A breakfast fit for kings at the Safiya Hotel was a perfect set-up for some serious sightseeing.
We positively galloped towards the Ark, Bukhara’s fortress and home to Uzbekistan’s Royal Sultans through the ages.
We stopped briefly en-route, intrigued by the tap, tap, tap noise emanating from a small courtyard. It was a chap chiseling away to etch an image of what we were about to see on a brass plate to be sold at a later date.
His precision was remarkable and we guessed the guy in his sixties must have done this a fair few times in his life! Watch him at work by clicking ARTISAN.
The ruler of Bukhara, Emir Nasrullah Khan, who made the Ark his residence was not a guy to be crossed as this extract out of my Lonely Planet guidebook would testify:
On 24 June 1842 Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly were marched out from a dungeon cell before a huge crowd in front of the Ark, the emir’s fortified citadel, made to dig their own graves and, to the sound of drums and reed pipes from atop the fortress walls, were beheaded.
Colonel Stoddart had arrived three years earlier on a mission to reassure Emir Nasrullah Khan over Britain’s invasion of Afghanistan. But his superiors, underestimating the emir’s vanity and megalomania, had sent him with no gifts, and with a letter not from Queen Victoria (whom Nasrullah regarded as an equal sovereign) but from the governor-general of India.
To compound matters Stoddart violated local protocol by riding, rather than walking, up to the Ark. The piqued Nasrullah threw him into jail, where he was to spend much of his time at the bottom of the so-called ‘bug pit’, in the company of assorted rodents and scaly creatures.
Captain Conolly arrived in 1841 to try to secure Stoddart’s release. But the emir, believing him to be part of a British plot with the khans of Khiva and Kokand, tossed Conolly in jail too.
After the disastrous British retreat from Kabul, the emir, convinced that Britain was a second-rate power and having received no reply to an earlier letter to Queen Victoria, had both men executed.
Nice fella! We later went to the nearby jail (The Zindon) and witnessed the bug pit for ourselves. Even with nothing crawling about it looked extremely unappealing to say the least.
The thick walls of the Ark were constructed from mud, the once vast complex now only about 20% of the original size. Much of the building was destroyed by a combination of Genghis Khan, seismic movements and Russian invaders, but enough remained to occupy us for a couple of hours.
The internal highlight was the small Juma (Friday) Mosque with its lavishly decorated interior and wonderful wooden columns – a taste of what lay in store. The Coronation Court was also brightly decorated and worth a linger.
Next up was what was to remain a highlight of the entire trip, a visit to the nearby Kalon Mosque & Minaret and Mir-i-Arab Medressa complex, the site synonymous with Bukhara.
The main site is a real beauty and we were so lucky to virtually have the place to ourselves on occasions.
Staying in the complex for over two hours, I will always have a magic memory of just sitting in the majestic courtyard in complete silence, in wonderment at the large empty space, intricate columns and shapely arches.
That the silence was broken with the ethereal call to prayer just added to the wonderful ambience. A definite travel high point that you can witness by clicking KALON.
At one point a tour group came in and the guide spent five minutes explaining the history of the complex. He finished with the words “you now have 15 minutes to take a look around.” Hamish & I just looked at each other and grimaced!
As with all the great Islamic buildings we were to visit, the entrance was extra special.
A huge portico richly decorated in shades of blue & green and featuring intricate patterns and verses from the Koran.
What we were to find typical in these parts, much of the architecture seemed off kilter. Porticos & minarets leaning forwards or sideways, doorways not quite rectangular, arches twisted. This we learned was designed so that the buildings could withstand earthquakes and stand the test of time to be enjoyed for centuries.
The Minaret was also most striking with its tile work patterns rising up its form so that your eyes moved slowly upwards to its pinnacle some 47 metres above the ground.
Rather gruesomely this was also a killing tower with misdemeanors punishable by being thrown from the top as a crowd bayed below.
We were able to get a superb perspective of the complex which also included a closed off medressa directly opposite the mosque, by taking tea (and baklava naturally!) on the high terrace of an adjacent cafe. Another hour ‘wasted’. Fabulous.
With nearly two days to go in Bukhara we needed to stagger our visits so we could appreciate the sites. We therefore decided to just wander back to our hotel via caravansary, medressas & khans stuffed full of souvenirs – we were not buying. Yet!