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Emirs Harem

And here in Bukhara faces were just as blank when I asked about Roy, who had played a small but memorable part in its translation from client emirate to Soviet oblast. As a principal of the Central Asiatic Bureau of the Comintern, he had come to the city with General Frunze and his troops in order to supervise the transfer of civil power. He announced that not only were the four hundred women in the royal harem now divorced from the absent Emir, and free to do as they wished, but that any soldier who formed a proper union with one of them would receive a grant of land and cash. The Red Army was willing enough, but the ladies of the harem seemed reticent. So Roy issued a further order of the day, permitting the troops to enter the harem and take their pick, provided they did so without roughness. He posted himself there to make sure that this provision was not ignored, and described the ensuing selection process:

The storming of the harem took place under strict vigilance, and nothing unpleasant happened. The begums, of course, behaved like scared rabbits, but the sight of the husky young men scrambling for them must have made some impression on them. Able-bodied young men seeking their favour was a new experience to women whose erotic life naturally could not be satisfied by a senile old man. At the end it was a pleasing sight - the secluded females happily allowing themselves to be carried away by proud men.

Women bred for Islam's purposes in a city whose morals had not budged an inch in thirteen hundred years would probably have behaved like scared rabbits from start to finish of that free-for-all in the harem of the emir's summer palace, where they were taken. The palace had secret stairs leading from the ruler's apartments to the areas where the women were maintained, and overlooking all these places were peepholes so that he could watch his concubines unseen while they rested, while they bathed, while they awaited his command. Not only was he a despot of awful cruelty, but a cunningly surreptitious voyeur.

He was not without taste, though. He had built the palace only a decade before he decamped to Afghanistan, and for all that it jumbled the styles of Asia and Europe more than a purist would applaud, its details were so finely done that they made me smile and brightened a gloomy day. There was a chamber with muqarnas encrusting its alcoves as richly as the honeycombs of the Cartuja outside Granada, and there was an entrance hall ablaze with delicately-coloured patterns on its milky walls that reminded me of the pietra dura adorning the Taj Mahal, except that in Bukhara the effect was created with oil paints and a brush. As with the vitreous tiles that made the religious buildings glow, and the rhythm of the bricks on the Kalan Tower and the mausoleum, these flashes of brilliance provided some relief from Bukhara's darknesses. But not enough for me to understand how the old proverb might have been conceived: 'In all other parts of the world, light descends upon earth. From holy Samarkand and Bukhara it ascends.'

Perhaps in the age of Avicenna and the Samanids, a revcrence for life and for what lies beyond, a celebration of eternity, had suffused this place to the exclusion of all else. If there was such a luminous time it had passed, and too much blood had been wantonly spilt on the edge of the desert here. For all its monumental glories, Bukhara left me unreconciled and ill at ease.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse