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Great Game

The 19th century thrust Bukhara into the world political limelight after centuries of obscurity. As Anglo-Russian rivalries, mutual suspicions and ignorance grew more marked, a series of disguised pilgrims, traders, clergymen and tourists crept, rode and stumbled into Bukhara's palaces and caravanserais to find out just what was going on in this suddenly crucial desert oasis, half way towards the ends of the earth. Keeping a close eye on which had the upper hand, the emirate played the British and Russians off each other.

In 1825 William Moorcroft arrived in Bukhara in an attempt to open up the city to trade and pre-empt Russian influence, meeting with "as much kindness from the emir as could be expected from a selfish, narrow-minded bigot". Moorcroft's mission lasted five months, but was soon overshadowed by the classic trip to Bukhara executed by Alexander "Bokhara" Burnes in 1832. A captain in the Indian Army, relative of Scottish poet Robert Burns, a charming polyglot and rising star of the Great Game Burnes, entered Bukhara on 27 June 1832 with a shaved head, Afghan dress and a hidden agenda to glean as much strategic and military information on the city as possible.

Almost immediately, he was summoned to see the Kosh Begi (grand vizier). Early in the interview he had to sidestep a barrage of tricky questions, one of which concerned the relative taste of pork. He rather riskily revealed that amongst his belongings he carried certain cartographic instruments, but soon realized he had little to fear. When he saw Burnes' sextant, the Vizier merely asked what it said about the price of grain in the following year and on sight of a compass, he proceeded to haggle over it. Burnes stayed a month in Bukhara and although he never managed to see the emir he left the Holy City with a wealth of valuable information and blockbuster material for his classic account of Bukharan life, Travels into Bokhara. He returned to England to a Gold Medal from the Royal Geographical Society, a private audience with the King and a subsequent knighthood.

In retrospect it was probably for the best that Burnes never managed to obtain an audience with the newly enthroned emir, for he was none other than Nasrullah, one of the most violently deranged rulers the East has ever seen:

One must be able to form to oneself an idea of the society of the Bukhara of the day, crippled by boundless hiprocrosy, crass ignorance, and unscrupulous tyranny, and sunk in the swamp of immorality in order to imagine the mixture of cunning and stupidity, of pride, of vainglory and profligacy, of blind fanaticism and loathsome vices which make up the character ofNasrullah Khan.

Arminius Vambery 1873

Nasrullah has attained notoriety in the West as the ultimate bogeyman of Bukhara. Described by Conolly as mad (with the word underlined twice) and affectionately referred to by his subjects as 'The Butcher', Nasrullah's official title was the only marginally less spine-tingling 'The Shadow of God Upon Earth'. As an ambitious young man, he initiated a bloody scramble for succession, ordering 28 of his close relatives murdered in cold blood and three younger brothers beheaded on the banks of the Oxus. When, 20 years later, in a moment of blind rage he reputedly cut his closest adviser in half with an axe, it seemed that middle-age had failed to mellow the emir. Not even on his deathbed did the monster relent, only content to pass away after he had witnessed the bloody execution of his wife and three daughters in front of his fading eyes, in order it seems to ensure their continued chastity in his absence.

Nasrullah had little to fear. A series of campaigns had secured his eastern borders with Afghanistan and the triangular balance of power between Bukhara, Kokand and Khiva had finally shifted his way with the capture of Merv and Kokand and the death of its khan, Mohammed Ali. Bukhara was in its ascendency and in Nasrullah's world he reigned as king of kings, a vanity which Russian and British one-upmanship only served to confirm. A shadowy Azeri adviser fanned the flames of Nasrullah's paranoia, but Russian diplomats "tickled the haughty Nasrullah behind the ear with pompous titles," and so seductively that he paid scant attention to the distant sounds of Russian cannon fire echoing from the far side of the Syr Darya. Yet, whatever his character, there was little that could be done. The Central Asian khanates were exhausted from an endless cycle of squabbling, war and retribution and stood as divided as they would soon fall.