Back to Bukhara

Mehru Jaffer

In the first couplet of the eighth ghazal of his 'Divan', Hafiz Shirazi wishes for the Turkish beauty to take his heart in her hand. For the mole on her cheek alone the Persian poet was prepared to happily exchange both Bukhara and Samarqand. Surely, Hafiz must have known that he stood no chance with this love before he composed the couplet in Shiraz more than 1,500 km west of Bukhara. For, it is no secret that nothing measured up to Bukhara.

Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) in the 14th century was a splendid capital, temple of empires and shrine of scholars and poets fluent in Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Latin. It was a glittering caravan city connecting East to West. Then everyone wanted to own Bukhara and not to trade it for anything in the world, never mind a mere mole on the fair cheek of a lady. Watermelons were wrapped in snow here before being transported to quench thirst around the globe.

I wandered through the lanes in search of other reasons to feel at home in the oasis city still sprinkled with earth-coloured architecture as if built of bricks made of clay and straw, and dried in the sun. In this land of ancient traders, exquisite weavers and excellent craftspeople, I was told that the word Bukhara is perhaps derived from Vihara or Buddhist monastery. Not to forget that this was once home of  Iranian Buddhism.

Originally a swamp, Bukhara is said to be the fabled land of the sheep with golden fleece that eventually filled up with sediments sprayed by the Zarafshan river. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Bukhara prospered as an important state of the Persian empire, a crossroad that connected China with Iran and India.

Arabs came here in 650 AD to discover a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, decentralised and divided into federal states. Persian rulers perfected their brand of Shia Islam here. In 999 AD, Turkic tribes converted to Sunni Islam, ruled Bukhara whose glamour later dimmed on the discovery of sea routes to India and China. The shimmering Great Silk Road then dissolved in the desert into just another path paved with sand.

By close of the 18th century, Bukhara suffered relentlessly under degenerate rulers, inspiring Russia, who wanted to reduce it into a vassal state. The area became centre-stage for the Russian Empire and the British Empire to play out their 'Great Game'. Go to a bookshop or the nearest library and you can find out more on the 'Great Game' - the rush by greedy powers for more control over other people's homes.

I am not sure whether it is a primitive idea or a progressive one to use the magnificent building of a 17th century caravan sarai and hospice of sufis to lure tourists today for dinner and a song and dance performance by local artists. According to Mumin Mirfayzov, a retired official of Uzbek tourism with a nose that resembles that of Alexander the Great of Greece, it is a very good idea that benefits both tourists and the people of Bukhara.  Mumin introduced me to Bahshand Fayzieva, one of the first women in the city to open a private hotel.

It was a good idea for Bahshand to rent from the city the Tim Abdullah Khan, an introverted covered market place from the 16th century to house a Silk Centre in 1997. By 2006 her earning from selling the hand-woven silk was enough to allow her to open Atlas Hotel.

Similar matters were best contemplated at the feet of the great minaret on Poi Kalyan square at sunset. This is where Genghis Khan stood in 1220 as the wealth of medieval Islam waited to be looted by the Mongol warrior. He mistook the grandeur of the mosque here for the king's palace. Since he came in search of riches and not religion he walked into the mosque and tore the Quran apart. Maybe he wanted the people of Bukhara to know on whose side heaven was at that moment. Then he destroyed the mosque, ravaged the place and set Bukhara on fire.

Only the Kalyan minaret from the 12th century survived the destruction. Built by a Turkic ruler, the lofty tower is the mother of Delhi's Qutub Minar and has survived the ravages of time because Bako, the architect, had whipped up mortar, lime plaster, camel's milk and egg white to pour it over an inverted pyramid he built 10 metres below the ground. Then Bako vanished for three years. He returned to add a layer of reeds to the foundation before building the mighty minar, under whose shade I write this.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2009

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