For centuries, Bukhara was a critical hub on the fabled Silk Road. Controlled by the Russians, the Bukharan Emirate, the Timurids, the Sogdians, and even the Mongols; it has long been caught up in the ebb and flow of power in Central Asia. Fortunately, many architectural legacies of its past have been preserved and/or restored, making Bukhara one of the most atmospheric cities of the old Silk Road to visit. When you do (and you really must!), here are ten amazing sites to explore!
Meaning ‘around the pool’ in Tajik, this focal point of the Old Town is built around a peaceful pool flanked by mulberry trees and a couple madrasahs. Souvenir and food sellers occupy a few nooks, with ample seating provided for those looking to relax in the shade. It’s not at all uncommon to see newlyweds walking along with their clamoring entourages–a spectacle to say the least.
Throughout town, there are three remaining covered bazaars, or ‘toks’. In the 16th century, during the Sheibanid dynasty, these and others each housed vendors of a specific trade, including: moneychangers, jewellers, cap makers, textile makers, etc. While the vendors today only loosely adhere to the old setup, it is well worth the time to meander through and haggle for whatever catches your eye. Bargain hard enough and you can get at least 50% off the initial price! I snagged a silver Bukharan emirate coin from 1890 for a fraction of its value!
Named after the grandson of Timur and the ruler of the Timurid Empire for almost 5o years, the Ulugbek Madrasah is Central Asia’s oldest. Built in 1417, it has been largely untouched since some additions in the 16th century. True to its namesake’s scientific aspirations, there is a quote over the door which reads: ‘Aspiration to knowledge is a duty of each Muslim man and woman’.
A massive, 47 meter tall construction between the Kalon Mosque and the Mir-i-Arab Madrasah, Kalon Minaret is a marvel of Karakhanid engineering. So well was it constructed that it has never needed anything beyond cosmetic repairs since it was built in 1127. That’s old. According to legend, when Genghis Khan sacked Bukhara after its rulers made the rather poor decision to execute his ambassador, he was so awestruck by the splendor of the minaret that he ordered it spared. It’s still standing while the complex it was a part of is not, so there may be some truth to the tale…
The minaret has a grim history of its own. As Fitzroy Maclean–a Scottish explorer traveling under the radar throughout the Soviet Union–noted in his memoir ‘Eastern Approaches’, “For centuries before 1879, and again in the troubled years between 1917 and 1920, men were cast down to their death from the delicately ornamented gallery which crowns it (the minaret).”
A functioning place of worship once again after the Soviets closed its doors, Kalon Mosque was built in the 16th century and is large enough to accommodate 10,000 people. The courtyard inside is well-maintained and the majolica tiles along the arches and facade have been artfully restored. The result is a stunning, pristine glimpse of the architectural splendor of ancient Bukhara.
Directly opposite a courtyard from the beautiful Kalon Mosque is the Mir-i-Arab Madrasah. Built by Ubaidullah-khan in honor of and in cooperation with his Yemeni mentor, known as Mir-i-Arab, the madrasah is one of Central Asia’s finest. It is particularly striking at sunset, as you can see from the picture below.
Bukhara’s oldest remaining structure, the Ark was built in the 5th century and–though much of it is in ruins–is still intact to this day. Anything called ‘the Ark’ is enough to make a fan of Indiana Jones get a little breathless, but this Ark is a somewhat tamer affair than the one Indy encountered. Visitors only have access to a small part of the ancient fortress, consisting of numerous small museums showing Bukhara’s past. Though it is well worth exploring, this is among Bukhara’s least memorable sights.
Still, the outer walls are impressive, protecting what was–at the height of Bukhara’s power–essentially a town within a town. It was here the citizens of Bukhara took refuge from the fury of the Mongols and here they died when the Mongols swarmed the fortress.
Behind the Ark is a beautiful mosque, built in the 18th century as the emir of Bukhara’s official place of worship. It is notable for the intricately decorated ceiling and wooden pillars. This is a still functional mosque, so be respectful and mindful of worshipers if you visit.
Hidden away in a maze of tiny streets and alleys is the picturesque Char Minar. A small, curiously compact affair, each of the four towers has a unique design. For a small fee, visitors are able to ascend a small stairwell to the rooftop and take in the modest view.
I saved my favorite memory for last. Beyond the Ark and the Bolo-Hauz Mosque are two large madrasahs: the Abdullakhan and Modarikhan madrasahs. The Modarikhan madrasah is nice, but the Abdullakhan steals the show. Inside is a courtyard, similar to the one in the Kalon Mosque. Here, however, visitors are free to roam anywhere, exploring the honeycombed rooms with crumbling mosaics and vaulted chambers. Since it is located a ways away from most of the other main sights, there are far fewer visitors.
Explore the passages well, if you’re lucky you may find one of several spiral staircases leading to the rooftop! The view is spectacular. Find a spot to sit and soak in the quiet beauty of Bukhara.
There you have it! Ten awesome things to see in one of the most atmospheric places in Central Asia.
Have you got any recommendations not mentioned here? Tell me in the comments below!