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Exploring the Ark

One building, and one era, overbear Bukhara like a disfiguring memory. For over a thousand years successive incarnations of a vast palace-fortress, the Ark, have loomed against the north-west walls. Shored up in secrecy, its final, monstrous embodiment is withdrawn out of human reach on a dishevelled glacis, which the binding timber-ends speckle like blackheads, and the ramparts which crown it are forty-foot scarps. Of the ruined buildings inside, only a few cupolas and an arcade can be glimpsed from below; but behind, it disintegrates into a rectangle of rotted bastions which blunder round its plateau in half-pulverised brick. It seems to have slipped down entire from a more savage era. Yet it kept much of its old use until 1920, when the last emir fled, and it is this incongruence in time - it is a museum now, but was a bloodied court within living memory - which perpetuates around it a peculiar disquiet.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

Your visit to the Ark will inevitably begin with the Registan, the vast square outside what is now the Ark's main gate. Historically it served as both a slave market and public execution ground, though now it lies empty save for tourists wielding cameras.

To picture the square at its height requires you to use your imagination: Soviet demolition crews made sure of that. Stand in the square facing the citadel walls and envisage the luxurious home of the tupchi bashi, the city's chief of artillery, surrounded by cannons seized in battle from the Kokand khanate. To your left would have stood a line of mosques and madrassas equal in beauty to those surrounding the Registan in Samarkand. The square itself would have been heaving: you'd have been jostled from every angle by courtiers and street hawkers, slave traders showing off their wares, and an occasional dervish spinning through on his way to the khanagha. When the drumbeat was heard from atop the city walls, the crowd would have surged forward for a grisly hour's entertainment: the ground would run red with the blood of publicly executed prisoners.

Entrance to the Ark is through the Western Gate, an imposing entranceway built by Nadir Shah in 1742. The second, southern or Kalyon Gate has long-since been destroyed. Two important items once hung from this gateway: a khamcha (six-stranded whip) to remind the people of the emir's power; and a mechanical clock made by an Italian clockmaker, Giovanni Orlandi, who was captured by Turkmen slave traders in Orenburg, Russia in the mid 19th century. Orlandi earned himself a temporary reprieve by offering to make the clock (at the time the only mechanical clock in Bukhara) for Nasrullah Khan but once it was completed, Orlandi was caught drunk and this gave Nasrullah the excuse he wanted to sentence the Italian to death. The skin on his neck was sliced off, and he was then beheaded.

Climbing the steep stone ramp and passing through the gateway brings you inside the Ark. There is a definite sense of shades of former glory, though as the renovation programme continues and as more areas are restored and opened to the public, you should get a picture of what life inside the citadel was like. You will come across a number of restored structures: the mosque, which now houses a small exhibition of calligraphy, including early Qu'rans and illuminated works of poetry; the elchi khana, an administrative building which contains the underwhelming Regional Archaeology Museum and a plaque to the 20 Bolshevik emissaries murdered here in 1918; the salam khana (public audience hall) where Conolly made his infamous (and ultimately fatal) error of judgement; and the kurinesh khana (throne room) where the emirs were crowned and lifted onto their new throne whilst sitting on a silk carpet. You will also find the local history museum, which has some fine royal costumes (including the emir's coronation robes and an accompanying 20m-long turban) and illuminating photographs of the Ark when it was still inhabited. The neighbouring courtyard overlooks the two storey orchestra pit, the nagora khana, from which the court's musicians serenaded (or at least so he claimed) Joseph Wolff with a rousing rendition of God Save the Queen.

For those with an interest in the Great Game, the most important, and also most harrowing, sight at the Ark is the zindan, the jail in which the unfortunate Conolly and Stoddart were kept prior to their execution. This is accessed around the back of the Ark and requires a separate admission fee (US$1). Water and excrement washed from the floors of the royal stables rained down on the heads of already tortured bodies; wretched men, starving and chained by the neck, were packed into the overcrowded hole in the ground. The exhibits inside include a few items relating to torture, photographs of victims, and some rather feeble mannequins, forever imprisoned in the gloomy cells.