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Post Mongol Bukhara


In March 1220 the Mongol tide of calamity was spotted outside Bukhara's gates, its troops more numerous than locusts, each detachment like a billowing sea. Thirty thousand defensive troops sped to meet them and were slaughtered to a man. "From the reflection of the sun the plain seemed to be a tray filled with blood." Their leader Genghis Khan, The Wind of God's Omnipotence, rode to the Namazgokh Mosque, and proclaimed himself the Scourge of God. "If you had not committed great sins," he said, "God would not have sent a punishment like me". The citadel was taken, the city put to the torch and razed to a level plain. No man was spared who stood higher than the butt of a whip. Soon cartloads of booty and trains of slaves were seen snaking away from the charred remains of the holy town, to be employed as human shields in the forthcoming assault on Samarkand. A refugee who finally managed to escape to Khorasan said of the massacre: "They came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed."

Years later the Khan's grandson Hulaku again arrived at the city gates intent on plunder. He was met by a young boy, a camel and a goat. When he demanded to know why the city's envoy was a mere baby, the precocious boy replied, "If you want someone larger then talk to the camel and if you want someone with a beard then talk to the goat. If you desire reason then talk to me." Hulaku listened to the boy and the city was saved.

The city took a century to recover from the trauma, at which point it was taken, destroyed and depopulated by the Persian Khan Abaqa II. At some point around 1262 Nicholas and Maffeo Polo, father and uncle to famous Marco, allegedly spent three years
stuck in Bukhara by regional wars, until finally hooking up with a caravan headed east to the Mongol court. Marco gives no details on their stay and he never visited the city. By 1366 ibn-Battuta recorded that "all but a few of its mosques, academies and bazaars are lying in ruins". The once holy city had a "reputation for fanaticism, falsehood and denial of the truth". The town glimmered again under the Timurids, but was never more than a faint shadow of Tamerlane's capital at Samarkand.


In 1500 the Uzbek clan leader Mohammed Shaybani Khan entered Bukhara and murdered its ruler Ali, thus supplanting the squabbling Timurid line with his Uzbek dynasty. The Timurids rallied briefly under the return of Babur to Bukhara in 1511, but on 12 December 1512 Babur and his Shi'ite Persian allies were routed in the pivotal battle of Gijduvan and the Timurid leader fled Transoxiana for ever.

The Uzbeks were undisputed champions of Transoxiana and Bukhara was its capital again, with the Oxus a fragile border with Shi'ite Safavid Persia. Abdullah Khan reunited the Uzbek clans with a reign of ruthless public order that ended decades of anarchy. Abdullah's reign prepared the ground for Bukhara's second golden age and his name grew to near- legendary proportions. Craftsmen abducted from conquered Herat fuelled a flowering of decorative and miniature art. The city began to take its present shape under a programme of religious and secular construction, spurred on by a rising trade with Russia. The clergy and the khan's spiritual adviser, the Sheikh al-Islam, grew in power, while Bukhara swelled to boast 150 madrassahs and 200 district mosques.

In 1558 Anthony Jenkinson, the first Englishman to stagger into Central Asia, spent two and a half months in Bukhara in his search for new markets and a route to Cathay. His journey was unsuccessful, but he managed to teach Abdullah how to shoot a gun, a kindness the khan repayed by absconding to Samarkand owing Jenkinson money for nineteen bolts of cloth-the only merchandise he managed to sell during his stay.

After Russia annexed Astrakhan in 1552, the Mongol leader Yar Mohammed and his son Jan fled to Bukhara to found a new Uzbek family dynasty, the Janids or Astrakhanids, who ruled for the next 150 years. As overland continental trade routes withered, and wars with Shi'ite Persia intensified Sunni Bukhara's religious isolation, the khanate sank into obscure barbarism, economic stagnation and religious fanaticism. There were brief recoveries under Imam Kuli Khan and Abdul Aziz Khan, but even a change of dynasty to the Mangit in 1785 could do nothing to halt Bukhara's decline from an international to a regional player.