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Bricks & Tiles of Bukhara

There was the splendour of domes clad in turquoise tiles, which glowed with a celestial light. On some a number of the tiles had fallen off, so that the fabric beneath was exposed to give the dome a mouldering appearance. On others the weathering of the years had been repaired, and the dome rose in perfect plumpness above its mosque or its madrassa. Each was nippled with a finial which, on the unrestored domes, had invariably sprouted a strange growth of vegetation, a pile of sticks and grasses which looked too top-heavy to stay put. These were the nests of storks, for which Bukhara used to be famous. But a nearby swamp, caused by that same water supply which created the oasis, had been drained a few years ago, thus depriving the birds of their feeding ground, and they had not been seen since.

There was the splendour of the high portals to each of the religious buildings which, seen from afar, appeared to be as insubstantial as pieces of scenery in a film studio, with height and width but almost no depth. This illusion occurred because the portals invariably allowed access to a spacious courtyard and rose far above the level of the surrounding walls. They had more depth than was at first apparent, almost an interior shaped like the apse of a Christian church, and this was sometimes honeycombed with that form of Islamic roof-vaulting known as muqarnas. The same turquoise that glazed the domes was repeated in the intricate patterns decorating the frontage of these portals, where they mingled with tiles of ultramarine, russet, primrose, amber and viridian in dazzling abstractions, writhed in herbaceous tendrils around archways, and were empanelled as urns full of cornflowers the size of chrysanthemums. As with the domes, some of the portals had fallen into disrepair with the disfiguring loss of many coloured fragments, but in almost every case enough of the original composition remained to convey the sensational lustre that had once been there.

Above all, there was the splendour of structures which revealed the full imaginative possibilities of building in brick. Tbis was not the harshly pink and smooth brick of my childhood, made to withstand the corrosive fumes of the Lancashire cotton industry and in time becoming blackened with its soot; nor was it the rougher and mellower red brick that had beautified places as far apart as Massachusetts, Shropshire and Tuscany. The brick of Bukhara came with the texture and colour of its desert sand. And even when the medieval bricklayers of the city were bent on utility more than decoration, they produced buildings with a sculptural quality that in form and proportion was memorable. Such were the bazaars that attracted the caravan trade, each specialising in a particular commodity: Taq i Zargaran, where the goldsmiths worked, Taq i Talpakfuroshon, where skullcaps and other garments could be obtained, Taq i Sarrafon, where the moneylenders crouched. There were others, each housed beneath its own circle of brick cupolas, all entered through a high brick portal with an ogee arch. From the outside the pattern of these shallow domes suggested some intimate rite within. Inside, mighty pillars of brick curved into low vaultings, with large doorways into the different shops, and the general effect was curiously as if a Saracen had collaborated with a Norman in the design of a cathedral crypt. What they needed was the bustle of commerce on the medieval scale, but what little trade I saw was confined to the shops and was there conducted with almost European restraint.

Samanid Mausoleum in BukharaThere was much fanciful decoration in the khaki bricks of Bukhara, so that until you had walked to within a few paces of some gateway you would have sworn that the patterns on either side of the entrance had been graven in stone. The most gorgeously decorated building of all stood in a little park, and in summer it would have been virtually hidden amidst trees in full foliage, for it did not rise higher than the topmost branch. This was the tenth-century mausoleum of the Samanids, essentially a dome mounted on a cube, and everything in its construction was made from brick. The dome was twice encircled by projecting brick studs, and there was a brick lantern at the very apex of the roof. The cube's topmost corners were each embellished with a beehive shape and the dome sat within these, perfectly austere had it not been for the lantern and the studs. The cube was another matter, so completely ornate that it was almost too much; and would have been if the patterns had not been so marvellously controlled. Just below the top courses was a gallery of arches, ten on each side of the cube. Below that the full power of someone's imagination had been unloosed. There were portals on each side of the building, there were apparently free-standing columns at each of its corners and all of these, together with the intervening walls, were spectacular with incident as the courses were laid in counterpoint, then differently again, and as they came in many contrasting shapes. Someone obsessed with the possibilities inherent in brick had been trying to push variety to its limits; and it had worked superbly because everything had been in harmony, without irregularity. As I walked round the mausoleum and studied it from different angles and varying range, it sometimes seemed to have the texture of elaborate basketwork, while at others it was almost like filigree, a lattice through which an evening breeze might cool the summer heat inside. I could well believe that its reputation was deserved: this might not only be the finest decorative brickwork in Islam, but in the whole world, sacred and profane.

It had one tremendous competitor in Bukhara, in the Kalan Tower, which rose 150 feet or so into the air above the centre of the city and was said to be the tallest building in Central Asia. As the eye travelled from a sturdy base up the tapering courses of brickwork to a gallery and then the parapet on top, it traversed a score or more of different designs, encircling the column one after another in thick bands of such tactile appeal that I wished this object - which had been built in the twelfth century as a minaret but looked like a lighthouse - could be reduced to the scale of a toy so that I might enjoy the sensation of stroking it. When it was a hundred years old, Genghiz Khan laid siege to Bukhara, which he took on the third day after the usual butchery, though on this occasion he allowed those Bukhariots who survived and surrendered to leave with only the clothes they were wearing. As he rode into the city he reined in his horse before the tower and sat looking at it for minutes, holding a finger to his mouth in a curious token of amazement. Then he ordered that every building in Bukhara should be destroyed, with the exception of this one. The Samanid mausoleum also escaped the destruction, but only because the Mongols did not know it was there. It had been buried in some mighty sandstorm ages before they arrived and, because the dynasty it commemorated had been superseded by a different line of rulers, nobody had been interested in digging it out.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse