Of all Bukhara's holy sites, none ranks more highly than the Bakhauddin Nakhshbandi Ensemble, burial place and shrine of one Islam's most important saints, Khazreti Mohammed Bakhauddin Nakhshabandi, a founding Sufi, who was born near here in 1318 and was buried here when he died in 1389.
The focus of the shrine is the saint's tomb, enclosed by a white marble mazaar (carved fence) . It sits in the central courtyard, beside it a pool of sacred water that flows into the small water vessel beside it. The sacred pool was the first structure to be placed near the saint's tomb. Next came the khanaga, a hostel for wandering dervishes, with its massive brick ribbed dome, built in 1544. Mosques and minarets were built in succeeding centuries, mausoleums and graves too and the place became a major centre of pilgrimage.
Of course, the era of Soviet domination saw most of the complex fall into virtual ruin, the sacred pool dry up and the khanaga itself used as a Museum of Atheism, but the years since independence have witnessed the restitution of a belief much older than Communism and money has poured in from many sources to enable the restoration we see today. From the President of Turkey (Uzbeks are a Turkic people) who made a personal gift of $45,000 to the humblest offering from simple pilgrims, this restoration of the shrine has been a gift from the heart of people all over Central Asia.
Having prayed to the saint as they circle his tomb and left offerings of food which they cook in special kitchens and other tokens of their heartfelt desires, many move on to an ancient mulberry tree, said to have grown from a staff the saint stuck into the ground. This is where an age-old ritual sees people clamber under its twisted trunk, worn smooth from the caress of thousands upon thousands of hands, as an added guarantee that their hopes and dreams will be fulfilled.
The shrine is a few kilometres northeast of the city centre. Take Bus 60 from the Ark or grab a cab. There are always people coming and going so getting back to the city shouldn't pose a problem.
More than 4000 petroglyphs, most of which date from the Stone and Bronze Ages are to be found etched into the black rock faces of the Sarmysh Gorge. A day's visit here will only give you time to see a mere handful of them but it will take you right away from the architecture and bazaars that form the greater part of any visit to Uzbekistan. The gorge is certainly not the most accessible of places, and you will have to have made arrangements for a visit well in advance of your outing as permission has to be obtained for you to pass through the Young Pioneers camp that lies between the gorge and the main road. Once you've reached the beginning of the gorge, you are then faced with a long walk and quite a bit of scrambling up the rocks if you are to see more that a few of the petroglyphs, but if ancient sites interest you, then this is just about as as ancient as it gets here.
Don't expect a dramatic, steep-sided defile, the Sarmysh gorge is formed by a small river running through a region of worn extinct volcanoes. Fractured stone terraces with the overhanging ledges and shallow caves ring the cones while thorn bushes and low trees grow beside the stream. This combination of permanent water that attracts game animals in from the surrounding desert and shelter from the baking summers and freezing winters encouraged the abandonment of a nomadic way of life to settle down, develop agriculture and begin to work the metals found in the surrounding hills - a way of life that allowed time to record the things of life that mattered. The surface of the surrounding rocks provided the canvas.
The earliest petroglyphs mostly depict hunters and and their prey and are easily interpreted. Later figures feature scenes of every day life and domesticated animals, again easy to to work out just what is what. Much more mysterious are the strange figures such as two-headed men or men with halos (space helmets?) that probably have some religious or cult meaning rather than the evidence of alien visitors from space that more fanciful interpretations have suggested.
There is a very schematic plan of the gorge near the entrance and the most basic of signs indicating the location of the glyphs as you progress along the track. Without a guide who knows the area well you will need to scout around a fair bit.
An excursion here will take pretty well the whole day out of Bukhara. There are no facilities of any sort once you leave the last town behind, so bring food and water with you and come prepared for a very exposed site - hats, sunscreen, sensible shoes are a must. Needless to say, there are no rubbish bins either, so take all your litter away with you.
Walking the gorge is a terrific experience - the quiet stillness and pristine landscape almost overwhelming in its timelessness. Not that everyone is prepared to go to the effort it takes - a tour group of middle-aged tourists appeared around the bend just along from the first group of petroglyphs - fair enough, if we were interested enough to make the journey why shouldn't they be? We weren't so impressed to see their minibus bumping along the very rough track on the other side of the river a few minutes later, pick them up and turn around to go back - they can't have spent more than 30 minutes in the gorge and seen more than two or three petroglyphs. Coming across the mound of melon skins and water bottles they'd dumped by the track was even less impressive!
The road from Bukhara to Samarkand has been known since ancient times as the Shokh Rokh - the Royal Road. A trip out to see the petroglyphs of the Samysh Gorge starts off along this road and although it's 150km to the gorge, much of it on very minor country roads, there are a couple of sights that are worth first a detour off the road, and then a stop along the way.
First, the detour. Just 20km outside Bukhara, the slender tower of the Vabkent Minaret looks for all the world like an anorexic version of the mighty Kalon minaret in Bukhara. An inscription tells us it dates from the same period - the 12th century - and, with its bands of decorative brickwork and Kufic script, is clearly of the same architectural school. 39 metres high, it can be seen clearly from the road.
Some dstance down the road, the ruin of a pilgrim hostel stands right beside the road. Only the portal remains but across the road a great brick dome covers a cistern that even today is more than half full of water.
Turning off the main road at the town of Navoi, the landcape is first one of undulating hills covered in tussocky grasses that seems to go on and on but gradually it changes as we come closer to the Karatau Range, within whose black shaley hills the Sarmysh gorge lies. Here the landscape is softer, greener. There's evidence of farming activity - trees are growing, a simple hay shed appears. Finally we reach the gates of the deserted Young Pioneers camp, a hangover from Soviet days - it's shut but our driver opens it and we drive through the camp, down a long, winding, gentle slope. Camp buildings stand forlornly under the trees. I know we've had to get permission to come through here but no-one checks us. Finally, we come to the gate on the other side, this is where our bus leaves us , from now on we're walking.
Just as Christianity has a tradition of the Christ's disciples travelling far and wide to spread the word of the Gospels, Islam has a tradition of the descendants of the Prophet and his companions doing the same thing to spread the word of Allah. It was the four brothers Abu Bakr, direct descendants of the Prophet's closest companion and first convert, who came to Bukhara in 970CE (360 AH) and whose graves lie in the necropolis at Sumitan, about 7 km outside the city.
A brotherhood of Sufi dervishes gathered around the graves and by 1560 a khanaga (dervish hostel), mosque and medressah had been built there - all are still standing today, the centrepiece of the Chor Bakr Necropolis. Following the Muslim practice of wishing to be buried near holy sites, the cemetery grew as the khans, their families and others were buried here.
Again, the restorers have been busy and graves that only recently were crumbling away into dust are newly repaired. The graves of the Abu Bakrs are marked by tiled ends - the only graves so distinguished. They're shaded by trees and a small pavilion has been built nearby to allow for quiet contemplation. Some of the 25 buildings that comprise the complex have been restored also, some are still awaiting that fate.
The newness of the restoration may seem a little brash, but nothing stays looking new for long here in Central Asia and I have no doubt it won't be many years before the necropolis takes on the worn and faded aura that befits such a venerable place. Meanwhile, it's not really on the tourist trail and you may well, as we did, find you have the place all to yourself.
The Necropolis was submitted for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008, No decision has yet been made.
Buses for Chor Bakr leave from the bus station near the main bazaar.
If you take a taxi, be prepared to pay to have him wait. The necropolis gets virtually no passing traffic.
In a park just on the south-eastern edge of the old city, you'll find Bukhara's simple and moving monument known as The Grieving Mother. A wide open plaza bordered with plaques bearing the names of the 18,000 men and women of the city who lost their lives in World War II leads up to the monument , a mother and her small son, simply cast in white-painted concrete. It really is very touching - our time there was made more so by the old lady who came up to us and spoke so eloquently and with such conviction that, even though we didn't understand a word she was saying, the sentiment was unmistakable.
The park is bounded by Ibrikhim Muminov and Alishai Navoi Ulitsas.
2009 update - On our return to Bukhara we were told The Grieving Mother has been removed, no-one knew where. The avenue of names remains. Maybe there are plans afoot to replace her with something grander than painted concrete. I'd be rather sad to see that - one of the things I found so moving was the use of such a raw material. Bronze and polished marble are so often the stuff of heroic bombast, this memorial was unforgettable in its simplicity.
There is citadel (ark) very close to Lyabi Hauz. The entrance fee is about 4 US$. At the top of the citadel, there are few wooden stairs which opens to a kinda museum. Not a museum in fact in classical sense but rather showroom. There are 3-4 rooms inside and many historical artifacts. I have attached the snaps of few. These artifacts and some pictures on the wall will give a good idea how the life was during ancient times, how Bukhara was managed by governors, etc. Better not to miss.
Behind the Ark there is the old priosn. even though also in the ark itself there was a prison, there was this prison in the city walls. It is a building with thick walls and the cells are like holes in the ground. The prison is now a museum showing an dinforming about the living conditions of the prisoners long time ago. It was not comfortable in this holes with almost not enough space to ly down.
When we were exploring the Old Town together with our guide he stopped at an unspectacular door and said, tha only women could have a glimpse into the building. The men of our group were quite curious, but no way, that could even look around the corner! We women stepped forward and were very friendly welcome into an old bathhouse, which was only for women. We were much too shy to step further, but the local women invited us to come back in the evening for a bath and a massage. Unfortunately we did not have the time to do that.
In history a visit to a bathhouse was considered a "must" as part of standard of well-being of the citizens in Bukhara. Therefore, bathhouses were an indispensable element of an urban public center. Particular significance was attached to medicinal and hygienic aspects of a bath. As Abu Ali ibn Sina writes in his “Canon of Medical Science”, good baths must have a firm building, moderate temperature, bright light, pure air, roomy and attractively painted dressing room and pleasant water.
I do not know the name of the bathhouse we saw, but it is said, that there are many old bathhouses. Maybe you just ask at the reception of your hotel.
The area around the Lyab-i Hauz Complex is the Old Town with many small alleys, old houses, the old Synagoge and many interesting and off the beaten path-alleys. It is an interesting area to explore and discover the small and unspectacular things.
Driving from Bukhara to Navoi and Samarkand on the main M-37 road you’ll pass through Gijduvan (46 km north-east from Bukhara), famous throughout Uzbekistan for its distinctive pottery. The best place to see this is at the workshop of Abdullo and Alisher Narzullaev, just north of the main road. These brothers are the sixth generation of a family of famous potters, still practising the traditional skills passed down through the family. As the Bukhara Net website says:
The Gizhduvan School of ceramics is characterized by the prevalent use of brown coloring as a background with yellow-green glazed hues as accent. The ornamentation of clay dishes and plates consists of mainly floral pattern, incorporating images of big flowers, leaves, and various rosettes. The Gizhduvan style of ornamentation is unique and is not influenced by other school in the area.
We were shown around the museum of ceramics above their shop, which displays items from all over the country. Alisher described the different styles, and showed us some tiles made by his grandfather who had worked on the restoration of the Registan in Samarkand. We were then taken to the workshop area where we saw his brother Abdullo at work at the potter’s wheel, one of the daughters of the family painting some completed pots, and the different kilns. In the courtyard another of the girls was drawing designs for embroidery, a further family tradition.
Our tour finished of course in the shop with many examples of their work on sale. There was something for every pocket, with the smallest bowls starting at just $2, so most of us bought at least a small souvenir to thank them for the trouble they’d taken. Do think carefully before purchasing though – one of our group (yes, you Georgina!) bought quite a large bowl and we were all anxious about whether she would be able to bring it safely home on the plane, which luckily she did :)
Finally we ended our visit with green tea and sweetmeats in their pleasant shady courtyard
When you’ve finished visiting the main palace here, head further into the grounds to see what else the complex has to offer. One building worth exploring is the small octagonal one, built for guests, that now houses a small collection of traditional costumes, with beautifully embroidered robes, one completely covered in gold, and another woman’s robe with the sleeves sewn together as a sign that she was married.
Beyond this is a harem and by it a pool where the concubines would swim, naked of course. A nearby platform apparently allowed the emir to watch this spectacle, and to indicate which one he wished to have sent to his chambers by tossing her an apple.
On a hot summer’s day the temperatures here are a welcome few degrees lower and there is more breeze than in the city, so it makes a pleasant excursion. Walking beneath the trees you may see peacocks, the last remnants of the emir’s private zoo.
According to our guidebook the entrance fee is $3.50 though it may have gone up since – I can’t be sure as it was included in our tour.
In the northern suburbs – take a taxi or bus number 9 or 17
This palace, the Summer Residence of the Emir, was built by the Russians in 1911 in order to lure the last Emir, Alim Khan, out of the strategic and central Ark fortress to the relative anonymity of the suburbs. The architectural style is a weird mix between traditional Islamic influences and the tastes imported by the Russians from their great cities such as St Petersburg.
The first thing that will strike a traveller who has been in Uzbekistan even for just a couple of days, and grown used to the favoured blues, turquoises and jade colours of the tile-work, is the shock of the deep red majolica on the entrance portal here (see photo 3). Passing through here you’ll come to the courtyard of the main palace building, which now houses a museum of applied art. This is well worth devoting some time to, both for the artefacts it houses and the building itself. The former include an excellent example of the traditional Uzbek cradle (see photo 4). We were told that these are still in use and assured that they are both practical and cause no discomfort to the baby, but they seem strange to western eyes. The baby is tightly bound and carefully positioned above a hole in the cradle’s base, below which a small terracotta receptacle (differently shaped for a boy or a girl) catches what in the west a nappy would absorb.
The decoration of some of the rooms in this building is striking, to say the least, including the ganch and mirror-encrusted White Hall shown in my main photo, and a room with coloured skylights that lit it up almost like a disco (photo 2).
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This is the place to come if you want to see Bukharans at play. It lies to the west of the old town, and you’re likely to be lured here by the mesmerising Ismael Samani Mausoleum, which is naturally the main attraction. But it’s worth taking some time to wander round the rest of the park. There are some slightly scruffy looking children’s fairground rides, unlikely to have passed a health and safety examination here in the UK ;) Beyond these the lake is popular with families and couples enjoying the peddle boats, and beyond that is a short stretch of the old city walls of Bukhara, dating from the 16th century and now in a poor state of repair though they once stood 10 metres high and 5 metres thick. We were told that the reason for their dilapidated state was that the clay of which they were built was much prized for the medicinal qualities of some of the chemicals it contains.
About a 10-20 minute walk west of Lyab-i-Hauz, depending on the heat!
Again, it is highly recommendable to step off the well-trotted touristy roads to discover the beauty of villages :-)
At the evening of my "experience Mir-i-Arab and Kaylon at sunset", I was so busy looking at the buildings and taking pictures that it was too late to climb Kaylon Minaret to get one of those sunset photos. Apart from that, I doubt that it is possible to climb on top of the minaret that late. So I wanted to wander back to the hotel through backstreets. As soon as I walked off the square and along a little medressa south of Kaylon Square, a man approached me and asked me if I would want to climb on top of the medressa to see Bukhara at sunset. Of course I wanted. He opened the gate (somehow everyone seems to have keys to some gates :-) and let me in. We climbed the roof.... to get the most magnificent view over Kaylon Mosque, Kaylon Minarett and the city in an adorable sunset !
This little medressa is called Amir Alim Khan Medressa, built in 20th century and now used as a childrens' library.
I paid the man 1000 som, which he seemed to be happy with.
If I am travelling, my most special moments are when I wander around in a village (or in nature) and find something unexpected, unspoiled and beautiful, which is not yet mentioned in travel books.
In Bukhara it was this unknown mosque, hidden behind a wall. I was wandering through the backstreets of old Bukhara (well, more stumbling in the heat), when suddenly an old man and some kids came and asked me if I want to see something special. Well, we spoke hand language of course :-) The man unlocked an old gate and led me into a courtyard full of debris – and this incredible beautiful old mosque. You could see that they were working on it, but it will take a lot of time until it is restored and shows its original beauty.
It is a small mosque, with only 2 pillars supporting the iwan. A little door leads inside, and I stepped over piles of bricks and debris to get closer to the walls with the beautiful mukarnas and richly decorated alcoves. I could have stayed there for hours and hours and look at each detail, this mosque had inside, the elaborated paintings, which were almost faded away, the mukarnas, the harmony in there.
When I left, I gave the old man 1500 som, which seemed an adequate fee from his smile. Even if it might sound much – this little mosque was so special, much more special than most of the other restored ones I saw.
I regretted most that I didn't speak any Uzbek or Russian, so I could not learn anything about the history of this mosque, or who is restoring it. But.. the more I think about, the more I would like to learn one of the languages, go back and help restoring (no joke).