After a wonderful feast of a breakfast, which for me consisted of a freshly cooked omelette followed by warm pancakes and mulberry jam and a vat of coffee, we met our guide. Matsuma (I apologise for not knowing how to spell her name but I remembered it because it rhymed with ‘satsuma’ so ‘Matsuma’ has lodged in my head) had an oval face framed by a few locks of black hair that hadn’t quite been tucked under her headscarf. She had an authoritative air about her but a friendly demeanour and within a few minutes we discovered that she had an amazing grasp of English and a wealth of knowledge to share with us. Oktyabr had had a few adorable pronunciation issues but once we had worked out that “boons” were ‘bones’, “litter” was ‘ladder’, and “the knees of the mound” were in fact ‘foothills’ it became possible to decipher his tales. I must admit if I could introduce the phrase the knees of the mound into common English parlance, I absolutely would. We were going to have no such language problems with Matsuma. She too was an archaeologist with plenty of excavation experience so we all felt in good hands.
Our first stop of the day in Bukhara was a mausoleum but the van pulled up outside a Soviet fun park. There was an abandoned feel to the park but the Ferris wheel was slowly revolving so somewhere there was life. The hearts of two archaeologists, an architectural historian, an historian and a sheep farmer melted simultaneously when we saw the 10th century Samanid mausoleum. It was a plain brick construction but its proportions and the contrasting textures created by the play of the pattern of the brickwork, was delightful and masterful.
The brick is a simple building material and I’ve long loved the Romans’ use of it on a mass scale. But here was an architect who truly understood the versatility and inherent beauty of brick. I immediately likened some of the design to a box of biscuits – you know the ones, the kind you got at Christmas that had iced rings, custard creams and bourbons inside.
While the group was still mesmerized with its construction, Matsuma guided us to a shady spot under a tree and described the architectural achievement of the mausoleum. It draws from Sogdian, Zoroastrian, and Sassanid influence and later I read that all of these elements were pulled together with ‘arithmetic and geometrical advances made by al-Khwarizmi*, al-Fergani and ibn-Sina and the latest squinch technology…’. ‘The latest squinch technology’: I’ll let the beauty of that phrase sink in. The walls are 2m thick and their robustness has meant that the building has never had to be rebuilt – something that cannot be said of most of Uzbekistan’s monuments. The architecture of the mausoleum so transfixes the viewer that it is easy to forget to query for whom it was built. It houses the tomb of Ismail Samani founder of the Saminid Dynasty – obviously a man of taste if he had any input into the design of his final resting place.
* As an aside, the word ‘algorithm’ derives from the Latin form of his name, ‘Algoritmi’.
We wander through the gardens and the view opens over Pioneer Lake and across the waters a man fishes while talking to his companion and both are dwarfed by the imposing mudbrick walls of Bukhara that form the backdrop. It is lovely to have this view over the water and it is beautifully echoed by the sunken pools that form part of the architectural landscape.
Matsuma did not let us linger long and took us through the garden to a complex, that though called a mausoleum and indeed does contain an anonymous tomb, was actually built to commemorate the spot where the Prophet Job on finding the area parched struck the earth to create a spring. The roofline had several domes and boasted a lovely brick conical-domed tower. Outside, a man with a characterful face posed with his bicycle much to the delight of our group. It’s always hard to know whether it is permissible to take photographs of people but he clearly loved the attention so we obliged him.
Inside was a museum dedicated to water supply and I learn that Uzbekistan is sprinkled with ‘sardobas’ – medieval reservoirs fed by a variety of sources including melting snow, rain water, rivers and underground water channels. I am instantly reminded of the ice house we saw in Iran and the qanats that kept Iranian irrigated and cool. Water management in these arid countries is a fascinating and wondrous thing. Sitting beneath explanatory panels and faded images were a few people trying to sell local wares. I will admit to having a little bit of an embroidered cloth white out at this stage. I am barely capable of seeing one stitched pomegranate or tulip flower before I glaze over. And this was only day 6.
Matsuma was keen to move on and we board the freshly wiped down minibus and drive to the Old City of Bukhara. We draw up next to a grand building with a portico held up by tall matchstick columns – the same glorious spindly wooden columns that I so admired in Iran. The early 18th century Bolo Hauz Mosque stands on one side of the Registsan square and was briefly used as a proletarian workers club during the Soviet period. Although I appreciate mosques are used by the masses I cannot think of a more unlikely building to represent the values of the proletariat. The bright colours of the recent restoration of the painted ceiling certainly catch the eye but are tempered by the plain wood segments.
We all stand in awe and meanwhile at the far end of the portico something unexpected happens: a column breaks loose and flies out of line with the others. A crane on the back of a truck winches it clear of the building and I notice that it has been replaced by two long matchstick trunks of wood.
We head inside and I think we are all slightly underwhelmed by the incredibly newly painted interior and are all drawn back outside not only to admire the architectural delight of the iwan and portico but I think we are all curious as to why the column was being removed.
We find the column horizontal and some workmen clamouring around its capital. The workmen kindly allow us to peer at them at work. One chap sits on the actual column shaft to weigh it down while the others either stand around or seem to hack at the sculpted and decorated capital with a range of the least likely looking conservation tools. As we round the capital we are all captivated. Far from being one lump of sculpted wood, the capital is a jigsaw of rhomboid, triangular and diamond wedge-shaped pieces of wood. They all fit together but it’s their differing lengths that create the textured, sprouting head of the capital. This is a fascinating revelation and we are all thrilled that happenstance meant we were able to witness it.
We cross the Registan square and pause outside the Ark. The site of the Ark has been inhabited for as long as Bukhara has stood here from the 7th century and its latest incarnation is as recent as the 1980s with the rebuild of the mudbrick walls in stone.
We enter through the imposing gateway and start to climb the ramp. All the current buildings date from the 16th century onwards and as we pass a series of tiny rooms on either side of the ramp we are reminded that this was used as a prison and these were small cells and torture chambers. Although not the dungeon, or ‘Bug Pit’, that the British Colonel Charles Stoddart was imprisoned in before he was publicly executed in 1842, four years after his arrest, for having offended the emir they were evocative of the harsh life of incarceration. The story of Stoddart and his supposed rescuer, Arthur Connolly, who was executed at the same time was documented by Joseph Wolff but Stoddart’s name also lives on, wonderfully randomly, in the form of a Sri Lankan lizard: Ceratophora stoddarii.
We hasten our step as Matsuma races ahead and we are shown the rest of the complex which consists of a series of elaborate pavilions and courtyards.
Along the way we pass stalls selling textiles and as we enter one courtyard there is something of a fête-like appearance to the arrangement of embroidered silk displays. Hung over the sides of the raised portico huge swathes of fabric gentle ripple in the breeze like elaborately coloured and textured bunting.
The eyes of my group light up and soon there is a hive of activity in one corner of the courtyard. Fabrics were being flapped out onto the floor in the sunshine and the seller explained the unique quality of his particular silk products. The words floated over the heads of the group as they were simply transfixed by the designs and there were a series of oohs and ahhhhs as one fabric was laid on top of another. The oohs and ahhs soon turned into “how much?” and with a bit more flapping of fabric a deal was struck and we left the courtyard laden down with bundles of purchases.
As we pass into another immaculately presented courtyard I’m acutely aware that what we are seeing is only a tiny fraction of the fortress.
Much lies beyond the refinery of the buildings that have been conserved and the majority of the fortress lies in dusty ruins—crumbling remains of monuments poking out of a moonscape. Sadly, that part of the site is not on the itinerary as time is short and we head out back out into the square to grab some lunch. I was actually itching to leave the complex for the simple reason I had spied the fortified walls of the Ark and the wall-lover in me could not wait to see and photograph them. Outside, proudly standing in a tiny spot of dappled shade provided by the spindliest of trees was a camel. A Bactrian camel. My first of the trip. I delight in camels at the best of times and although I am a huge admirer of the Dromedary, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of excitement to see a Bactrian in its native land.
Not letting even a camel distract me for too long I moved along to let my eyes digest the fortification wall that had so enthralled me on my way in. And what walls they are. Their form is so pleasing it almost hurts. Their height, their gentle bulbous curve, their girth, their plumpness and their dumpyness is all realised in a soft beige stone punctuated with dots of brown – the ends of long wooden beams laid horizontally at regular intervals. They have the bulk and yet the grace of elephant’s feet. One of our group immediately identifies the building technique known as Murus Gallicus. It’s a brilliantly defensive construction since it cannot be damaged by use of a battering ram and the base of these walls are tens off metres thick. These are true fortifications.
We have lunch in the Registan square surrounded by chattering groups of Uzbeks wearing a flow of coloured textiles that can only make you smile.
We then head to the little pocket of Holy Bukhara. As with many of the squares in Uzbekistan it is like a face-off between two buildings. Two towering arched gateways of the Kalon Mosque and the Mir-I-Arab Madrassah stand opposite one another and seem to be bracing themselves, legs apart to remain steady and squaring each other up as if for a fight.
At the far end of the square was a minaret. Unlike the other round minarets that I’d seen, this one was not decorated with coloured tiles and was constructed entirely of plain brick. However, even from afar the tower clearly looked banded and I wandered over for a closer inspection. It was spectacular. Proving the versatility of the simple brick, each band was composed of either circular, square or rectangular bricks arranged in differing patterns to give an extraordinary texture. There were some sculpted bricks and some with geometric reliefs and the more you looked the more complex it became. It was a triumph of construction and much like the Ismail Samani mausoleum that we’d seen earlier in the day, the triumph derives from the use of a simple building material that becomes elevated by the ingenuity and creativity of the architect (who I subsequently find out was unimpressed with the final result) and builders.
I circle the tower and in its shade I open my guide book and read that my feelings of awe were shared by none other than Genghis Khan. This incarnation of the Kalon Minuret has stood since 1117 and was spared demolition in a ‘rare gesture of humility’ by Genghis Khan who, as my guide book continued, was amidst ‘an orgy of destruction’. I would hazard a guess that is the only thing that Genghis Khan and I have in common but the only reason I am enjoying seeing the tower is precisely because we did. Just as I am feeling all warm and fuzzy I read that the minaret was also known as the Tower of Death. Now slightly less warm and fuzzy, I read on and learn that in the rulers in the Middle Ages would hurl criminals off the top of the tower; their splatted remains serving to warn others in the market place below of their fate for wrong doing. I look down at my feet at the clean paving around me, shudder and move slowly away.
I rejoin the others who have now, under the tutelage of Matsuma, learned a great deal more than I about the surrounding buildings and we enter the Kalon Mosque.
As with all the mosques I have visited in both Uzbekistan and Iran, I find an immediate peacefulness within their walls. The outside world of people selling souvenirs and the bustle of tourists melts away and calm ensues. Even the perennially annoying use of the selfie-stick takes on a grace and charm. The central courtyard has a solitary tree and there is already a small group huddled under its dappled shade so we move into one of the side arcades to listen to Matsuma. Except that I find the arcade most distracting and I start wandering between the series of white painted columns enjoying the coolness of the space.
Whatever tranquility I am experiencing now does not reflect the history of the mosque which was far from peaceful. Genghis Khan rode into the mosque in 1219 and though he had mistaken the building for the Sultan’s palace he quickly drew attention away from that, climbed the pulpit and shouted to his troops ‘the hay is cut! Give your horses fodder!’ which was a cue for his followers to sack and raze the city of Bukhara, leaving the minaret, mind.
We move on and wander the streets of Bukhara, wending our way slowly back to the hotel just as the sun begins to drop.
Our last stop is at the carpet museum though the building that houses the museum slightly detracts from the capers inside. The Magok-i-Attari Mosque dates back to the 9th century and the relief work on the bricks of the facade look like tracery. It evidently was spared from total destruction and sits on top of the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple complex.
The mud brick walls are lit in the warm glow and the shapes and textures are exaggerated in the raking light. It truly is a magical city.