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

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)

For a brief introducion go back to Part I: The Ark of Bukhara, the Registan, Bolo Haouz Mosque and the Samanid Mausoleum

Part II: Kalyan Minaret (Minaret Kalon), Po-i-Kalyan (Kalon Mosque), Market domes and bazaars

When the Swizz writer and traveller Ella Maillart arrives in Bukhara in 1929, she is shocked to discover that once glorious Bukhara has fallen into disrepair. One must not forget that Bukhara was extensively bombed by Soviet planes in 1921. Besides, the Soviets had closed down the madrasahs, where around 20,000 eager students from all over the world had studied at the heyday of Mohammedan science.

Ella Maillart is most captivated by the Poi-Kalyan ensemble in Bukhara, which was built according to the Kosh principle. However, the strict symmetry implemented at the Registan of Samarkand is broken here, as the Po-i-Kalyan (Kalon mosque) is lower than the Mir-Arab madrasah opposite it on the same main axis. However, it has a greater width. Both buildings have a high pishtak, but the khanaqa is much narrower, lacking the two-storey ogival arcades of the madrasah, and the corner towers are right next to the pishtak.

The Minaret Kalon or Kalyan Minaret, built at the end of the 12th century under the Karakhanid ruler Arslan Khan, is considered the real symbol of Bukhara. It already showed the caravans the way to the holy city in pre-Mongolian times. Until the 20th century, however, the minaret also fulfilled the dubious function of a place of execution by putting the condemned into a sack and throwing them down from it.

After being badly damaged during the Bukhara conquest by the Bolsheviks, the minaret today presents itself as an „excellently preserved architectural monument, the basic shape of which is typical of Central Asia and Iran; a round, steep tower with a base diameter of more than ten metres, tapering upwards. The minaret is crowned by a poppy capsule-shaped lantern with sixteen ogival windows“ (Pander 2005, p. 153ff.) It is assumed that the minaret Kalon or Kalyan Minaret is one of the oldest monuments where coloured glazed bricks were used for decorative cladding.

The construction of the Mir-i Arab Madrassah was completed around 1536. Pander (2005, 156) points out as extraordinary that especially with this madrassah it is repeated again and again in the literature that the funds for the construction of the costly complex were obtained by selling 3000 Shiites into slavery. The building complex also shows that at that time the times when rulers could build expensive mausoleums for themselves and their relatives were over. A grave room and a cenotaph are therefore only structural additions to the whole complex. The most remarkable thing, however, is that the Mir-i Arab Madrassah is the only university in Central Asia that has consistently served the purpose of a Muslim religious institution for over 400 years (cf. Pander 2005, 157). On either side of the main entrance there are two high domed halls, a classroom and the already mentioned magnificently furnished tomb. The latter is covered by a star-shaped dome with sixteen window openings.

Mir-i Arab Madrassah

The Kalon Mosque is connected to the minaret by a small bridge; it is one of the largest mosques in Central Asia. The plans probably date back to the 15th century, „but the construction could only be completed under the rule of the Shaibanids in 1514“ (cf. Pander 2005, 154).

The Kalon Mosque, ‚the Great‘, has no equal in style. From the fifty-two meter high ‚Minaret of Death‘ flanking it, one can see its vast courtyard, its turquoise dome over the holy of holies and its central pediment opposite the small pavilion for the ritual washings. On feast days, a single enormous carpet covered the tiles. What a fairy-like picture it must have been, with all those robes of silk brocade in which the greats of the earth showed themselves here. Around the courtyard, there is a triple vaulted portico with massive cubic pillars; it is gloomy underneath, and a heaviness weighs on my shoulders like in a Romanesque cathedral. […] The light here is so beautiful that the building was limited to pure, simple lines.

Ella Mailart, Turkestan Solo (1934)

Following the Timurid architectural tradition, the building complex is a so-called Four Ivan Mosque with a large inner yard. This inner yard is surrounded by domed galleries supported by 208 pillars.On these in turn rest 288 flat domes, which lead to different star-shaped patterns inside.

Opposite the entrance iwan is the main building, whose iwan faces the inner courtyard. The outer shell of the dome, which overlooks all the buildings of the old city, is decorated with light blue tiles. The great similarity with Bibi Chanum in Samarkand indicates that this part of the building was already designed under the Timurids, but could only be built under the Shaibanids.

In the Bukhara of the 1930s, when Ella Maillart travelled there, the conversion to a cotton economy took its toll. Grain was scarce, and the food stamps that the workers receive for working the hundreds of kilometres of canals are barely enough to feed their families, Ella Maillart discovers.

I live in the centre of the city, surrounded by dirty, crooked narrow streets, on the first floor of the ‚tourist base‘ in the courtyard of a former Medresse. […] Food has become so scarce that the hunt for bread is the most important activity of each day. […] I regularly go to the cooperative to wait for the arrival of the loaves of bread with about forty people. When it is my turn, I have to discuss with the man who sells them, and often he gives me nothing.

Ella Mailart, Turkestan Solo (1934)

An indescribable jumble of objects is offered. If Chinese faience or a Turkmen tekim appears anywhere, they are sold within minutes to one of the connoisseurs I see roaming around here every day. […] I am told that the geometric patterns of these carpets are always the stylised depictions of a yurt in the middle of vast pastures, with the pattern of an arik flowing through it, flowers and a horse. Small street boys squat and warm their hands in front of the fire hole of a chai khana. […] When an Arba passes by, everyone falls after it to get through the crowd.

Ella Mailart, Turkestan Solo (1934)

Today only little is visible of the narrow streets and the former market hustle and bustle of Bukhara in the times when the city was one of the most important trading places along the Silk Road. During the Soviet era, many buildings were demolished and streets were straightened, which served not least for military control of the city. The market domes, which are part of the world cultural heritage, have preserved traces of this past in the built environment. These include the Tak-e-Sargaran, the dome of the jewellers, the Tim of Abdullah Khan, which used to house 56 silk shops, the Tak-e Telpak Foruschan, the dome bazaar of the cap sellers, and the Tak-e Sarrafan, where the money-changers used to do their business.

In terms of secular functional architecture, the market dome buildings show the level of Central Asian architecture of the Middle Ages. In some cases, it is easier to understand the art of transition from the square to the dome over octagons and hexagons than in the mosques, because the architecture can be understood at a lower altitude.

In the 2000s it was mainly memories of the Soviet era that were offered as souvenirs at the market stalls.

Typical for Bukhara are the old ‚bourgeois‘ residential houses of the wealthier families of the city from the time before the October Revolution: they all have a large courtyard to which all rooms face. The doors have artistically carved skylights so that the air can flow through the halls all day long. Each house used to have a winter room with a stove and a spring room with extra large windows to let in the light. In 2008, the Uzbek state allowed the old Bucharest houses to be converted into guest houses for tourists.

Many of these houses are full of stories about the lives of families from the Emir’s time before the Bolshevik takeover and the later Soviet period.

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

Photography: Stefan Applis (2008)space

Historical photos:


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

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