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History of Bukhara

The founding of Bukhara is cloaked in mystery, the creation myths as rich and elaborate as the facade of Lyabi Hauz. The famed Persian epic, the Shahnama, tells us the city was founded by Siyavush, a Persian prince from the Pishdadian Dynasty. Accused by his wicked stepmother of seducing her, he was forced to undergo a trial by fire but emerged from the flames unscathed and crossed the Amu Darya in search of new lands and fortune. In Samarkand he wed the princess Farangis, daughter of King Afrosiab, and her dowry included the vassal state of Bukhara.

The story did not end there, however, as Siyavush was later accused of plotting to overthrow Afrosiab. Afrosiab had him executed in front of Farangis and his head was buried beneath the Ark's Kalyon Gate, a permanent reminder to the citadel's residents to remember their place and not to threaten the sovereignty of Samarkand.

Situated at the crossroads between Merv (now in eastern Turkmenistan and one of the largest cities in the ancient world), Herat and Samarkand, Bukhara was in a prime location to benefit from Silk Road trade. It was already flourishing by the 6th century bc when it was sacked by the Achaemenids, becoming a satrapy ol the Persian Empire. The evident wealth of Bukhara would in many ways prove a curse, attracting the unwanted attentions of Alexander the Great in 329bc, then the subsequent invasions of the Seleucids, Graeco-Bactrians and the Kushans.

Bukhara became a centre of worship for the Iranian goddess Anahita, and devotees flocked to the city each year to exchange the idols they believed would ensure the fertility of their fields. The city also attracted Nestorian Christians and Manicheans, followers of a gnostic religion originating in Sassanid-era Babylonia, who were persecuted elsewhere in the Sassanian Empire but able to flourish in Bukhara.

When Arab invaders came to Bukhara in the 7th century, the residents were initially able to spare themselves by paying an annual tribute. Relations deteriorated, however, when 80 Bukharans were kidnapped and committed mass suicide en route to Medina, depriving their captors of slave profits they felt to be rightfully theirs. The crusading Qutaiba ibn Muslim arrived in ad709 and violently asserted direct control. The religious diversity for which the city was famed was quashed almost overnight and by the time Bukhara became the capital of the Samanid state in the 9th century, the city was known as Bukhoro-i Sharif (Noble Bukhara) and "The Pillar of Islam'.

The 9th and 10th centuries were a golden age for Bukhara. The Samanid ruler Ismail ibn Ahmed maintained the political stability required for trade to flourish, and with his wealth he patronised some of the greatest intellectuals and artisans in the Islamic world. The scientist, philosopher and physician Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna), the Persian poets Ferdowsi and Rudaki, and the chronicler al Beruni all thrived in the city and completed their most important works here.

The fall of the Samanids resulted in 200 years of attacks on Bukhara. The Karakhanids invaded in ad999, the Karakhitai attacked in 1141, the Khorezmshah in 1206 and, most catastrophically of all, Genghis Khan and the Mongol horde rode into town in 1220. Every one of Bukhara's 30,000 troops was slaughtered, the city was torched, the civilian population (including women and children) killed or enslaved, and the Great Khan himself stood in the Namazgokh Mosque and proclaimed himself the 'Scourge of God'. The city was utterly decimated and when the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta visited nearly 150 years later, he described it as still lying more or less in ruins.

Bukhara's revival came in the 16th century when it became the Shaybanid capital. Abdulla Khan united the Uzbek clans to resist the Shi'ite Safavids (Bukhara's rulers were Sunni), and artisans captured from the Safavid city of Herat (now in western Afghanistan) were instructed to rebuild Bukhara.

Bukhara once again became a regional religious centre, but this time to espouse Islam. Within the confines of the city were some 150 madrassas and nearly 300 mosques, each more ornate and better endowed than the last. By the late 18th century, Bukhara was struggling economically as trade took a back seat to religion and goods formerly traded along the Silk Road were now being transported along maritime routes, skipping central Asia entirely. Bukhara's rulers became known for their barbarism and for their religious extremism; the most notorious of them was 'the Butcher' Nasrullah Khan, who murdered 31 relatives (including three brothers) to ascend to the throne in 1826, and later cut his chief advisor in half with an axe. A succession of British and Russian officers, diplomats and spies trooped through Bukhara in this period, including Alexander 'Bukhara' Burnes, and it is Nasrullah Khan who was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of the British officers Conolly and Stoddart.

Russia gained trading concessions in the Bukharan emirate in 1868 and though the khan remained nominally independent, Bukhara was essentially a Russian protectorate. The Trans-Caspian railway arrived in 1888, physically linking the city to Russia.

The emirate of Bukhara finally ended with the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolshevik governor of Tashkent, Kolesov, came to Bukhara to request a peaceful surrender from Alim Khan, but the emir arranged a violent mob to slaughter both this emissary and the Russian detachment that followed. Ethnic Russians living in the city were also killed. Some 15 unfortunate Bolshevik spies were caught and dispatched, one by one, but this was to be the emir's swansong: in 1920 General Mikhail Frunze marched his troops into the city. Large parts of Bukhara were destroyed during four days of fighting, the emir fled to Afghanistan, and by the end of it the Bolshevik flag flew from the Kalyon Minar.

The Bukhara People's Republic was born, and within a matter of weeks the local Communist Party had 14,000 members. The republic joined the Uzbek SSR in 1924 and the transformation of Bukhara from a religious centre to a museum city began: mosques were converted into offices and workers' associations; mullahs were purged and exiled; madrassas became stables and storage yards. Rather than actively rebuild the city in the Soviet style, much of Bukhara was just left to decay, and it is for this reason that the old city is so well preserved: it was saved from 20th-century demolition crews, leaving later restorers much more original material to work with.

Vambery, in his History of Bokhara, relates how General Peroffski had learnt to "tickle the haughty Nasrullah behind the ear with pompous titles", and certainly there was a good deal that looked suspicious in a subsequent emir's sudden retreat from Samarcand, in face of General Kaufmann's approach, to be left undisturbed as vassal-ruler of his emirate whilst the Russians tramped all over it on their way to attack Khiva. Indeed a titular ruler of Bokhara was to remain on his ancestors' throne, practising their immemorial cruelties and vices (Berezikov's novel contains photographs of a headsman decapitating his victims there) until the last emir decamped to Afghanistan with what treasure he could carry in 1924, and those final "physicians from the north", the Bolsheviks, at last "liberated" the city.

Bokhara, and its cruel king — the far-off glint of sapphire domes across the sand, the threat of cold steel, the fountains and the fruits of Zerafshan - lay at the heart of the spider's web which the word "Turkestan" spun within an Englishman's imagination. Burnes had drawn a clear and clever picture of the city in his widely read Travels into Bokhara, and Burnes had a colourful pen, so that a graphic background to the drama was available to the many people whose sympathy was aroused when they heard of Stoddart and Conolly trapped by that malignant spider in his vermin-infested pit. It was a graphic background, like an illustration to a tale in Grimm, or Scheher-ezade, of a remote and outlandish scene in which the two English officers suffered their ordeal. It caught and held the imagination.

"Journey to Khiva" by Philip Glazebrook