In the orange early morning light, women holding parasols walked their children to school down gravel alleyways filled with the ever present hum of air-con units. Broom-wielding figures in high-viz orange jackets cast bulbous shadows as they swept the dust from side to side. As the sun arced towards its zenith a haze developed, the heat so overpowering that even hawkers lost the will to sell.
Weaving our way past scant pedestrians, our bus headed out of town towards the glittering Summer Palace of Bukhara’s last Emir, the outsized Alim Khan. Beyond the imposing majolica tiled gateway of the Russian-built Sitora-I Mohi Khosa – Palace of the Stars and the Magnificent Moon – the banqueting hall contained an elaborate bronze chandelier from Poland weighing half a ton. To gasps of awe, Bukhara’s first electric light had shone from it during the 1910s, thanks to a fifty-watt generator.
An avenue of quince trees led to an ostentation of peacocks parading around a voluminous pool where the Emir’s harem used to frolic. Raised on a platform high above them, he would sit upon his gilded throne, bejewelled and decked in golden threads, choosing his lady for the night. Escaping the conflict between reformers and imams, ever more dependent upon the overlords who would inevitably bring about his downfall, Amir Khan spent his last years as ruler cocooned in the Summer Palace, sating his gluttonous appetite from a glass fronted Russian refrigerator.
Putting his lot in with the reformers, then switching sides in the face of the mullah’s strength, in his final years the last Emir of Bukhara had been a leaf in the wind. These were the dark days of mass executions, book burnings and an intellectual exodus from the Khanate. When the ripples from the Bolshevik Revolution reached his kingdom, Alim Khan declared holy war upon the Russians and their reformist allies, the Young Bukharans. Russian gunners initially forced back by frenzied, knife-wielding true believers, tit for tat retributions took place before, in their inevitable victory, the Red Army set about pillaging and murdering their vanquished foes. On September 2nd 1920, soldiers raised the Red Banner from the bombed-out lantern of the Kalon Minaret.
From the ninth century Pit of the Herbalists to the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, Bukhara wasn’t about its separate sights, though, it was the sum of its parts, the timeless city permeated by an air of antiquity. On cobblestone back alleys, decked in dopys – four-sided black skullcaps – striped robes and knee-length rubber boots, revered white-bearded elders were idling the afternoon away over pots of choy. From terraces where their mothers were hanging lines of laundry between buildings, the playful cries of children rang out. Climbing a darkened spiral staircase, we found a vantage point from which to watch the sun set over the Kalon Minaret.
Built as an inland lighthouse for desert caravans, the Kalon Minaret – ‘great’ in Tajik – was probably the tallest building in Central Asia upon its completion in 1127. The third minaret to have been built on this site, previous incarnations had caught fire and collapsed onto the mosque below, officially because of the ‘evil eye.’ Also known as the ‘Tower of Death,’ over the centuries the minaret has seen countless bodies sewn into entrail catching sacks and tossed from its forty-seven metre high lantern. Particularly popular during Mangit times, this practice survived until the 1920s.
Home of the first recorded use of the now ubiquitous blue tile in Central Asia, the fourteen distinct bands of the minaret were majestic in the pink light, its scale and intricacy remarkable. The sense of history lingering, everyday life went on unabated at its stout base. Traders were beginning to pack down for the night, transferring their goods into storefronts. The heat of the day having finally abated, head-scarfed babushkas sat chit-chatting on the cool stone steps of the Mir-i-Arab Madrassa. In the square, children bounced an underinflated beach ball off the hallowed walls, doves above them circling the Madrasa’s crescent moon.
Seven times rebuilt, each new incarnation erected upon the ruins of its predecessor, at the northern edge of town, the Ark – the former Royal City – had grown ever higher. Of mythic origins, the Ark of Bukhara dates back to at least the fifth century AD. When it was levelled in an aerial bombardment ordered by Bolshevik General Frunze in 1920, the planes that reduced it to rubble were the first most Bukharans had ever seen. What survived the blitz was ordered destroyed by the fleeing Alim Khan. Shortly to be safe in exile with the city’s teeming coffers, the Emir bade that his harem should be blown up lest the Bolsheviks desecrate it. It is unclear whether the women of the harem were still inside at the time.
The last vestiges left by Alim Khan’s beks (governors) after he fled, Southern Tajikistan is littered with ruined Bukharan garrisons. Escaping to the Tajik village of Dushanbe, Alim Khan sought international support, but found no backers. With the Bolsheviks advancing, his Basmachi (bandit) Army of Islam riven by infighting and his requests for aid having gone unanswered, the last Emir floated across the Pyanj to Afghanistan on a raft made of wood and sheep-gut, never to return to his homeland.