Noble Bukhara – A stroll through the architectural space (Part I)

No matter how far back you look in the literature to learn about the city on the great Silk Road, you will look in vain for reports or documents in which travellers – historians, adventurers, merchants, artists – were not profoundly impressed by Bukhara.

Klaus Pander (2005, 143)

Part I: The Ark of Bukhara, the Registan, Bolo Haouz Mosque and the Samanid Mausoleum

A brief introducion

Already in the 9th and 10th centuries, Bukhara was a hub of trade relations with Iran, China and India. The domed buildings of the central bazaar, which have been preserved to this day, date back to the 16th century and bear witness to the economic importance of Bukhara. This has always been based not only on the trade in cotton and silk or the trade in the skins of Krakul sheep, but also on the rich craftsmanship of the people of Bukhara. Since the time of the Samanids, important scholars, writers and artists such as Rudaki, Al-Farabi, Daqiqi, Ferdowsi, Narshachi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and others lived and taught in Bukhara. Bukhara experienced its second cultural boom after the Mongol invasion in the second half of the 16th century with the construction of numerous madrasahs and mosques.

In the following, we will discuss some of the buildings that can be seen as traces in space for the significance of Bukhara in the periods outlined in the selection above. The choice is small and subjective, to describe Bukhara completely architecturally would undoubtedly go beyond the scope of this short essay.

Ark of Bukhara

The Ark (citadel) of Bukhara is situated on an artificially raised hill above the city. The core of the fortress dates back to the 5th century, but it has been destroyed, rebuilt and reconstructed several times so that today nothing remains from the time of its foundation. The preserved former barracks, utility buildings and walls date back to the 18th century.

One enters the castle through a portal framed by two round corner towers. A short, slightly rising tunnel follows it. Directly behind it is the mosque, built-in 1712, which is surrounded on three sides by a gallery corridor – the columns decorated with carvings date from the beginning of the 20th century.

There is little left of the former splendour of the palace of the last Emir of Bukhara, who was driven into exile by the conquest of Bukhara by the Bolsheviks. However, the museum established on the site is able to give an excellent impression of the time.

Registan of Bukhara

As late as the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Rigestan was still fulfilling its function as a marketplace; travellers from the time of the first five-year plan of the Soviet Union like the Swiss Ella Maillart also report rich market activity.

Even then, the square was still surrounded by magnificent houses, gardens, inns and trees. The Registan, which today offers open, free space, was kept free not least for reasons of military control of the city in the early Soviet period. The old town was demolished over a large area inclusively a number of ancient mosques; wide and therefore easily controllable streets were built.

Different views of the Ark from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century; for an in-depth explanation of the changes and more photography follow

From the Ark, towards the Bala House Mosque, you can see a water tower designed by the Russian engineer Vladimir Grigorievich Shukhov – the so-called Shukhov Tower. Shukhov made significant contributions to the industrial progress of the Soviet Union during the first phase of industrialisation. Some 200 of his water towers were built throughout the Soviet Union. Today, only a few of them remain, but Uzbekistan has mostly preserved its rich architectural heritage. In the first half of the 1970s, Bukhara’s water supply system was changed, and the water tower lost its original function, but it has been preserved as part of Bukhara’s architectural heritage until today.

During the All-Russia exhibition in Nizhniy Novgorod in 1896 Shukhov presented to the public’s judgment his new structures of the overhead covers. […] The structure of the tower, exhibited at Nizhniy Novgorod, which was a lattice steel shell in the form of a hyperboloid of rotation, enjoyed the biggest commercial success. Shukhov patented this invention shortly before the opening of the exhibition. The shell of the hyperboloid of rotation was a completely new constructional form, never used before. It allowed creating a spatially bent lattice surface out of straight cores installed with an inclination. As a result, the structure of the tower turned out to be light and rigid.

Shukhov Tower Foundation

Bolo Haouz Mosque

Opposite the fortress, following the Kosh principle, lies the Bolo Haouz Mosque, built-in 1712. The building complex also includes a basin and a minaret built-in 1917. The mosque consists of a domed building and a front hall 42 metres wide and 10 metres deep.

The vestibule (Iwan) of the mosque is very impressive: two rows of ten slender columns 12.5 metres high end in richly decorated carved stalactite capitals. These support a roof consisting of magnificent, brightly painted coffered ceilings.

Samanid Mausoleum

The mausoleum of the Samanids is the oldest building of its kind in Central Asia, where Ismail Samani, who ruled Bukhara from 892 to 907, is said to be buried. It is the earliest known tomb built for a distinguished person of the Islamic world. Previously, important representatives of spiritual and secular power had also been buried only below ground, but not in a mausoleum.

The entire building is entirely harmoniously structured and has a simple elegance. It consists entirely of unglazed, fired bricks. These are both building material and decorative elements. The varied layering of the bricks creates ornaments that run like wickerwork over the entire building. The Soviet archaeologist and art historian Galina Pugachenkova, who made a significant contribution to the register of preserved historical buildings in Central Asia and in many cases she was the first to record the preserved architectural heritage, writes about the Samanid Mausoleum:

The admirable variety in the design of the brick achieved a perfection by using all the qualities of the material in a way that no other building in the world could achieve at that time. The bricks were shaped to create large panes, four-panel rosettes and lattice-like windows. Other bricks form convex patterns on the deeper base of the masonry. It is particularly interesting that this creates complex shadow plays on the surface of the walls.

Galina Pugachenkova

The entrance to the mausoleum consists of an ogival niche, apart from that all four sides of the cube have the same design. It gives the impression that only the four three-quarter round pillars of the cube support the hemisphere of the dome, which rises above a surrounding gallery of arches and short columns. One can also get the impression that this gallery is made up of beehives placed side by side. The dome construction represents a remarkable achievement for that time: The Tromb niches inside the building divert the strong static forces of the dome into the side walls. The static constructions are clad with decorative brick patterns along the mainline of force conduction. In this building, Pander (2005) notes that centuries of experience have not only been applied but also developed in such a complex way that this Samanid building is rightly considered one of the most important creations of Islamic architecture.

Text: Stefan Applis (2020), following the competent analyses and explanations of Klaus Pander (2005).

Photography: Stefan Applis (2008)

Historical photos:


Maryam Mohammadi & Javad Neyestani (2015). Study of Sasanian Architectural Elements in the Mausoleum of Amir Ismail Samanid and their Connection with the Revival of Iranian Identity during 3rd – 5th Centuries A.H. Intl. J. Humanities, Vol. 22 (2), pp. 35-51.

Klaus Pander (2005). Zentralasien. Dumont Kunstreiseführer. Ostfildern.

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