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Early history

Persian prince Siyavush, who built a citadel here shortly after marrying the daughter of Afrosiab in Samarkand, is the traditional founder of Bukhara, but its growth has for centuries depended largely upon its strategic location on the crossroads to Merv, Gurganj, Herat, Kabul and Samarkand.

The early town was taken by the Persian Achaemenids in the sixth century BC, by Alexander the Great in 329 BC and by the empires of the Hephalite and the Kushan. In Sogdian times the town was known as Numijent and later renamed after the Sanskrit word for monastery, vikhara. A major city in the Sogdian confederation, it remained a younger brother to the thriving merchant towns of Paikend, Romitan and Varakhsha (home to the ruling dynasty of Bukhar Khudats), until the storm of Islam arose.


After the fall of Merv (641) and Paikend (672), Bukhara managed to keep the Arab fighting machine at bay with an annual tribute. Relations grew strained when 80 Bukharan hostages were abducted to Medina, only to rebel en route and commit mass suicide. But Bukhara was left largely unmolested until the fire-worshipping city was taken by Qutaiba in 709 in the first leg of his jihad against the lands beyond the Oxus. Three times the city was taken and three times the city rebelled, but ruling Queen Khatum finally fled the city, leaving behind a slipper worth 200,000 dihrem, and the city was taken.

The Arabs were assiduous in their Islamification of the town. Whole districts of the city's population were evicted to make room for Arab troops and an Arab soldier was posted in every household. Non-Arabs were conscripted into the ruling elite and Qutaiba offered two dihrem as an incentive to attend the makeshift Friday mosque. Islam flourished, grafted onto existing beliefs.
Revolts persisted whenever the Arabs turned their backs and terrible punitive campaigns were regularly unleashed, but the roots of Islam took hold and the essence of the city was transformed.


By the late ninth century internal dissent in the heart of the Ummayad Arab empire had translated into a weakening of power on its fringes. The local Iranian governors broke with the caliphate and, after a fratricidal struggle between Bukhara and Samarkand, Ismael ibn Ahmed founded the Samanid dynasty and ushered in a golden age whose commercial and cultural vitality soon attracted the finest intellectuals of the time. Ismael and his dynasty ruled as ideal Muslim rulers, offering patronage to the most talented men of letters in the land. Ibn-Sina, al-Beruni, the historian Narshaki and poet Rudaki all served to turn Bukhara into the centre of a Persian renaissance and of Islamic science. Persian poetry fused with court Arabic as Bukhara's library expanded to become the most famous in the Islamic world. Irrigation networks were expanded and rapid urbanization swelled the population to over 300,000, larger indeed than the soviet city. Bukhara became "embellished with the rarest of high attainments ... the meeting place of the highest intellectuals of the age, the horizon of the literary stars of the world".

By the 11th century the urban Persian yielded to the nomadic Turkmen. In 999 the Samanids fell to the Karakhanids, the Karakhitai in 1141 and Khorezmshah in 1206. The Chashma Ayub, Kalon Minaret and Namazgokh Mosque were all added to the city, but in general it was a period of decline and uncertainty.