As a key stop along the ancient trade route between China and the West, Bukhara became one of the holiest cities in the Muslim world by the 10th century. It declined, courtesy of Genghis Khan, them=n returned with a vengeance in the 16th century, eventually becoming – along with Kokand and Khiva – one of Central Asia’s three dominate khanates (kingdoms).
The most pious of the three, Bukhara was also the cruellest. A string of ruling emirs (1785 – 1920) terrorized neighbouring states and their own subjects with equal rapacity. Enemies were tossed off of Bukhara’s 155-foot-high Kalon Minaret (Tower of Death), built in 1127 and still standing – one of the new buildings not destroyed by Genghis Khan. The emirs were also voracious builders, erecting hundreds of mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools and colleges), caravansaries, and covered bazaars. Many of the madrassas are masterpieces, with towering, arched entrance portals splashed with blue tile work. The holiest and most spectacular of these is the Mir-i-Arab Madrassa, opposite the Kalon Minaret. Its luminous blue domes jump out against the pale brick that dominates the city’s skyline.
Compared with nearby Samarkand, Bukhara’s architecture is more subtle and austere. Remarkably, the old Town remains as thoroughly lived-in as it was 500 years ago, providing the best insight on pre-Russian Uzbekistan: As you wander the residential area’s maze of narrow, mud-brick alleys, you’ll encounter hidden mosques, splendid 19th century homes, and even old synagogues. Outside the protected center are more architectural gems, like the 1,000 year-old Ismail Samani Mausoleum and the opulent summer palace of the last Bukhara emir.
Bukhara B&Bs are characterful and wonderfully affordable. Many of them occupy 19th-century mansions bearing the hallmarks of “Bukhara Style” – alabaster walls covered with intricate carvings, porticoes supported by handsome wood columns, and courtyards filled with pomegranate and other fruit trees. The Amulet Hotel is a preserved madrassas, where the students’ rooms have been converted into welcoming quarters, complete with 21st-century amenities.
WHERE: 167 miles/269 km west of Samarkand.
BEST TIME: Mar – Apr and Sep – Nov for cool weather; early May for Silk & Spices Festival, which celebrates local music and folk art.