"Drink wine and look at the moon
and think of all the civilizations
the moon has seen passing by."
– Omar Khayyam
Intellectual powerhouse of the Islamic world. Center of trade, culture and religion. Pillar of Central Asian architecture. Madinat al Sufriya (The City of Copper). Madinat al Tujjar (The City of Merchants). Buhe. Buxoro. Bokhara. Bukhara. The number of historical names attributed to this ancient city seems to be infinite. Yet, the place they describe is the same.
For 2500 years, Bukhara has served as a focal point of world civilization and home to a multicultural, multilingual and multi-religious society. As one of the great cities of Persia, it maintains its place among a select group of Silk Route cities— such as Yazd, Ishfahan, Samarkand, Merv, Bagdad, Herat, Balkh, and Kashgar—that are spoken of in travelers' tales and history books.
For millennia, Bukhara has been under constant occupation by different rulers, empires and cultures resulting in the multicultural and multilingual society it has become. Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Chinese, Christians, Turks, and Russians have fought for and ruled this city at one point or another in history. From researching the history of the city and the many wars fought over it, one could very well say Bukhara is like a Central Asian Jerusalem.
My reason and interest for traveling to Bukhara was threefold: old Persian architecture, Central Asian textiles, and the great epicenters of trade. And the theme of old trade routes and centers of trade has completely gripped my imagination and heart for the past several years and has led me to travel to an odd assortment of locations across East Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia.
Why has this theme had such a hold over me? These are places whose great multifaceted beauty is to be found (if one chooses to seek them) in their physicality, their energy, their architecture, their markets, their smells, their colors, and the diversity of people and ethnicities that inhabit them. Each crack in a building, each carved wood door, each stone used to pave a small narrow lane, each family name, each dish of food has a connection to the region through its unique story, history and origin.
What makes Bukhara particular in comparison to other cities along the Silk Route? In my perspective, it functions as the heart of Central Asia and the Silk Route. Landlocked, it is set deep in the middle of the region and has been the pillar of many aspects of Central Asian culture in its architecture, literature, religious studies, and carpet making. Its greatness served as a point of comparison for other great cities along the Silk Route and in the region.
I coined this city "Bukhara the Great" after arriving in the month of May, the beginning of the hot season. After getting off the train from Uzbekistan's capital city Tashkent, I took a small quiet room at Hotel Emir, left my things and went immediately out for a walk. With no particular direction in mind other than a quick first look around, I went down a few small streets, crossed through the neighborhood and stumbled accidentally face-to-face upon an incredible and compact Central Asian structure dominated by its four bright, blue tile-topped minarets. I was in front of the Char Minar ("Four Minarets"). Not bad for my first 20 minutes in the city.
I realized, over the course of time I spent in Bukhara, that what I had found was a sort of paradise in respect to specific fields of interest. If one was searching for the giant bazaars famed to inhabit this region, this was the place. If one was searching for a place to disconnect from modern life and sit for hours on end in silence (and sometimes in full solitude) gazing at architectural diamonds of the Persian world, this was the place.
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Transmission and Interconnections
is a thousand stringed instrument
that can only be tuned
Bukhara's history is tightly bound to religion, trade and Persian culture. The mother tongue of the city is the Tajik dialect of Persia, with Uzbek and Russian as its secondary languages.
The transmission of religious belief was perhaps one of the greatest and most powerful things to move along the numerous veins and arteries of the Silk Route. The physical route, traders (both shop owners and traveling merchants), and conquering rulers acted as the vehicle in which different systems of belief achieved movement and momentum over such a vast area such as Asia. Islam dominates the religious sphere as it has been the main religion of the city since the Arab conquest in the early 700s and the main religion of both the Khanate (1500-1785) and the Emirate (1785-1920) periods.
Judaism also has very old roots in the city, even older than the dominant religion Islam. The Yehudi (Central Asian Jews) established one of their main Jewish communities in Bukhara. Some texts claim that the Bukharan Jews have lived there since the time of King David. They were sent to Central Asia as merchants, and they were later cut off from the rest of the Middle Eastern Jewish community. According to other sources, since the time of Cyrus the Great (550 BC), Jews have been living in this area thanks to the freedom of religion granted upon them by Cyrus. Through time, however, many of the Jews left due to persecution, particularly in the time of Soviet rule and Stalin's reign. There were large emigrations to Afghanistan, then to Israel, Canada and the United States. To this day, the local Bukharan Jewish community still survives. Albeit small in number, the community occupies a small residential area called Mahalla near the old city center.
The transmission of religious belief was accompanied by the introduction and movement of architectural styles. With the movement of Islam along the Silk Route came the establishment of countless religious schools (madrassas) and buildings of worship (mosques). The sheer number of madrassas that exist in Bukhara may well outnumber any other city in Central Asia. This may explain why Bukhara has been referred to as the powerhouse of the Islamic world and Islamic scholarship.
Perhaps only Iran could match the architectural greatness of what awaits to be discovered in the cities of Uzbekistan. In the cuisine, the people, the carpet work and the architectural work, a strong connection is visible between the two countries, particularly in the southern part of Uzbekistan where both Samarkand and Bukhara are located. Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan. These are the countries that embody the many and diverse examples of how the Persian culture flowered—beautifully and deeply—throughout history and to which we have been witness.
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Wayne Bregulla / Wayne Rama is a Stockholm-based photographer and painter. He has affinity to black and white photography, cross-process color photography, abstract painting and metal work. Wayne is also the owner and creator of Ramakrishna Designs, a small design company selling ethnic jewelry, rare gems and rocks from around the world. He is currently at work on his first full length book.