Bukhara is one of my favourite places in Central Asia. Many travellers prefer Samarkand with it’s arches and minarets, but my imagination was simply taken by Bukhara‘s winding lanes, backstreet communities and facades which glimmer like a mirage in the desert.
It wasn’t always this way. Bukhara is the holiest and the most historic city in Central Asia. It changed hands from empire to empire up to 1218, when the Muslims were in power. They are now remembered as the unfortunate men left holding the red cape when the angry bull was released. Mongolian military commander Jenghiz Khan (Genghis Khan as he is known is the west) sent out a diplomat to make a business deal with the Muslim ruler of Bukhara. The Bukharan leader, fearing a spy, made the unwise move of assassinating that diplomat. Within a year, the enraged Jenghiz Khan and his army had rampaged across Central Asia, ransacking what is now Kyrgyzstan and finally turned up at the gates of Bukhara. The terrified Bukharans fled to the city’s main mosque and started praying for salvation. Jenghiz Khan himself is said to have climbed to the pulpit and delivered a sermon; “I am God’s punishment for your sins.”
By the time Khan was finished with Bukhara the city was obliterated, the population decimated, and the few survivors devastated. Nearly 800 years later Bukhara bears little scars of it’s previous battles (due in part to the fact that most of the city had to be rebuilt after Khan’s arrival).
Resembling something from a Spanish village, the town centre is a small piazza, set around a large square pond and framed by huge shady trees and classy traditional restaurants dining al fresco. It’s like something out of a storybook. My hotel, the charming Amelia Luxury Boutique Hotel was right nearby – perfect!
Waking on Thursday morning I started wandering around Bukhara‘s old rambling alleys and was soon ‘adopted’ by Fairouz, a young police recruit who had just finished his shift. He showed me around some of the sights, before leaving me at one of two synagogues in Bukhara‘s Jewish quarter.
The kind caretaker of the synagogue personally showed me around the building and explained the history of Bukhara‘s 250-strong Jewish community, and said he had never had any issues whatsoever with the town’s Muslim majority.
After spending the rest of the day getting lost in countless lanes and bazaars (I even visited the pulpit where Jenghiz Khan gave his speech), I happened across a jewelery seller who had a small, silver Islamic charm; the likes of which I have been searching for in every country I have travelled since 2005. He quoted me $10 for the coin – probably a rip-off, but I didn’t care; it was mine, whatever the price.
Back in the town centre I had dinner in one of the quaint piazza restaurants and reflected on a day that had left me spellbound. It’s not often that a city leaves you completely enchanted; hassled, amazed, thrilled and excited yes, but Bukhara left an indelible mark on my conscience, the feeling that fairytale cities do really exist.
Stay tuned – this Saturday you can take a walk through Bukhara with my beautiful photo gallery of this enthralling city.