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Soldier near zindanThe zindan or city jail, epicentre of Bukharan 19th century notoriety, lurks hidden behind the Ark, next to the former Shakhristan Gate. The heavy, sombre building was home to debtors, murderers, political prisoners, courtiers fallen from grace and 19th century European guests all held in three diabolical cells, the most infamous of which was the Black Hole - Prisoners in Bukharaa deep pit covered with an iron grill, accessible only via a long six metre rope - the true horror of which can only truly be appreciated from the bottom. The English missionary Henry Landsell was given a guided tour of the jail by his terrified guide in 1882 and observed how the wretched prisoners, manacled and chained at the neck, went largely unfed, with those whose families were too poor to bribe the murderous jailers forced to beg for food every holy Friday through an exterior grating.

Today the cells hold hostage only a few unconvincing dummies (from whose ranks Conolly and Stoddart have mysteriously disappeared) and an abridged collection of dungeon memorabilia displayed in the old torture chamber. There is a famous photograph of the bloody back of Sadreddin Ayni, future president of Tajikistan, who was publicly whipped in 1917 for his revolutionary ideas.

The rulers of Bukhara held court in the Arg, whose general design was much like that of the citadel I had seen in Peshawar several years before, though that one had been equipped with traffic lights, to regulate the comings and goings of the Khyber Rifles and other troops of the Pakistan Army. The Arg was without such modern trappings and there was still much ancient menace residing in those sandy battlements (brick, again) which sloped high and inward above the surrounding ground. Within living memory it would have taken some courage to go up the ramp and between the two towers of the gatehouse, knowing what had awaited far too many predecessors on the inside. The ornate clock which the wretched Orlandi had made for the Emir Nasrullah in return for his life, and which may have been the death of him in the end, used to hang incongruously above the entrance arch; but, I was told, someone had taken it down at the time of the Revolution 'for cleaning' and it has not been since. The citadel had been turned into a museum by the Soviet authorities, who did not attempt to minimise the horrors from which Bukhariots had been saved by the forces ot communism. There was a photograph of the last Emir of Bukhara, a portly little despot with a black beard, who took himself off to exile among kinsmen in Afghanistan at the Bolshevik approach. Only a short time before, his vassal princes had been obliged to approach his throne in the Arg by crawling on all fours; and they did not nearly have the worst of things. His saurian gaze now fell on some photographs hanging on the wall opposite his picture, showing the effect of seventy-five lashes on a man's back, administered for some trifling offence. Elsewhere in the room was a graphic painting of some poor loser about to have his throat cut judicially; and another of a thief whose hand was being amputated.

But no emir was quite as vicious as Nasrullah, whose long rule began in 1826, after he had murdered his father and his elder brother; and then, to guard against any possibility of fratricide, his three younger brothers as well. Behind the Arg was the Zindan, the prison in which the emirs of Bukhara held their captives. Every Friday the common criminals were allowed out of the Zindan in their shackles to beg for food among the people thronging the marketplace below; and on what the good Muslims of the city were disposed to donate on Islam's holiest day of the week, these prisoners lived until the following Friday. Some survived this form of victualling and others did not. One group of prisoners was not even permitted this indulgence; and for them Nasrullah devised a captivity that was truly the inspiration of an evil mind. He consigned them to the Sia Chat, the Black Well, which was a chamber excavated underground with no light and no access except through a small rectangle some twenty feet above the floor. The chamber had been walled with bricks, as if to emphasise the hopelessness of attempted escape, and the only way out was through the small hole above, as long as someone dropped down at least a rope. Christian kings had also built dungeons as awful as this, but the Emir Nasrullah's imagination went beyond entombment. His prisoners shared the Sia Chat with rats, scorpions, lice, cockroaches and other vermin specially introduced for the purpose of torment, including sheep ticks which burrowed into flesh and made dreadful sores.

The museum curators had dramatised the Black Well by placing a couple of dummies in it, and tourists had responded by chucking coins into the pit, while the dummies looked in supplication at the little rectangle of light, one squatting in the middle of the floor, the other leaning exhausted against the wall. They were shackled, they were bearded, they wore the local headcloth and other desert clothes, but they were unmistakably European. They were Stoddart and Conolly, and I had waited a long time to see where they met their end.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse