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Sights around Bukhara

Bukhara's heyday had been during the time of the Persian Samanids, who made it their capital in the ninth century over a territory that included the whole of modern Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan, with much of Iran and Afghanistan besides. Within a hundred years it had a population of 300,000 and contained 250 madrassas, which schooled pupils from places as far away as Yemen and Andalusia: but it was not only a centre of religious instruction. Its royal library is said to have contained 45,000 books, which raised Bukhara to the level of Baghdad, and one of the beneficiaries was the polymathic Husain ibn Abdullah ibn Sina, more widely known as Avicenna. Not only polymath but prodigy, for at the age of eighteen he cured the ruler of a chronic illness and was rewarded with access to the library, to which he presently added many texts of his own, as philosopher, astronomer, mathematician and poet as well as doctor of medicine. He was also a linguist who translated Aristotle into Arabic, and a gifted musician who was simultaneously so active in the politics of the court that for several years he was its Grand Vizier. But his major work was the Qanun, his Canon of Medicine, an encyclopaedia of medical knowledge in China, India, Persia, Egypt and Greece from sources that spanned ten centuries. This was a compendium of such unique consequence that a Pope eventually issued a bull authorising its study in the medical faculties of Europe, and it maintained its position as a basis of universal teaching until the great scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century at last outdated it.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse


Hidden deep in the village of Chilangu, about 20 kilometres from the nearest tourist site, lies the unassuming grave of Sheikh al-islam Emir Hussein Mullo Mir (died 1587) and the enormous khanagha built a century later in the shadow of his name. The dervish house has a complicated layout and its imposing four storey portal makes it seem larger than it actually is. Five staircases lead to a series of hujra cells arranged around the central mosque and a further two staircases lead up corner pylons to access the third-storey roof and chimneys of the cells below. The whole building is as solid as a rock and is set afloat on a sea of grasses and graves.

An excellent time for individuals to visit is Friday lunchtime, when local aksahals emerge from the surrounding fields like iron filings to a magnet to celebrate Friday namaz with feasting and communal prayer. A trainee imam usually sounds the call to prayer with hands cupped around his ears to catch the words of Allah. After individual prayer the imam ascends the minbar pulpit and addresses the congregation, after which he leads them in communal prayer. Then a donations book is read out and the tight-fisted are grilled in silent shame. A small foreign donation will normally be rewarded with an entry into the book. Chilangu is best reached by taxi from Bukhara or Romitan.


Locations of Paikend and VarakhshaBunyat Bukhar was drinking wine in his palace al Varakhsha secure in the knowledge that he was the ruler of the richest city in Mavarranawahr, when two horseman bearing the Caliph's standard appeared as two clouds of dust on the horizon.They rode up into the fortress, dismounted and, without saying a word, drew their swords and cut off his head. They accused him of aiding and abetting heretic Mokanna, proclaimed the end of the Bukhar Khudat line and departed.

The death of Bunyat in 782 heralded the slow decline of the city of Varakhsha, acity older and bigger than Bukhara, home to Hephalite kings and Sogdan princes and a staging post on the eight-day caravan trail to Khorezm. Today travel agencies offer tours to Kyzyl Kum to see its southern citadel, but its most famous find, a series of pre-Islamic wall paintings depicting hunters on elephants fighting off leopards and griffins Ruins of VarakhshaFrom Varakhsha the desert now stretches for hundreds of miles to the westand a state reception scene complete with crouching , winged camels supporting a royal throne, are held in Tashkent museums.

The Hephthalites emerged in the fifth century a.d. and at the peak of their empire controlled much of East Turkistan (current day Xinjiang Province China, Afghanistan, and northwest India. According to one contemporary historian, the word “hephthalite” is derived from the Sogdian word for “strong man” Although the Hephthalites may have claimed suzerainty over the city-states of the Zerafshan Valley the Sogdians probably enjoyed a degree of autonomy, and by 563 a.d. Hephthalite influence in the region had ended altogether.

It was around this time that the Ark in Bukhara and the various small settlements surrounding it had coalesced into an important city. Still, it was one of numerous cities in the Bukhara Oasis and not Ruins of VarakhshaRuins of Varakhshanecessarily the most dominant. Varakhsha, on what was then the western edge of the Bukhara Oasis (its ruins are now in the desert), and Paikend (also Baikand), on the very southern edge of the oasis, were both substantial, well-fortified cities older than Bukhara itself. Indeed, according to the ten-century historian Narshakhi a trader who went to Bagdad was more likely to brag that he was from Paikend than from Bukhara. These cities of the Bukhara oasis and the other loosely aligned city-states which made up Sogdiana dominated trade on the Silk Road arteries stretching from China and India to Byzantium, southern Russia and northern Africa, and their language, an early form of Iranian, became the lingua franca of commerce.

Ruins of VarakhshaRuins of VarakhshaLocations of Paikend and Varakhsha, twenty-eight miles southwest of Bukhara, was an important caravan stop on the Merv-Bukhara-Amul (at the Amu Darya Crossing)-Samarkand route. Attacked and largely destroyed by invading Arabs in the 710s, it was partially rebuilt but probably never recovered its former prominence. It is now in ruins.

Varakhsha, probably exceeded Bukhara in importance during its heyday. It boasted of impressive palaces used by Sogdian rulers. Once in the cultivated part of the Bukhara oasis, it may have been abandoned for lack of water as the oasis contracted.


The languid kishlak of Afshona slumbers in a bed of white dusted cotton fields and gurgling irrigation canals and were it not for its one world famous son would enjoy its torpor like any other neglected Uzbek hamlet. But in 980 Ali ibn-Sina, or Avicenna (980-1037), was born here and the city was thrust into the limelight of international attention. The Avicenna Museum was unveiled on the 1000th anniversary of his birth and contains some interesting items, such as fearsome looking turn of the century Uzbek surgical hooks and pliers, but with few captions in English it is perhaps best appreciated by those with a focused interest.


Southern entrance to the city. Stalls used by merchants can still be seen at top, just left of center.

No less promising is the perspective of Paikend – an urban settlement located in 60 kilometres from Bukhara. The excavation works have been carried out here for more than 20 years by Uzbekistan archeologists and their Russian colleagues from State Hermitage (St. Petersburg).

Paikend, just like the ancient settlement of Karmana, is located on the border of the Kyzyl Kum desert. But once prospering city suffered a dismal fate: 800 years ago it was buried under moving sands and practically vanished off the face of the earth. Before the tragedy, this city on the Great Silk Road was so famous that if in Baghdad someone asked a person from Bukhara "Where are you from?", without fail the answer was: "I am from Paikend". The male population of the city was involved mostly in the international Ruins of Paikendtrade. The major goods were local and Chinese silk. To obtain the Chinese silk Paikend tradesmen arranged caravans to the Great Chinese wall. From Paikend, caravans made for Afghanistan, India, the Caucasus, the Ural, and the Volga river area. The caravans carried fast horses, Lucerne seeds, young plants of fruit trees, glass, pottery. Paikend tradesmen went as far as Japan, Vietnam and Ceylon, whereas at Paikend bazaars one could meet Arab, Indian, Chinese, Afghani, Persian, and European merchants. The town was famous for the products of its own craftsmen: glass-blowers, potters, armourers… People of Paikend achieved a high level in use of home comforts. Their dwellings had wash-stands, bathrooms, toilets… Moreover, Paikend was well-known as the first Central Asian city- republic governed by rich tradesmen.

View of vineyards from the walls of the Paikend

Paikend was protected by massive fortifications and watch towers placed at a distance of 60 meters from each other. The most interesting thing is that the city was guarded by female garrison. This was not surprising, since the majority of male population was frequently away on business. Local women were always known as being very independent. In an early stage of the city's development (the 4th-1st century BCE) they even used to choose their husbands themselves, and often more than one. From childhood, girls were trained in horseback riding and archery. This was scientifically proved during the excavation works, when archeologists found some small elegant bone rings. These were not adornments. The clue was simple: such a ring was put by a woman on the middle finger and was used for drawing the bow string.

In the 8th century Paikend was the first town to confront Arab conquerors who invaded Movarounnahr. After a two-month siege the city was taken by stratagem, and its inhabitants were enslaved. According to historical sources, the conquerors got innumerable riches – gold and silver vessels, two pearls the size of a pigeon egg, golden statues of Buddha (which were later melted down in gold bars), a magnificent armoury. The latter was distributed among soldiers. Having come back to the city which by that time had been turned to ashes, men ransomed their women and children and restored the city. It was made, as historians say, within a very short time. However, it was not enemy's invasion but a drought that dealt the city an unrecoverable blow. The drought was caused by the drastic decrease of water level in the lower reaches of the Zerafshan river. The townspeople did their best to return water and dug channels, but finally they could not resist nature and therefore had to move to other lands.

Remains of what were probably residences

Today, buried under quick sands, the city is being excavated. Archaeologists managed to find the base of a 9th-century minaret which is 11 meters in diameter. This is a metre more than the size of the basis of the famous Bukhara minaret Kalyan (early 12th century) – the highest minaret in Central Asia. Judging by the basis the minaret in Paikend was much higher. Time did not spare the minaret. And the main reason of its destruction was the material it was made of – adobe bricks. Interesting enough, but the builders of Kalyan took into account this sad experience and used baked bricks instead of adobe ones.

Among archaeological findings is the very first pharmacy in Central Asia. It was discovered in the center of Paikend. During the excavation works, alongside with glass jars for phlebotomy and a cup with wax residue, the archeologists found two documents in Arabic. One of them contained the date it had been written: June 30, year of 790. Archaeologists also unearthed perfect samples of glass items and glazed pots. On one of them there was a decorative inscription in Arabic ligature which said: "Eat and drink as you please". All these artifacts took a worthy place in the museum of "History of Paikend".

Vabkent MinaretThe ancient city is preparing for a new phase of its life as a large center of international tourism. It is planned to construct a hotel stylistically resembling a medieval caravanserai, and to organize a youth camp. With the assistance of UNESCO, Paikend will be turned into historical-landscape museum-reserve.


In the village of Vabkent, 20km northeast of Bukhara, is the Vabkent Minaret, a Karakhanid tower 39m tall that was built by Bukhari ad-Din Ayud al-Aziz in 1196. The second-largest minaret in the Bukhara oasis after the Kalyon Minar, it was originally part of a Friday Mosque complex. As per this taller, slightly earlier model, the Vabkent Minaret tapers towards the top and is crowned with a lanternlike shape, the base of which is decorated with stalactites. The trunk of the minaret is divided into eight ornamental bands, each decorated with calligraphy. Now the minaret is gloriously incongruous between a parking lot and the local branch of the Ministry of Health.