Bukhara: Silk Road history, culture and crafts

Each of Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities was special but I think I liked Bukhara the most. Like Khiva and Samarkand, it has fabulous architectural sites which look stunning by night, but it’s also clearly a place where people live. So you see a blend of history, modern culture and local crafts in a very walkable city centre.

We got an insight into one local craft on our drive to Bukhara which was across the Khorezm desert. When we originally booked the trip there was an internal flight from Khiva, but lack of demand during Covid put paid to that. Instead, we had a long and sometimes bumpy journey, but a highlight was meeting a family who raise silk worms in two rooms of their home in Karakalpakstan.

Karakalpakstan is an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan and is definitely the road less travelled. Our guide Umid spotted a couple of guys cutting down mulberry leaves on the side of the road and guessed they were for silkworms. So our driver pulled over and Umid asked if we could visit their family home. I’m not sure they’d ever entertained tourists before, but when we got there they couldn’t have been more welcoming or excited to see us. We were offered bread as we entered their home and there was no saying no to holding one of their precious silkworms!

Silk fibres are produced by silkworms when they spin themselves into a cocoon on their journey to becoming a silkmoth. The fibres are harvested from the cocoon in their raw state by being boiled in hot water (still containing the silkworms) and stirred until the cocoons unravel.

Later that day, after we’d checked into the Sofiya Hotel in Bukhara, we went for a walk around the old town before dinner and met various craftspeople, including a silk weaver. His display included cocoons to explain the process and I think he was pretty surprised to hear we’d just had first-hand experience of an even earlier stage.

There were plenty of other craftspeople going about their business in the early evening in Bukhara, including a carpet maker and there were also lots of interesting and colourful products for sale in shops, on stalls and spread on the ground.

Dinner that evening was at Old Bukhara, regarded as one of the best places in town for classic Uzbek food. We ate on the rooftop terrace which meant we had good views as we tried out the local cuisine. As mentioned in my Khiva post my friend and I didn’t have great expectations for the food in Uzbekistan as we don’t eat meat, but we were consistently pleasantly surprised.

The next morning we started our sightseeing in Samani Park by visiting what was one of our architectural highlights, the Ismail Samani Mausoleum. Dating from the 10th century it’s the oldest Islamic monument in Bukhara and is a cube-shaped building made of bricks that look woven together. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it before.

Also in the park is Chasma Ayub Mausoleum which is said to mark the spot where the Prophet Job struck the dry ground and a spring of drinking water burst out and saved his followers who were dying of thirst. The building is quite plain but has three domes dating from different periods. Inside is a less-than-riveting museum about Bukhara’s water supply!

Our next stop was the sight that features most frequently on Bukhara’s postcards and is regarded as something of an icon, the vast Ark fortress. It certainly has a lot of history starting in the 5th or 6th century and originally housing a palace and later Bukhara’s first mosque. Now it’s mainly museums with displays including royal costumes, calligraphy, ceramics and weapons. Across the street is a former water tower with a lift and a cafe. We didn’t have time to visit but if you do, it offers views of the Ark and across the city.

After a nice lunch at Adros Theatre Restaurant Umid took us for a walk around Bukhara’s trading domes. When the Silk Road was at its peak the domes each focused on a different type of product, such as hats, food or jewellery, while one dome was a money exchange. Three have been restored and mainly sell souvenirs but they are well worth going into to see where some of the Silk Road trading took place back in the 16th century.

Like Khiva, Bukhara’s Silk Road riches led to the creation of many beautiful Madrasas. These former colleges include the Uleg Beg Madrasa which was built in 1417 by the grandson of Uzbekistan’s national hero Amir Timur. Uleg Beg was a great intellectual as well as a king and the inscription over the door reads ‘Aspiration to knowledge is the duty of each Muslim man and woman’.

Directly opposite Ulug Beg Madrasa is the Abdulaziz Khan Madrasa. From the front, it doesn’t look too dissimilar, but once inside you see it hasn’t been fully restored and it’s quite a contrast. Close by is Poi Kalyon Square which is probably Bukhara’s top highlight with a fabulous minaret,  madrasa and mosque. The Kalyon Minar was built as long ago as 1127 and was so tall it could be seen for miles around. The original upper part was lost at some stage, possibly in an earthquake, but it’s still an imposing sight.

Kalyon Minaret, BukharaNext to the minaret is the Kalyon Mosque, also known as the Juma or Friday Mosque, which dates to 1514 and has space for 10,000 worshippers to pray – the entire male population of Bukhara at the time it was built. The huge courtyard inside is really beautiful.

Kalyan Mosque, BukharaOpposite the mosque is the Miri-i Arab Madrasa, which was said to have been built with the profits made from the sale of 3,000 Persian slaves. To salve his conscience the benefactor endowed it for educational use and it’s still functional today. Students take a four-year programme of Arabic and Qu’ranic studies, the first step to becoming an imam. As a result, you can’t access much of it except to peer into the courtyard through an iron grill, but the outside with its twin blue domes is pretty spectacular.

The rest of the day was free to browse the shops and there are plenty to choose from in Bukhara. As mentioned, the old trading domes have plenty of stalls inside as do some of the madrasas.  But we particularly liked the Artisan Development Centre in Lyabi Hauz Square. It’s a restored caravanserai (inns where Silk Road travellers rested and sometimes traded) and the former cells house various workshops where you can watch the craftspeople at work as well as buy their wares. It’s home to the silk shop that we visited on our first evening and we went back to buy a gorgeous scarf for a friend’s birthday.

BukharaLyabi Hauz Square is at the heart of Bukhara’s old town and centres on an artificial reservoir surrounded by mulberry trees. It’s a lively place at any time of day and night with cafes and the Labi Hovuz restaurant which looks very pretty reflected in the water. On another side of the reservoir, there’s the Madrasa of Nadir Divan Beghi which features a mosaic of two flying creatures from Persian mythology. Nearby is a statue of philosopher and humorist Hodja Nasruddin on a donkey which was very popular with local visitors. Everyone wanted a photo with it or on it so I was lucky to get a shot with no-one else in it!

Dinner that evening was at Laziz House, a restaurant in a home where the family cook for a small number of guests. The house was traditional Uzbek style with tables on an upper level that overlooked a courtyard below. The food was excellent and again the wine was pretty good too!

After dinner, we left our tour group to go for a wander and then sit in Lyabi Houz Square to watch the world go by. Both adults and children were still out, eating ice cream and having drinks sitting by the water. There was no sign of any bars and no one was drinking alcohol, so we settled for a Diet Coke from a shop. Though we were surprised to spot an Alco Market on our way back to the hotel. Uzbekistan takes a very liberal approach to the Muslim religion, so drinking isn’t banned but we didn’t see many locals partaking.

On our last morning in Bukhara, we ventured about 10km out of the centre to visit the Mausoleum of Bakhauddin Naqshbandi. He was Bukhara’s unofficial patron saint and his birthplace and tomb is the holiest site in the region. It’s a large complex of gardens, parkland and other graves that has a peaceful vibe.

Not far from there is Sitorai Mokhi Khosa, which was the summer palace of Bukhara’s emirs. Some of the palace’s interiors are quite extraordinary with mirrors, brightly painted walls and ceilings and interesting pieces of furniture. There’s also a lovely blue-painted tea house with displays of Chinese and Japanese porcelain vases. And overlooking a pool is the harem where the emir would throw an apple to his chosen companion for the night.

Our final stop before lunch was back near the Old Town at Chor Minor, a square-shaped building with four turquoise domes. It’s the only Bukhara building that was built in this style and the dome-topped towers are said to represent the four daughters of the merchant who paid to have it built.

Before we headed to catch the train to our next destination Samarkand, we had a surprise treat for lunch at Minzifa restaurant. Our first and only fish meal in Uzbekistan, which Umid had organised especially because my friend and I don’t eat meat. It was river fish cooked in a cheesy sauce and it was delicious – an excellent way to end our time in Umid’s hometown.

Click on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery and visit the Uzbekistan section of my blog for more posts about this amazing country.

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