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Whilst there's some debate as to when Jews first arrived in Bukhara (some say as far back as the reign of Cyrus in the 5th C BCE , others the 14th C CE following forced expulsions from elsewhere in Central Asia), they were, for hundreds of years, an integral part of trade and industry that created the city's wealth. Rich as many of them may have been, aspects of their lives were constrained - they could only live in one area of the city, they could not ride within the city's walls, their word was not accepted as evidence in law and they had to pay additional taxes but, as People of the Book, until the 17th C at least, the practice of their religion was freely allowed, synagogues and schools were built in the Jewish quarter and even winemaking flourished. Although many Jewish religious and cultural practices mirrored those of their Muslim neighbors, other customs, such as bar mitzvah (tefillin-banon in Uzbek) were exclusively Jewish.
From the 17th C CE, Jewish men were forced to wear a special square cap (there's a cap for everyone and every stage of life in Uzbekistan) and, at times, yellow and black clothing, but generally, looking at the old photos in many museums in Bukhara, the style of dress for men and women was very little different from that of the rest of the population. There were some forced conversions at this time but most of the community chose to hold on to the faith of their fathers and live under the constraints that were imposed.
The world outside refers to them all as Bukharan Jews, they call themselves Isro'il (Israelites) but Bukhara was not the the only place they lived; it's estimated that there were as many as 50,000 Jews living in Central Asia at some stages. However, pogroms, earthquakes, famine, forced emigration all saw the population of Jews in the region decline and many of those who survived and/or remained move to Bukhara. The coming of the railway in the mid-19th C saw many leave - for Russia, for America and for the Holy Land. Most of those who stayed supported first the Russians and then the Communists - thinking a more secular state might allow greater equality. It didn't, and the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 encouraged many to leave until there was an extended period, from 1967 until the 1980s, when the restrictions on Jewish emigration were imposed on Bukhara's Jews as stringently as the rest of the USSR. Since those sanctions were lifted, what was a tiny trickle of emigrants at first has become a flood and today there are estimated to be no more than 50 Jewish families remaining in Bukhara and of the total population of 10,000 Jews in Uzbekistan only about 3000 trace their lineage to this ancient community.
Despite being cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for centuries this remarkable community survived, retaining their culture and their faith against many odds. Today, although their numbers are probably no more than 1000, their heritage certainly seems to be recognised. The synagogue near the Lyabi Hauz has been restored, the school's population is growing, Jewish heritage tours are on offer and there are many wonderful and historic photos of Jewish life included in museum displays.
Maybe it's all a rather cynical exercise in government propaganda - an attempt to show the world that the man in Tashkent who rules Uzbekistan with an iron fist respects religious diversity and tradition - and hopes his ties with Israel and the US will keep Islamic fundamentalism at bay. Will this community that has existed here for 2000 years or more continue to be as resilient as they have in the past, and as the Uzbek people they live amongst? It would be good to think they can work together to realise the promise this bountiful land holds for its future.
Updated May 7, 2012
Puppetry had a long and much-loved history in Central Asia that had all but disappeared by the 1950s. Here again is another craft tradition that was supressed by the Soviets (puppets all over the world have a long history of being very subversive!) Today, Bukhara's puppet-master, Iskandar Khakimov, is just one of a group of dedicated puppet makers who have revived interest in the art form throughout Uzbekistan. Even if you don't have time to see a performance, do pay a visit to his workshop/gallery. His puppets are fantastic, each one a real character.
The performances are a delight and will surprise anyone whose concept of puppetry stops with the hand puppets they may have played with as children. Kul-kugirchok (hand puppets) do perform part of the show, but so do whole body puppets (photos 4 and 5) and the drama, pathos and humour that a master puppeteer can express with papier-mache, cloth and felt is little short of magic.
Puppet shows were popular entertainment in public places, festivals and at private family celebrations in past times. The puppet actors were in the guild of actors and musicians and were under the protection of the Archangel Gabriel. As with all the Central Asian guilds, the entertainers had strict rules and set practices that were held to be divinely inspired and that proscribed set prayers and rituals that had to be followed both when constructing the puppets and when they performed. Those old ways are long gone, there's not much room in 21st century living for mediaeval belief and ritual, but the magical shift of reality that puppets create is as fresh today as it ever was, and Master Khakimov's puppets are carrying on the tradition.
You'll find Master Akhimov's workshop at 2 Centralnaya St., on the south side of the Lyabi Hauz. There are puppets for sale and they make great souvenirs.
Updated May 7, 2012
Plov - Uzbekistan's version of rice pilaff - is the country's favourite dish. No celebration is complete without plov being served but, unlike Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas goose, it is also a dish that is eaten as often as can be - dinner being considered the proper time to do so. Every region has its own version of plov but four ingredients are essential - rice, finely shredded carrots, onion and meat. The regional variations come with the variety of rice and the spices that are used, the oil or fat it is cooked in and the type of meat features. Only after these essential ingredients are in place do further variations appear - usually other vegetables or fruits.
Cooking plov is as much a ritual as serving it. Uzbeks will tell you men make the best plov cooks, and the best plov is cooked out-of-doors. You can be sure only the most determined rice-hater is going to leave Uzbekistan without at least one meal that features plov. Our tour programme even included a plov-cooking demonstration at a private house, the precursor to yet another delicious dinner.
All the ingredients had been carefully prepared before cooking began - the onion chopped finely and the carrot shredded. The rice had been washed thoroughly until the water ran clear. The meat was cut into neat pieces and all the necessary extra ingredients - cumin seeds, paprika and dried barberries set down on one side. It was time to start cooking.
True to tradition, our plov chef was the man of the house, and the plov was cooked in the courtyard on a special plov cooker - a decidedly risky-looking piece of apparatus that used both gas and burning wood. We stood well clear!
Oil was heated in a large bowl on top of the burner and then he began to prepare the zirvak, the basis of all plov. First the onion was added to the oil and cooked until transluscent. The meat was then added (mutton for us, though it could have been goat, beef, sometimes horse meat sausage or - for a very speial celebration - quail). The meat was fried until it began to brown and then the carrot was added and slightly fried. After 3 or 4 minutes water was added and the whole lot, still in layers left to stew gently over the flame for 20 minutes or so after which it was seasoned (but not stirred) with salt and the remaining ingredients. Only when the carrot had reached the right state of translucency was the rice added.
The choice of the rice is important too, a variety from the Fergana Valley is considered the best. The rice was added to the zirval in a thick layer, flattened and covered with water to the depth of one joint of the cook's forefinger. It was tightly covered and allowed to cook until all the water had evaporated. When all the water had evaporated he poked holes right through the layers with a wooden stick and carefully added more water and allowed that to evaporate too. It still wasn't ready - the next step was to pull the rice from the edge of the pot into a mound in the centre, cover it again and turn the heat right down and allow it to continue cooking gently. Tapping the side of the cooking pot told him when it was ready, tapparently he sound is different if any water is still to be cooked away.
To serve the plov, rice was placed on the plate, then a layer of the carrot mix, and finally a piece of meat was placed on top.
Needless to say, we were served yet another delicious array of salads and hot appetisers followed by soup as we waited for the plov to be cooked, and to finish, the fruits of the season.
Plov cooked and served in restaurants will usually have all the ingredients mixed together rather than layered in this way. Uzbek people like their plov cooked in cotton-seed oil; it certainly gives it a distinctive flavour, one that may Westerners don't like. Most of us agreed however, that plov cooked in blander oil as we had it one night, doesn't really have the same depth of flavour.
Updated Jan 18, 2012
It was Children's Day whilst we were in Bukhara, and families were out everywhere enjoying themselves. In the Samani Park the funfair was in full swing, there were picnicking groups in the park by the BoloKhauz Mosque, the Ark had its share of family groups and around the Lyabi-Khauz children were playing on the bronze camels and the statue of Khodja Nesruddin until late in the evening. New clothes were being shown off and one young boy was having a great time with his new mobile phone - in a neat twist he was busy taking photos of the tourists.
Children are obviously loved and cherished - our driver, Boris, summed it up when he showed us a photo of his children and ,in two of the very few English words he spoke, said simply - My life .
Updated Nov 27, 2009
Today you won't see many women wearing veils. But as Bukhara is the destination of pilgrims an dtourists form all over the world and mainly Centralasia you can see many different dresses and osmtimes women with a veil.
But the most disturbing and really scary veil cannot be seen anymore. It is the socalled horsehair-veil, which used to be the normal veil just until the 1950s. A woman in a museum showd us how this veil was worn.
Written Oct 3, 2007
Other than Samarkand and Khiva, which are located close to big rivers in Central Asia, Bukhara is sitting in the middle of a very dry steppe. Thus, water needed to be brought to the village, to make life possible and flourishing and the caravans going.
There is a nice little exhibition with drawings and sketches of old Bukhara and its channels in the little Mausoleum of Chashma Ayub, which tells a lot about the original irrigation system.
The drawings inside of the mausoleum show that, once upon a time, Bukhara did have around 200 of these hauzes, which were connected by countless channels. Each quarter had its hauz and usually small mosques, medressahs or minarets had been built around them – to create special ensembles. This emphasizes the special meaning of these hauzes – something like market places for the inhabitants. It was here, where people collected water, where they bathed, where they sat and chatted with neighbours and friends and where they went to their mosque to pray. In Tashkent’s Museum of Fine Arts I found two paintings which show some of the daily scenes alonng a hauz or a channel (pictures 3 and 4).
Knowing all that now, Bukhara must have been one of the most beautiful cities of ancient Silk Roads with so many of thesehauzes and their busy life around. But of course, it is easy to imagine that water quality wasn’t the best ad that diseases did spread easily and widely. Sovjets did fill them in with concrete to minimize these risks. But at least, some of the hauzes did survive (of course “clean” now): famous Lyab-i-Hauz, the one next to Bolo Hauz Mosque (picture 2) and some others (picture 1).
Wander around, and you will discover more.
Good news: the city has decided to restore some more of their hauzes in the future.
For more reading about the hauzes (planning, background, construction) please see the website, I have copied.
Updated May 30, 2007
The city is HOT in summer. At least I was relieved to hear that I was not the only one who thought so, in so many travellers reports people mention this heat.
After coming from Khiva (and only small amount of shade) I was very positively surprised to see so many green areas in Bukhara. If you wander around, you’ll find small and shady places and bigger parks almost around every corner. The biggest park is west of the Ark, near Bolo Hauz Mosque.
Or, if you want to do as the Uzbeks do – bring an umbrella :-)
I was very much amused to see so many people (mostly women) walking around with umbrellas. But well, coming from middle Europe, umbrellas mean more rain protection for me (not that I have one….)
Picture 1: park and lady with umbrella near Ismail Samani Mausoleum
Picture 2: shady area near Magok-i-Attar Mosque
Picture 3: park near Bolo Hauz Mosque
Picture 4: at Registan and Ark
Picture 5: gardening at Registan
Updated Jan 7, 2007
People say that in this place about 40 saints are buried. And when it will be the end of the world, there will be opened door to the Paradise.
Nowadays, people come here to pray and ask for advices from saint old people who are always ready to help.
Written Jul 29, 2004
800 sum is approximately 1 US $ but when you change in the banks, they probably give you 200 sum bills.
This means that if you change 50 US$, you won't be able to stuck them all in your wallet
500 sum is the highest bill, ask for these ones
Written Mar 2, 2004
Tours and GuidesIf you are looking for a good english speaking guide or want to arrange a tour to outskirt of the city go to Salom Travel. The best toursit agency in the city. Located not far from BICC just continue walking straight forward the same alley and look for a sign above the doors saying 'Salom Travel' Office is open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and staff speaks in English and Italian languages.
There is a wide option of tours:
Tour to Varahsha - archeological site of 1 - 7th cent. A.D.
Tour to Nature Reserve. If you are interested in knowing type of nature enviroment of this region the best thing is to go to Nature Reserve located about 40 km away. It was established during Soviet times as a breeding center for persian gozelles 24 years ago. You can do it on your own too but better if you take a translator with you because there is none speaks a word of english. There you will see gozelles in wild nature, horses of Prezjivalski, chineese bleeding horses, couple of Bukhara deers, huge lizards, desert fox and number or rare birds like hubara bastard. If you are fisherman take a chance to go fishing in one of two lakes.
Camel Trek can be arranged in a place called Yangigazgan (260kms). A car or van will take you to the desert where hosts setup a yurt for you.
Note: One or two days is required to arrange any of these tours.
Address - Saraffon str. 5
Written Aug 25, 2002
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