Bokhara - The forbidden city
Bokhara - The Forbidden City
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk
In all other parts of the world light descends upon earth. From holy Bokhara it ascends.
Central Asian saying
Bokhara, the most shameless sink of iniquity that I know in the East . . .
WHEN GENGHIS KHAN and his Mongol horde swarmed into Bokhara in 1220, after a desperate siege, their only thoughts were of rape and plunder. After this the remaining inhabitants were put to the sword and the city was burnt to the ground, leaving the brick-built central mosque standing desolate amid the smoking rubble. This mosque had been built in 712 by a previous invader, the Arab general Kutayba ibn Muslim, on the site of a Zoroastrian temple, for Bokhara had already passed through many hands and seen many religions come and go. Compared to Genghis Khan, Kutayba had been a benevolent conqueror, encouraging the citizens to continue with the trade for which they were famous and only stipulating that they give up fire-worship and convert to Islam. When the Bokharans clung stubbornly to their old beliefs, he devised a two-pronged strategy: every man attending Friday prayers would receive two direms, a sum worth having, while a devout Arab was billeted on every household to keep an eye on their religious progress. Before long Bokhara had become zealously Muslim, and has remained so ever since.
Surrounded on all sides by desert and salt marshes, but watered by the muddy Zarafshan river, Bokhara was an important staging-point on the network of caravan trails which criss-crossed Central Asia and which much later came to be known as the Silk Road. In settled times the trade routes stretched to far-off China in the east and the Mediterranean in the west; in times of trouble trade dwindled to the local - to Merv and Samarkand, and perhaps the Ferghana valley. Business had prospered under the Arabs when they ruled Central Asia, and again in the tenth century when the Persian Samanids had taken control. In fact this was a golden age for Bokhara, and scholars, poets, artists and architects congregated there. Abu Ali ibn Sina, better known in the West as Avicenna, devised his medical canons in Bokhara, and Abubakr Narshakhi wrote a History of Bokhara which shows that it already had all the hallmarks of a typical Central Asian fortified town. There was a central registan or square, a citadel, and markets divided up according to the various trades, and the city was surrounded by stout walls pierced by eleven gates.
One of Bokhara's glories in the tenth and eleventh centuries was its library, which filled several rooms of the royal palace, and which was rivalled only by the famous library of Shiraz, but this - like everything else of no obvious pecuniary value - was destroyed by the Mongols. However, Bokhara's favourable position as a staging-post led to its reconstruction a hundred years later, when it was part of the empire of Genghis Khan's descendant Tamerlane, who amassed riches from trade as well as from conquest.
Bokhara was not merely a luxurious city, it was also the principal emporium for the trade between China and Western Asia, in addition to the vast warehouses for silks, brocades and cotton stuffs, for the finest carpets and all kinds of gold and silversmiths' work; it boasted a great money-market, being the Exchange of all the populations of Eastern and Western Asia; and there is a proverb current to this day: 'As wide awake as a broker of Bokhara'.
Vambery, History of Bokhara, 1873
By the time Anthony Jenkinson, agent of the Muscovy Trading Company, visited Bokhara in the winter of 1558, the links with China had been severed, but the city was still a thriving centre of trade. 'There is yearly great resort of merchants to this City,' he reported, 'which travel in great Caravans from the Countries thereabout adjoining, as India, Persia, Balkh, Russia, with divers others, and in times past from Cathay, when there was passage.' The language spoken there was Persian, he found, and its ruler was fanatically Muslim. Religious police were empowered to enter any house, and anyone found in possession of alcohol was 'whipped and beaten most cruelly through the open markets'. Slavery was normal practice, and among the slaves Jenkinson was shocked to find many European Russians. After spending nearly three months in Bokhara assessing the possibilities for trade, Jenkinson had the satisfaction of rescuing twenty-five Russian slaves and delivering them personally to the Tsar of Russia on his way home.
In the middle of the eighteenth century Bokhara was conquered by the Mangits, an Uzbek tribe whose rulers seemed to outdo one another in viciousness. 'Drunkenness, gambling, carousing and lewdness are rampant,' wrote a contemporary scholar, 'and the poor people have nowhere to go . . .' This depravity, coupled with the unsavoury practice of snatching unwary Russian nationals - often women and children - from the environs of Orenburg and selling them in the slave market, would later give Tsarist Russia a pretext to annex the Emirate. In the meantime it was a dangerous place for strangers, and when the Russians sent a trade mission to the Emir in 1820, they took the precaution of bringing along a couple of powerful artillery pieces just in case. One of the more daring members of the mission, a Dr Eversmann, slipped into the old town disguised as a native. Sure enough, he found there 'all the horrors and abominations of Sodom and Gomorrah', most of which he felt too 'constrained by shame' to describe.
But the artillery pieces had the desired effect and the Emir saw the wisdom of co-operating with his huge northern neighbour, over trade at least. When William Moorcroft, an employee of the British East India Company, managed to get to Bokhara in 1825, hoping to find a lucrative new market for the Company, he discovered that the bazaars were already full of shoddy but cheap Russian goods. It must have been a bitter moment for Moorcroft, who had for many years been warning anyone who cared to listen of Russian designs on Central Asia. He died in mysterious circumstances on his way back to India, along with his two European companions and their interpreter. However, seven years later another emissary from 'John Company' turned up in the oasis, this time with a happier outcome.
Lieutenant Alexander Burnes, later knighted and always remembered as 'Bokhara Burnes', had already, at the age of 26, been entrusted with a number of delicate missions. A brilliant linguist, and possessing a thorough understanding of the flowery hyperbole so necessary when dealing with eastern potentates, he sent a flattering message to the Emir's chief minister, the Koosh Begee, requesting permission to visit the holy city. His letter clearly struck the right note, for he was speedily invited to be the Emir's guest, and granted an immediate audience with the Koosh Begee. On the two-mile walk to the royal palace Burnes says he was 'lost in amazement' at the novel scene before him:
The circumference of Bokhara exceeds eight English miles; its shape is triangular, and it is surrounded by a wall of earth, about twenty feet high, which is pierced by twelve gates. Few great buildings are to be seen from the exterior, but when the traveller passes its gates he winds his way among lofty and arched bazaars of brick, and sees each trade in its separate quarter of the city. Everywhere he meets with ponderous and massy buildings, colleges, mosques and lofty minarets. About twenty caravanserais contain the merchants of different nations . . .
Burnes, Travels into Bokhara, 1834
Having received the favour of the Koosh Begee, Burnes was able to walk freely about the city and converse with its inhabitants, who came from the four corners of Asia:
My usual resort in the evening was the Registan, which is the name given to a spacious area in the city, near the palace, which opens upon it. On two other sides there are massive buildings, colleges of the learned, and on the fourth side is a fountain shaded by lofty trees. A stranger has only to seat himself on a bench of the Registan, to know the Uzbeks and the people of Bokhara. He may here converse with the natives of Persia, Turkey, Russia, Tartary, China, India and Cabool. He will meet with Toorkmans, Calmuks and Cossacks from the surrounding deserts, as well as the natives of more favoured lands.
Burnes was, like Jenkinson before him, appalled by his visit to the slave market. In his book he wrote that 'the feelings of an European revolt at this most odious traffic', but etiquette prevented him from making his feelings too obvious. One night he was secretly visited in his lodgings by a Russian who had spent twenty-five years as a slave in Bokhara. Grigory Pulakov told Burnes how he had been abducted as a small boy by a band of Turcoman raiders. He could still speak Russian, however, and confided with tears that he had remained a Christian although he had to keep up an outward semblance of being a Muslim. His dearest wish was to see his native land once more before he died. Burnes was deeply moved, but could only mumble a few comforting platitudes. He was powerless to help.
Alexander Burnes never met the Emir in person, but perhaps that was just as well. Nasrullah Khan had seized the throne in 1826, having secured his accession by beheading his three brothers and, for good measure, twenty-eight other close relatives. He was to become one of the most feared and hated men in Central Asia, and was already paranoid about his personal security. Any food or drink intended for him was first tasted by several officials. After an hour, providing there were no ill-effects, it was sealed in a container and sent to the royal table. 'We shall hardly suppose', commented Burnes, 'that the good king of the Uzbeks ever enjoys a hot meal or a fresh cooked dinner.'
'English imagination has for centuries been stirred by the romantic associations of Bokhara,' wrote the Honourable George Curzon in 1899, 'but English visitors have rarely penetrated to the spot.' In view of what happened to the next visitors to venture there after Burnes this was hardly surprising. The names of the ill-fated Stoddart and Conolly, went on the future Viceroy of India, would be forever inscribed 'in the martyrology of English pioneers in the East'. Their story is too well-known to need repeating in detail here, but briefly Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Stoddart had been hastily dispatched as an emissary of peace in 1838, as a counterbalance to Britain's warlike activities in nearby Afghanistan. A brave and capable army officer, Stoddart was unfortunately not trained in oriental diplomacy. He got off to a bad start when he failed to dismount when he first encountered the Emir outside the Ark, or palace.
Things went from bad to worse when he was granted an official audience. Required by the court usher to make a symbolic act of submission, Stoddart thought he was being manhandled and, knocking the man down, he strode alone and unannounced into the presence of the Emir. Mortally offended, Nasrullah ordered him to be seized and bound, and he was flung into a subterranean prison. 'This horrid dungeon,' wrote a later visitor, 'in which he was confined with two thieves and a murderer, swarmed with innumerable ticks and every disgusting species of vermin, which are especially reared to annoy the wretched prisoners; and should this prison by any extraordinary chance be without inmates, that the vermin might not perish they are supplied with rations of raw meat.'
Sometimes allowed out of prison and kept under house arrest, and then for no apparent reason thrown back into the stinking pit, poor Stoddart began to feel abandoned as the months dragged by. A letter dated 26 June 1841, which he managed to smuggle out to Kabul, in Afghanistan, says poignantly: 'A painful three years have passed away without my being able to hear and give any news, and I venture to inquire of my kind friends what they are doing, and to beg a line in reply . . .' His friends had in fact protested loudly and indignantly at the British government's failure to rescue its messenger, but with a storm brewing in Afghanistan there was no way a military expedition could be sent to Bokhara. The wily Emir was aware of this, and also felt he could snub diplomatic efforts by the Russians to free Stoddart since they had just suffered a disastrous reverse in the course of an expedition to his fellow despot and arch-enemy, the Khan of Khiva.
But also travelling in Central Asia at this time was an officer of the Indian Cavalry, Captain Arthur Conolly, who in October 1841 decided on a do-or-die rescue attempt. The Khans of both Khiva and Khokand, whom he had just visited, tried to dissuade him from this foolhardy venture, but Conolly was adamant. A devout Christian, he had been particularly shocked at a report that poor Stoddart had been forcibly converted to Islam. A recent disappointment in love may also have contributed to his mood of reckless courage. He arrived in Bokhara on 9 November, to find Stoddart almost wasted away from fever and ill-treatment but overjoyed to see him. Conolly was a man of considerable charm and at first got on well with the Emir, who allowed the two men to live in decent lodgings. But within a few weeks fate was to deal them a cruel blow. The British garrison in Afghanistan was ignominiously defeated, the British puppet Shah Shujah removed from the throne, and most of the departing troops and camp-followers slaughtered in the Hindu Kush during the long retreat from Kabul. Confident that he need fear no reprisals from the defeated British, the Emir of Bokhara had Stoddart and Conolly flung into prison.
There they remained, in filth and squalor, for about six months, occasionally smuggling brief letters to the outside world. Conolly also managed to scribble tiny notes in the margins of his prayer-book. The last written evidence left by the two men was dated May 1842, and it seems likely they were executed around the middle of June. The following account was given a couple of years later to the Reverend Joseph Wolff by the Emir's Chief of Artillery:
His Majesty became displeased, and both Captain Conolly and Colonel Stoddart were brought, with their hands tied, behind the Ark, in the presence of Makhram Saadat, when Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly kissed each other, and Colonel Stoddart said to Saadat: 'Tell the Ameer that I die a disbeliever in Muhammed, but a believer in Jesus - that I am a Christian, and a Christian I die.' And Conolly said: 'Stoddart, we shall see each other in Paradise, near Jesus.' Then Saadat gave the order to out off, first the head of Stoddart, which was done; and in the same manner the head of Conolly was cut off.
Wolff, Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara, 1845
Dr Wolff, who had courageously travelled to Bokhara in 1844, undergoing innumerable vicissitudes en route, in order to ascertain the fate of the two officers, was himself lucky to come back alive. When he asked for the bones of Stoddart and Conolly, so that they could be given a decent burial in England, he was told angrily that his own bones would need to be sent home if he was not careful. At one point he wrote a valedictory letter to his wife, the Lady Georgiana, feeling sure that his last hour had come. But fortunately, his eccentricity - or his faith - saved him, and the Emir decided he was harmless. Wolff returned to his devoted family in one piece, despite having been robbed, beaten and stripped naked in the course of his travels. Much later it transpired that Conolly's little prayer-book, its margins crammed with notes of alternating hope and despair, had been retrieved by a Russian prisoner who preserved it carefully until it could be smuggled to the outside world. Twenty years after her brother's death, Conolly's sister received it through the post in London.
After the tragedy which befell Stoddart and Conolly, few Englishmen felt inclined to venture into the domains of the treacherous Emir, but in 1863 a Hungarian scholar of linguistics, Arminius Vambery, arrived there with a party of Muslim pilgrims, disguised as a mendicant dervish from Turkey. This was not quite as suicidal as it sounds, for Vambery had spent some years in Constantinople studying oriental languages and customs, and was well-versed in the doctrines of Islam. All the same, he was perpetually under surveillance and was frequently cross-examined on religious matters - clearly to test his bona fides. He found Bokhara 'a most perilous place' for strangers and 'one of the dirtiest and most unhealthy places in all Asia', where the profligacy and wickedness of the inhabitants were only matched by the viciousness and hypocrisy of its rulers. The evil Nasrullah had died in 1860, but the present Emir shared his late father's depraved tastes and xenophobic tendencies. Three unfortunate Italians were already languishing in the Khana-Khaneh dungeon at the entrance to the Ark, where Stoddart and Conolly had been held during their last period of imprisonment. The Italians' only crime was to have come to Bokhara in search of silkworm eggs.
Vambery thought of the Italians every day, and shuddered as he passed the Ark ('this nest of tyranny') on his way to the registan. There he had made friends with a Chinese tea-merchant, who was tolerated by the Bokharans because he pretended to be a Muslim. He had sixteen different varieties of tea in his little shop, and could distinguish between them by touch, though the only tea on sale in the chai-khanas was the green type. Vambery soon discovered that there was a strict etiquette to tea drinking. It was indecorous, for instance, to blow on the tea if it was too hot: it must be swirled gently in the cup. 'One must support the right elbow in the left hand and gracefully give a circular movement to the cup,' he wrote in Sketches of Central Asia, warning that: 'No drop must be spilt.'
Tea was a very important commodity in Muslim Bokhara, for wine was forbidden and the city's water supply arrived from the Zarafshan river along an open canal. When the river was low, water was only allowed to flow into the canal once a week, or even once a fortnight, whereupon the hot and dusty citizens would precipitate themselves into the muddy water and perform their ablutions. They would be followed by their horses, cows and asses, and finally by the packs of stray dogs which lived on the city's dung-heaps. Not surprisingly, Bokhara was notorious for a parasitic infection, the rishte worm, dreaded by all travellers:
One feels at first on the foot or on some other part of the body, a tickling sensation, then a spot becomes visible whence issues a worm like a thread. This is often an ell long, and it ought some days after to be carefully wound off on a reel. If the worm is broken off, an inflammation ensues, and instead of one, from six to ten make their appearance, which forces the patient to keep his bed for a week, subjecting him to intense suffering. The more courageous have the rishte cut out at the very beginning.
Vambery, Travels in Central Asia, 1864
According to Vambery, Dr Wolff had been infected and had 'dragged with him all the way from Bokhara one of these long memorials of his journey'. It had been extracted eastern-fashion by one of the most eminent surgeons of his day, Sir Benjamin Brodie, sergeant-surgeon to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria, when Wolff got back to London.
Some time after Vambery's departure the Italian prisoners were released after a year's incarceration and made their way back to Milan. One of them, Modesto Gavazzi, published an account there in 1865 in which he told the sad but heroic tale of a compatriot who had been the last European victim of the infamous Emir Nasrullah. Giovanni Orlandi was a clockmaker who had by mischance fallen into the hands of Turcoman slave-raiders near Orenburg. Acquired by the Emir of Bokhara, he had soon incurred his master's displeasure by refusing to embrace Islam, and was sentenced to death. Gavazzi, who heard the full story from a fellow prisoner who had known Orlandi personally, continues the tale:
Orlandi, knowing that Nasrullah was a great lover of mechanical works, promised to construct for him a machine for measuring time, and thus obtained his pardon. Orlandi then made the clock which is on the tower over the palace gate, the only one which exists in all Bokhara. Nasrullah was so satisfied with it that he appointed Orlandi his artificer, and gave him at the same time his liberty. Orlandi then lived an endurable life with the fruit of his labours, and as independently as he could under a government as capricious as that of Bokhara. During this time he made a telescope for the Emir, who unfortunately one day let it fall from the top of a minaret. He sent immediately for Orlandi to repair it; but Orlandi that day had been drinking with an Armenian or Hebrew who was allowed to drink wine, and came to the Emir a little intoxicated. The Emir therefore condemned him a second time to death, but repenting shut him up again in prison, enjoining him to embrace Islam if he wished his life to be spared. A Cossack, then ordered to persuade Orlandi to be converted. He said that a mere appearance of submission would satisfy the Emir, who wished an act of submission rather than a formal renunciation of his religion, but Orlandi was so firmly opposed to it, saying that he preferred death to shame, that the Emir resolved on a hard trial. He had the executioner cut the skin of his throat, warning him that if on the morrow he should still be obstinate, he would have him killed. The threat did not move him, and the next day he was beheaded.
Gavazzi, Aleune Notizie raccolte in viaggio a Bucaru,
In 1868 Bokhara was absorbed into the Russian empire after a skilful military campaign by General Kaufmann from the new Russian base in Tashkent. The Emir was allowed to remain on the throne and his domains were officially a 'protectorate', but there was no doubt that the Russians were now in charge. This at least made it possible for Europeans to travel there in safety, and curbed the worst excesses of the ruler. Eugene Schuyler, an American diplomat from St Petersburg, was favourably impressed by Bokhara when he visited it in 1873:
I am not surprised at the high idea Asiatics entertain of Bokhara - it is officially called al sherif, the noble, for in spite of all its discomforts, it made upon me a very strong and a very pleasant impression. You cannot walk the streets without seeing at once that it is really a capital; the persons at leisure, well dressed, and riding well groomed and richly caparisoned horses, the crowd of idlers who beset the market place, even the very narrowness of the streets and height of the houses, the numerous bazaars and the great amount of trade which is constantly going on there, every day seeming like a bazaar day, show you that this is a metropolis.
Schuyler, Turkistan, 1876
One thing which Schuyler, in common with other Westerners, found abhorrent in Bokhara was the slave trade. Although the Russians had insisted that the slave market be closed down, Schuyler suspected that the trade still went on secretly. He was proved to be right:
We started out, without telling where we were going, and although the Mirzas followed after, they were not in time to prevent us. Entering into a large sarai we went upstairs into a gallery, and found a number of slaves - two little girls of about four years old, two or three boys of different ages, and a number of old men - all Persians. There were no women, either young or old, such being bought up immediately. The slaves were shown me by an old Turcoman, who told me that the market was rather dull just then, but that a large caravan would probably arrive in the course of a few days.
Although every sort of difficulty was put in his way, the kindly Schuyler eventually succeeded in purchasing a slave and giving him his freedom:
The boy, Hussein, who displayed remarkable cleverness and intelligence, remained with me for two years at St Petersburg, going to school, where he learned to read and write Russian and a little of German. He was afterwards apprenticed to the Court clockmaker, a worthy Tatar of the Musselman faith.
In 1882 Bokhara saw the arrival - forty years after Wolff - of another English clergyman. Henry Lansdell, rather scathingly dismissed by Curzon as 'the so-called missionary', was a man of determination as well as religious zeal. He somehow persuaded his terrified guide to conduct him to the Zindan, or main prison, where 'looking up a passage as we rode along, I saw outside a lofty building two prisoners chained together by the neck, and who, on my approach, cried most piteously for alms, which I gave them . . .' The two prisoners, it seemed, had the task of begging for all the inmates of the jail, who were otherwise allowed to starve. Lansdell was told that the Zindan had two compartments, the upper and lower dungeons, 'the latter consisting of a deep pit, at least twenty feet deep, into which the culprits are let down by ropes.' This latter, he continued, in his two-volume work Russian Central Asia, 'I suppose to have been the one in which Colonel Stoddart was first placed.'
Lansdell was not, however, permitted to see the Emir's personal dungeon, the Khana-Khaneh at the entrance to the Ark. Not a man to give up easily, he enquired whether it was true that vermin were specially bred there 'to annoy and prey upon the prisoners', but this was indignantly denied. Lansdell elicited the information that most prisoners admitted their guilt after a good beating, and were then speedily dispatched. Colonel A. Le Messurier, who passed through Bokhara in 1887 on his way back to India from home leave, was somewhat taken aback on first entering the registan to find himself witnessing a public execution. This was carried out, as in the case of Stoddart and Conolly, with a large knife. However, strangling had in the past been used for certain crimes, while other malefactors had been pushed off the top of the Minari Kalian, or Tower of Death. Curzon was told in 1888 that three criminals had been flung to their death in this way during the preceding three years:
The execution is fixed for a bazaar day, when the adjoining streets and the square at the base of the tower are crowded with people. The public crier proclaims aloud the guilt of the condemned man and the avenging justice of the sovereign. The culprit is then hurled from the summit and, spinning through the air, is dashed to pieces on the hard ground at the base.
Curzon, Russia in Central Asia, 1889
But this was a merciful fate compared to that reserved for a murderer whose victim came from a rich or influential family. Curzon heard of a recent case:
He was handed over by the Emir to the relatives of the murdered man that they might do with him what they willed. By them he was beaten with sticks and stabbed with knives. Accounts vary as to the actual amount of torture inflicted upon the miserable wretch, but it is said that his eyelids were cut off or his eyes gouged out. In this agonising condition he was tied to the tail of an ass and dragged through the streets to the market place, where his body was quartered and thrown to the dogs.
'It is consoling to know', commented Curzon, 'that this brutal atrocity was enacted in the absence of the Russian Resident who, it is to be hoped, would have interfered to prevent its accomplishment had he been upon the spot.'
Curzon had arrived in Bokhara via the new military railway built by the Russians from the Caspian Sea to Samarkand, thus linking - as Curzon picturesquely put it - the capital of Peter the Great with the capital of Tamerlane. During the 1860s and 1870s Russia had steadily absorbed large tracts of Central Asia which until then had been ruled by an assortment of despotic khans and roamed by wild tribesmen. Although some Westerners, including Arthur Conolly, had regarded rule by Christian Russians as preferable to that by heathen tyrants, it was nonetheless worrying for those in charge of the defence of India. Where would Russian expansion end? Curzon, then a young Member of Parliament, had hurried off to Central Asia to try and find out, the moment the Russians allowed foreign passengers to travel on the Transcaspian line.
Whatever strategic significance the railway might have, for the locals it had brought unheard-of prosperity, Curzon found. Foreign tourists were all eager to buy carpets, silks and embroideries, while dealers bought up arms, knives and metal-work, and pelts of the famous karakul sheep - known in the West as astrakhan. Ukrainian farmers had even carried off live sheep, to improve their flocks, and one way and another prices in Bokhara's markets had soared. At first, though, the local population had regarded the railway as something evil and menacing, and the Emir had insisted that it must not contaminate holy Bokhara by passing too close. This meant that the station, as well as the actual railway line, had to be built some distance away, and a 'new town' gradually grew up there. (As the station was called 'Bokhara' this led to some confusion, and the new town became known as New Bokhara or Russian Bokhara, until eventually it grew big enough to be a place in its own right and in Soviet times was given the name Kagan.) The Emir soon became a railway convert, however, and had a new palace built within easy reach of the station, while his subjects quickly overcame their fears - as Curzon recounts:
Shaitan's Arba, or the Devil's Wagon, was what they called it. Accordingly it was stipulated that the line should pass at a distance of ten miles from the native city of Bokhara. This suggestion the Russians were not averse to adopting, as it supplied them with an excuse for building a rival Russian town around the station and for establishing a cantonment of troops to protect the latter . . . When the first working train steamed into [New] Bokhara with rolling stock and material for the continuation of the line, the natives crowded down to see it, and half in fear, half in surprise, jumped into the empty wagons. Presently apprehension gave way to ecstasy. As soon as the line was in working order they would crowd into the open cars in hundreds, waiting for hours in sunshine, rain or storm, for the engine to puff and the train to move.
Curzon noticed that flowers were highly prized in this desert-girt city, and that 'many of the men wore a sprig of yellow blossom stuck behind the ear'. He was much taken by the appearance of the male population of Bokhara:
Tajik and Uzbek alike are a handsome race, and a statelier population I never saw than in the streets and bazaars of the town. Every man grows a beard and wears an abundant white turban, and a long hhalat of striped cotton or radiant silk.
Women, however, were a very different matter:
I have frequently been asked since my return - it is the question which an Englishman always seems to ask first - what the women of Bokhara were like? I am utterly unable to say. I never saw the features of one between the ages of ten and fifty. The little girls ran about unveiled, in loose silk frocks, and wore their hair in long plaits escaping from a tiny skull-cap. Similarly the old hags were allowed to exhibit their innocuous charms, on the ground, I suppose, that they could excite no dangerous emotions. But the bulk of the female population were veiled in a manner that defied and even repelled scrutiny. For not only were the features concealed behind a heavy black horsehair veil, falling from the top of the head to the bosom, but their figures were loosely wrapped up in big blue cotton dressing-gowns, the sleeves of which are not used but are pinned together over the shoulders at the back and hang down to the ground, where under this shapeless mass of drapery appear a pair of feet encased in big leather boots.
One of Curzon's favourite haunts was the Tcharsu or Great Bazaar:
It covers a vast extent of ground, and is said to consist of thirty or forty separate bazaars, of twenty-four caravanserais for the storage of goods and accommodation of merchants, and of six timis, or circular vaulted spaces, from which radiate the principal alleys, shaded with mats from the sun, and crowded with human beings on donkey-back, on horse-back and on foot. Long lines of splendid camels laden with bales of cotton march superciliously along, attached to each other by a rope bound round the nose . . .
Moneylending in the town was exclusively in the hands of Hindus from India. 'Living in caravanserais without wives or families,' noted Curzon, 'they lead an unsocial existence and return to their country as soon as they have made their fortune.' He noticed many Persians, who were presumably the descendants of slaves, and also Jews 'who are here a singularly handsome people of mild feature and benign aspect'. Professor O. Olufsen, a Danish geographer who made a number of visits to Bokhara between 1896 and 1899, was also struck by the appearance of the Jewish community:
They are all of distinct race and very handsome; especially their women, who are unveiled, are among the most beautiful in Bokhara. It is not known with certainty when the Jews came to Bokhara. They maintain themselves that their ancestors immigrated into Bokhara in the twelfth or thirteenth century, proceeding both from Persia and from Tunis. They no more speak Hebrew, but are able to read this language, and all their houses are decorated with Hebrew sentences.
Olufsen, The Emir of Bokhara and his Country, 1911
Nikolai Khanikoff, who had visited Bokhara in 1842 with a Russian mission, had commented on the unenviable social position of the Jews there:
Their rights and privileges are exceedingly restricted; thus, for example, they dare not wear a turban, but must cover their heads with small caps of a dark coloured cloth, edged with a narrow strip of sheepskin. Neither are they allowed to wear any other apparel than plain khalats, nor to gird their loins with a broad sash, still less with a shawl, but must twist a common rope round their waist. But the most galling and degrading persecution to which they are exposed, and one which cramps their active pursuits in life, is the prohibition to ride within the walls of the town, either on horseback or on asses. This is felt the more severely because the streets of Bokhara, after a copious shower of rain, can with difficulty be traversed, not only by foot-passengers, but even on horseback, on account of the deep mud. Add to this that any Mussulman may strike a Jew in the town without incurring any responsibility, and kill him with the same impunity outside the walls.
Khanikoff, Bokhara: Its Amir and its People, 1845
Indeed, the obligatory rope round the waist was to remind its wearer that he might be hanged at any moment. After the Russian annexation of Bokhara, the position of the Jews improved, and the hated rope was allowed to dwindle to a mere string. Olufsen noted the irony of Russians, associated in Central Europe with the contemptuous ill-treatment of Jews, being in Central Asia their saviours.
When he first visited Bokhara Olufsen was puzzled by the crowds of people swarming around the station, for the surrounding landscape was a sterile and desolate plain, glittering with salt. 'On what do all these people live,' he asked himself, 'who swarm here by hundreds on the arrival of the trains?' He soon realized that these picturesque natives were not residents of the station-town, but merchants from the old city, who had by now completely forgotten their distrust of the 'Devil's Wagon'.
As a guest of the Emir, Olufsen was quickly ushered to a carriage and whisked off to the palace, but things were very different for an ordinary tourist. The American travel writer, Michael Shoemaker, describes his arrival in June 1903:
We were two very dusty, tired men as we descended last night from the cars at this station - descended from the comparative quiet of our compartment to the midst of such a throng as can only be found at a railway station or river-bank in the Orient: a sea of black faces topped by gigantic white turbans, thousands of glittering eyes and chattering tongues, thousands of hands eager to take possession of one's luggage. No chance of hearing, no chance of progress in such cases, until you lay about you with your stick, utterly regardless of what you hit and utterly forgetful of your early religious training . . .
Shoemaker, The Heart of the Orient, 1904
About half-way between the station-town and old Bokhara, the dreary plain was transformed into a fertile oasis with cultivated fields and gardens, shaded by elms, willows and an assortment of fruit trees. Olufsen always found this road thronged by picturesque travellers:
Camels and dromedaries in long caravans solemnly drag along their heavy bales, hundreds of small donkeys loaded with hay or charcoal trip along, two-wheeled arbas creaking and groaning in all their joints find their way with difficulty among the numerous riders who in many-coloured caftans and with white turbans always gallop to and fro on this road, veiled women timidly trudge along on the edge of the road or ride on a donkey, generally with husband and child behind them . . .
When he reached the city, the professor noticed some large spikes fixed to the entrance gateway. He enquired of the dignitary who had ridden out to welcome him whether these were used for displaying the bodies or severed heads of miscreants. 'Not any more,' was the laconic reply. Those not fortunate enough to be guests of the Emir or the Russian Resident had to choose between the rather primitive Russian hotels at the station, or a bare room in a caravanserai. Michael Shoemaker opted for the station, but some of the more enterprising Western visitors decided to stay in the old town. Ella Christie, a practical middle-aged Scotswoman, came well-prepared when she made two extensive trips round Central Asia just before the First World War. In Bokhara a collapsible bed was a must:
Having secured a room at a caravanserai kept by an Armenian, I moved in my baggage. My portable bed and suitcases were the furnishing, for nothing was provided but the empty room. Had 1 ridden there on a camel or donkey, they would have been stabled in the court below. When evening fell the whole establishment was closed in by a huge nail-studded door, strongly barred, with a mouse-hole of an entrance at one side and a peep-hole through which to inspect the would-be entrant, all telling of troublous times. . .
As to the question of food, the traveller has to make his own arrangements. Nothing is obtainable in the inn unless it be the standard bowl of pillau cooked once a day. Restaurants, or their equivalent, are wayside stalls offering bits of mutton broiled on skewers, and certain kinds of fried foods which emit a savoury smell; while drinks are to be had from the sherbet-seller who clinks his brass bowls as he walks along the street, or from the numerous tea-houses which serve as a form of club to the natives.
Christie, Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand, 1925
Alexander Polovtsoff, who also travelled around Central Asia in the early years of this century, before being forced to flee as a refugee by the Bolsheviks, chose a caravanserai in Bokhara because of the view:
The window, an open frame with no glass, encloses a square of deep blue sky with pale blue enamelled domes and minarets boldly towering in outline against the radiant background of azure. The top of each cupola is crowned by a stork's nest, and the clumsy birds stand flapping their black and white wings and clapping their coral-coloured beaks in deep contempt of the busy city down below.
Polovtsoff's memoirs of Central Asia, entitled The Land of Timur, were not published until 1932, when he was established in the West. Most visitors to Bokhara commented on the size of the storks' nests, including Stephen Graham, who gave up a conventional life in London to tramp on foot all over the Russian empire until the revolution put a stop to his wanderings. Inspired by Russian literature, he learned the language and then threw in his lot with Russian peasants and pilgrims, returning to London periodically to write his many books. In 1914 he roamed Central Asia - partly by train this time - and the resulting book, Through Russian Central Asia, published in 1916, contains this vignette of Bokhara:
The Bokharans are a gentle people. They wear no weapons. They sit in the grass market and chatter and smile over their basins of tea. The little pink doves of the streets search between their bare feet for crumbs. The wild birds of the desert build in the walls of their houses and bazaars. On the top of the tower of every other mosque is an immense storks' nest, overlapping the turret on all sides. Some of these nests must be eight to ten feet high; they are round, and so look like part of the design of the architecture.
Ella Christie, a keen anthropologist, was delighted one day to receive an invitation to visit the house of a wealthy native family in Bokhara. As a woman, she was allowed to enter the harem:
I was then led on to the women's quarter by a little son of the house, who showed it off with the airs of a pere de famille, and with great dignity, in his little flowered coat and turban. Two young wives, fair in complexion, and two old women were the occupants, dressed in Bokhara red and yellow silk trousers, over which was a sort of coloured chemise in silk or muslin, and a profusion of jewellery, among which coral seemed greatly in favour, judging from the many strings of bright red beads around their necks. Their hair was dressed in countless little plaits ending in handsome ornamental and jewelled tassels. On their heads were little silk caps, round the edge of which was tied a high stiff handkerchief. Various children were running about, and even the little girls had two nose-rings apiece, one a button and one a pendent one.
She also spent time studying the various bazaars of the town:
Bokhara is what may be called a 'sheepy' place. All the furs are sheep in various stages of growth, all the meat is sheep, and most of the cooking is done in sheep fat extracted from the tail . . . The centre of the astrakhan fur trade is in the Kara-Kul bazaar, as that is the name by which the fur is known in Central Asia. It is a two-storey building. On the upper one may be seen the buyers, walking up and down, while trying to effect a deal, and secret offers are made by pressure of the hands beneath the very long sleeves of the khalats. Representatives are to be found from all the chief European markets - London, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Moscow and Constantinople. The lambs of various ages, from a day old and upwards, are kept on the ground floor or court, and when sold are then slaughtered, the skins roughly cured with salt or alum, and then hung out to dry upon the stone wall balconies of the courtyard. Black is most in demand, though grey and white have a sale.
She was particularly impressed by Bokharan silk:
The silk bazaar, with its wonderful embroideries and velvets in colouring peculiar to Bokhara, also displays silk scarves of a texture unmatched for softness, woven in the natural colour of silk, and dyed in shades unknown to aniline, the secrets being handed down from father to son, chiefly by those of the Jewish community. Under the shade of some mulberry grove one may see these same scarves being woven on primitive looms, so different from the noisome manufactures that so-called civilization may bring.
Stephen Graham also visited the silk bazaar, and bought 'a delicious silk scarf of old-rose colour full of light and loveliness, falling into a voluminous grandeur as the melancholy Eastern showed it me'. He and Ella Christie must have been among the last to acquire such treasures, however, for the second decade of the new century was to see momentous changes throughout Russia. Bokhara in 1914 still had its air of immutability, as if it would be forever marooned in the Middle Ages. But in reality the Emir's days were drawing to a close. Tolerated for fifty years by the Tsars, the Central Asian potentates would receive short shrift from their Bolshevik successors. One by one the ancient caravan towns fell to the Red Army. Bokhara managed to hold out until 1920, but by then the entire Transcaspian rail network was under Communist control, including the station-town of Kagan, and it was only a matter of time before Bokhara itself was seized.
In the autumn of 1919 when a British intelligence officer, Colonel F.M. Bailey, passed through in disguise, the old city was an uneasy temporary home to fleeing White Russians who hoped to get across the desert to northern Persia. It was also infiltrated by Bolshevik secret agents from time to time, but these usually came to a bad end, for Bokhara was still swarming with the Emir's customary spies and informers. Bailey himself arrived there in decidedly peculiar circumstances and with a price on his head. He had been sent to Tashkent in 1918 by the British government, who needed to know what the Bolshevik attitude would be if Germany's allies the Turks made a push towards India through the former Tsarist provinces of Transcaspia and Turkestan. It soon became clear that the Tashkent government was a law unto itself, and extremely hostile to all Westerners (see Tashkent), and Colonel Bailey was obliged to don a series of disguises and escape from Russia as best he could. After a nerve-racking year on the run, when all his escape routes seemed to be blocked, he had hit on a desperate expedient. Posing as a Serbian ex-soldier, a piece of flotsam from the Great War, he had managed to get himself recruited by the Cheka as a spy and sent to Bokhara. The secret police of Kagan were desperate for new recruits - and there were very few applicants - for the Emir of Bokhara was suspected of employing British officers to train his private army.
Once in Kagan, Bailey evaded the curiosity of his Bolshevik 'colleagues' by declaring that his mission was top secret. 'In the hotel the Bolshevik agents looked on me as a very brave man, who for the Soviet cause, was about to meet an unpleasant death in Bokhara,' he related in his book Mission to Tashkent. (For security reasons it was not published until 1946.) At least he now had a chance of escaping to Persia, after being hunted by the Reds for a year in and around Tashkent, far from any friendly border. The final irony occurred as he was about to set off for the old city. A wire had just arrived from Tashkent, he was told; it seemed that a dangerous Englishman might be on his way to Bokhara.
Would he watch out for this villain, whose name was Bailey, and if possible arrest him?
Happily, Bailey did manage to get away from Bokhara with a small party of White Russians and two Indian Army NCOs, who had indeed been advising the Emir on military training. After three perilous weeks spent dodging Red Army patrols and contending with blizzards, thirst and near-starvation, they completed their journey across the intervening desert and steppe and crossed the Murghab river into Persia on 6 January 1920. Nine months later the Emirate of Bokhara was overthrown.
The Emir, abandoning his harem but taking with him his favourite dancing boys and as much of his wealth as he could carry, fled from his capital in September and eventually retired to Afghanistan. His precipitate departure left the Red Army with the task of disbanding the 400-strong harem, most of whose inmates were very reluctant to leave. M.N. Roy, an Indian Communist who helped 'liberate' Bokhara, describes the dilemma in his memoirs, published in 1964:
Evidently some bold measure was called for. I advised the Revolutionary Government to issue a proclamation that the Emir's harem were entitled to go out and marry again. I felt that the proclamation would be a temptation for the soldiers, because the inmates of the harem were all good-looking and mostly young women. It was further declared that any soldier who would take a former inmate for his wife and settle down in peaceful domestic life, would receive a grant of land and some cash to cultivate it.
Still the ladies would not leave, and in the end the soldiers were allowed to go in, on their best behaviour, and choose for themselves. All ended happily, the women leaving dutifully with their new husbands.
Bokhara did not cast off its medieval image overnight, however, as the American Joshua Kunitz found even in the 1930s:
I rise early and take a stroll through the outskirts of the old city. There are grey streets, grey fences, grey walls, low flat-roofed grey houses, all merged into one monotonous mass of corrugated grey, the same as they have been for centuries, hardened, immutable. As one gropes one's way through the endless labyrinth of Bokhara's narrow alleys, a queer sensation of timeless-ness creeps over one - millions of days, thousands of months, hundreds of years - as silent, as soft, individually as indistinguishable as the vague silhouettes of the few veiled women who glide mutely along the walls.
Kunitz, Dawn Over Samarkand, 1936
But this was only an outward impression. In fact the Bolsheviks had been working hard to turn the feudal kingdom into a socialist state. As an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet system, Kunitz sympathized with the problems encountered by the Commissars with the local population, who were riddled with the most regrettable bourgeois and mercantile tendencies:
Revolutionary daring was needed, bold policy, measures that would activize the city workers, the handicraftsmen and the poor and middle peasants and draw them closely around the Party and the Soviets. But the complex nature of the revolution and the lack of any Bolshevik training among the local leaders precluded such a course ... In Soviet Bokhara people could buy and sell and bequeath to others their lands and their other belongings just as unrestrainedly as in any bourgeois country!
Indeed the locals displayed a distressing desire to continue their old hierarchical habits by joining the Party in droves:
The lack of theoretical clarity accounts also for the unwhole-somely swollen ranks of the local Communist Party - a membership of 14,000 within a few weeks after the fall of the Emir. True, in the 1922 purge the membership was rapidly reduced from 10,000 to 6,000, then to 3,000, and finally to 1,000! But even that scarcely improved matters . . .
Kunitz does not disclose the fate of those privilege-seekers who were purged, but he admits that there was a lot of trouble with the Uzbeks, who saw the revolution as a splendid opportunity to gain the upper hand over their rivals, the Tajiks. However, a few years of correct Bolshevik training suppressed such problems, and in 1924 the Soviet State of Bokhara had an attack of theoretical clarity and unanimously voted itself out of existence. Two new Socialist Republics were born instead - Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - the town of Bokhara being absorbed into the former. Old Emir Nasrullah must have turned in his grave.
Although the Soviet authorities were delighted to let people like M.N. Roy and Joshua Kunitz wander around their Central Asian dominions, they soon closed the area to foreigners when other visitors took a less uncritical view of the state of affairs there. But to a certain type of traveller such prohibitions simply acted as a challenge. In 1937 a young diplomat from the British Embassy in Moscow decided to see how far he could get in Central Asia before the KGB turned him back. Fitzroy Maclean was shadowed by a couple of morose secret servicemen, whose attentions he periodically eluded but who always managed to catch up with him in the end. They found the ten-mile walk from the station to the old town a sore trial, and Maclean himself was beginning to wonder if he was on the right road, when
all at once the road took a turn, and topping a slight rise I found myself looking down on the broad white walls and watch towers of Bokhara spread out before me in the light of the rising moon. Immediately in front of me stood one of the city gates, its great arch set in a massive fortified tower which rose high above the lofty crenellated walls. Following a string of dromedaries I passed through it into the city.
Maclean, Eastern Approaches, 1949
The moonlight made Bokhara 'an enchanted city, with its pinnacles, domes and crumbling ramparts'. Having no official permit, Maclean had to keep a low profile. He settled down for the night in the garden of a mosque, lulled to sleep by the flapping of the huge red flag which now adorned the top of the Kalian minaret, the former Tower of Death. With an air of martyrdom his escort followed suit. Next day the young diplomat explored the ancient city, resonant with its memories of the Silk Road, of Tamerlane, of 'Bokhara Burnes', Stoddart and Conolly, and Dr Wolff. But by daylight he saw that Bokhara was in a state of near-dereliction. 'The only changes', he wrote, 'are those which have been wrought by neglect, decay and demolition.' Maclean also noted percipiently:
In Bokhara the process of Sovietization can have been neither rapid nor easy. The population were accustomed to being oppressed and tortured by the Emirs, but they were not accustomed to interference with their age-old customs and their religion. There were the mullahs to be reckoned with, who possessed great influence over the population, and there were the capitalist class, the Begs, the merchants, both large and small, and the landowners.
The Bolsheviks clearly hoped that the old city would simply crumble to dust, taking all these problems with it. But Bokhara refused to die, and in the end the Soviet authorities began grudgingly to repair and renovate it. Much of the Ark was destroyed by fire, but the entrance has been restored - though not the infamous prison cell. The twin domes of the Mir-i-Arab medresseh once again sparkle with blue tiles, made in the traditional manner. Most of the city walls and all of the gates and watch-towers have disappeared, but some crumbling remnants can still be seen next to the sprawling open market. Bokhara no longer boasts the vast warehouses for silks, brocades and carpets, and there are no more bazaars for gold, silver and precious stones, but the market stalls of today are ablaze with fruit, as well as bright embroidered Uzbek caps, and garish modern fabrics.
Since the break-up of the Soviet empire, Islam has re-emerged as a dominant force in this holiest of all the Central Asian cities. Bokhara the Noble, at one time a place of pilgrimage and learning, with 360 mosques and 80 medressehs, once more resounds to the call of the muezzin. At weekends hundreds flock to the ancient shrines of saints, and the Koran schools are again full of young boys devoutly learning their scriptures.