slowly, becoming first a Shaybanid Khanate, then later an Emirate. The turquoise domes and lofty entrances to madrasas and mosques are an exquisite indication of both the wealth and piety of the city during this era.
By the 18th century, Bukhara was the core of a large regional Emirate. Meanwhile The Great Game raged between Russia and Britain. It was focussed on Central Asia, where the land had become increasingly relevant in the struggle for imperial dominance. Silk Road cities like Khiva and Bukhara were deemed key, in the British belief, to the defence of British India.
Only roughly 10% of the world’s countries can say that they have not been invaded by the British Empire at some point. Uzbekistan is one of those countries. Depending on your frame of mind, that is either a blessing or an insult. But ultimately the British did not see the region as strategic enough to reroute their valuable armies, which had their hands full with ongoing challenges in India and later the Opium Wars against China.
The British Government hoped instead to win Bukharan favour. They soon hit a wall. One reason was Nasrullah Khan, Emir of Bukhara. He had imprisoned Charles Stoddart, a representative of the British East India Company, when he arrived in 1838 to seek an alliance. The reason being that Stoddard failed to respect the local custom of dismounting from his horse outside the city gates and bowing to the Emir.
Captain Arthur Connolly, to whom the phrase ‘The Great Game’ is attributed, arrived in 1841 to try and negotiate Stoddart’s release. He too was imprisoned. It seemed as though Nasrullah Khan had taken a disliking to the British.
On 17 June 1842, 175 years ago, the two British men were dragged from a bug-infested pit, frogmarched a couple of hundred metres to The Ark and forced to dig their own graves in front of an expectant crowd. They were both summarily beheaded, thus ending the British interest in Bukhara.
It may have been this stubborn resistance that has preserved Bukhara in such pristine fashion today. Despite the Emirate’s defeat by the Russians in 1868, where the region remained under the Russian yoke for over a century, very little Russian influence can be seen.
I circumvented The Ark, wondering whether the remains of Stoddart and Connolly still lay under the hexagonal paving stones. Around the back of the fortress I came to the Zindan, where the men had languished in a hole in the ground for years.
“Nationality?” Asked the lady at the entrance gate in Russian. “Brit…er…Argentinian,” I said, handing over a substantially lower amount of money than I’d paid to enter The Ark. It was Stoddart’s failure to respect local customs that had him thrown in here in the first place, I thought. A little white lie for the sake of saving some money isn’t uncommon here. I lowered my normal standard of probity, but at least I would keep my head.