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Bukhara & Great Silk Road

It was the failure of water, as well as conservative ferocity, which hurried on the isolation of Bukhara. The Zerafshan river, flowing five hundred miles out of the Pamirs, expends its last breath on the oasis, and is withering away. To north and west the sands have buried a multitude of towns and villages which the exhausted irrigation could not save.

Even in the nineteenth century, the accounts of travellers were filled with ambiguity. To Moslems Bukhara was 'the Noble, the Sublime'. It was wrapped round by eight miles of walls and fortified gates, and its mosques and medresehs were beyond counting. The Bukhariots, it was said, were the most polished and civilised inhabitants of Central Asia, and their manners and dress became a yardstick of oriental fashion. The men minced on high heels - a pompous, trotting gait was much admired — and turbans clouded their heads in as many as forty folds of dazzling muslin. Some dignitaries drove in carriages; others, sporting thigh-length boots with dandily pointed toes, rode thoroughbreds harnessed in turquoise and gold. Beneath their horsehair veils the women walked in the most caressing silks in Asia; they joined their eyebrows in a double arc of black antimony, and anointed their fingernails with balsam. Even in decline, the bazaars were rumoured magnificent, and teemed with Hindus, Persians, Jews and Tartars.

Yet this splendour barely concealed an inner wretchedness. Men who walked abroad like kings returned at night to hovels. The city gates and walls were a gimcrack theatre-set, and the famed medresehs in decay. The emir's spies terrorised the whole populace, and cannabis was so endemic that it reduced half the government to apathy. From time to time a plague of cholera swept through a populace already riddled with dysentery and typhoid. Those who bathed or drank at the public pools contracted the repulsive guinea-worm, which could be eased out of their flesh only by a skilled barber lancing their skin and coiling the worm - sometimes four feet of it - on to a stick.

As for women, only beggars took to the streets barefaced (in the hope of being chosen for a harem) and even amongst the veiled it was bon ton to affect decrepitude. No man was seen with a woman. Their incarceration turned men to pederasty, and at night homosexual gangs haunted the streets. Ordinary people seemed inured to cruelty and subterfuge. Scarcely a Westerner dared enter before the 1870s.

Yet religious obscurantism was tainted with hypocrisy. Steeped as they were in their city's blazoned holiness, the people observed the code of religious law but abused its intent. Lax Moslems were beaten into the mosques by officials armed with a leather strap, and the moment the Russians abolished this practice attendance plummeted. Within a few years of Russian domination, the ferocious hostility to unbelievers had stilled to a mysterious tolerance, almost to lethargy. Travellers wrote that there was no more peaceful populace in the East, and occasionally, as I wondered about the future, I would find myself thinking of this strange flexibility with a faint unease.

Yet nineteenth-century Bukhara seemed remote now. Searching for the bazaars which were the pride of Central Asia, I found them almost gone. Only the market crossroads -lanterned cupolas rising from a nest of semi-domes - marked the lost arcades where the trade of China, India, Afghanistan and Russia had mingled across twenty-four covered acres. Now, in place of the early exotica - the camels' hair and silks, the porcelain and Tartar gold, the suits of chain mail, matchlocks and Khorasan swords (and stray American revolvers) - I saw little but a meretricious clutter of sequin-splashed frocks and slippers.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

Bukhara is one of the pearls of the Great Silk Road. At ancient times more than 60 caravan-sarais could be found here providing lodging for the traders from India, China, Iran and other countries. Bukhara remained a blissful oasis, a huge scientific and cultural center on the Great Silk Road. Evidence of the fact that the city was situated on the crossroad of caravan roads, are the domes belonging to the 16tln centuries such as Toki Sarrafon (the domes of moneychangers), Toki Telpak Furushon (the dome of headwear sellers), Toki Zargaron (the dome of jewelers) which remain preserved today.

The Great Silk Road is a unique phenomenon of the history of the development of a civilization, its aspiration towards exchange of cultural values, conquest of living space and development of trade.

This largest transcontinental trade path in the history of humanity had been connecting Europe and Asia and in ancient times used to stretch from Rome to the ancient capital of Japan Nara.

It is important to note that this road was never the only path, instead had included various routes which branched off like a crown of a mighty tree. As a matter of fact, one of the main roads crossing Asia from east to the west had its beginning in the capital of ancient China Changan and tracked up to its north-west borders. Having ferried over Tyan-Shan, part of the caravans passed through Fergana Valley and Tashkent oasis to Samarkand, Bukhara, Khorezm and further to the Caspian and Black Sea shores onto the countries surrounding Volga and Caucasus.

Establishment of trade links is significantly attributed to the development of semi-precious stone quarries in the mountains of Central Asia which enabled the mining of lazurite, nephritis, cornelian and turquoise.

As the name signifies, the main object that was traded on caravan roads was silk, highly sought around the world. For instance, in early Middle Ages silk was the most popular measure of computation forcing out even the gold. As follows, in Sogdiana the price for a horse was equivalent to the price for ten cuts of silk. Silk was the currency for the accomplished work, for the maintenance of servants and silk could be used to pay off the punishment for committed crimes.

The Venetian merchant Marco Polo had first called these caravan routes as "silk roads", also being the first European who had reached the borders of the Chinese Empire. The term "The Great Silk Road" had been introduced into the lexicon in 1877 by the German researcher Ferdinand Richthofen in his fundamental work "China".

The Great Silk Road was not only the trade path for the caravans but had also been the rpute for the spread of cultural achievements of various nations, their intellectual values, and religious beliefs. Finally, throughout many centuries hundreds of world famous scientists, researchers and warriors had traveled on these caravan roads.

Special long-term program which includes proposals about the renaissance of the historical heritage has been created in cooperation with UNESCO. In 1994 Samarkand's declaration "Renaissance of the Great Silk Road" has been adopted.