*Sorry for the lateness of this blog on the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Chronologically speaking it should be read in between ‘The Roof of the World’ and ‘The Gates of Hell’ – enjoy.*
It was said that Bukhara was so holy that here light shone upwards to radiate the heavens, rather than the skies illuminating the earth. For centuries, the fabled Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were some of the most important cities in Muslim Central Asia. They acted as educational centres, religious focal-points, the resting places of the Emir’s and Khan’s, military strongholds and oases of trade burrowed into a barren landscape.
From the Tajik-Uzbek border it was a three day cycle in over forty degree heat to Samarkand. Whilst Will was clear of stomach issues from the Pamir’s, I was still riddled with diarrhoea. We have been eating around 6,000 calories a day and were still losing weight. This was only accelerated by a lack of appetite and before long belts became a necessity we did not have, as partially exposed buttocks gave a prisoner like appearance. Day by day I felt my energy levels decrease, which was exacerbated by the heat. The biggest battle was trying to drink enough as we guzzled down close to ten litres when on the road during some of the hottest days.
Battling onwards into Samarkand a sparkling oasis awaited. Here we explored the mosques, mausoleums and madrassa’s which adorn the city. At night the famous Registan, the old city centre, is lit up as mosaics of gilded tigers and deer’s leap forward with vivid animation.
It is a wonderful city and certainly worth a visit. Ribbed minarets dome the mausoleums of great conquers like the Amir Temur and the many roomed madrassa’s sit quite as they did when ingenuity burst from their doors. Now, all that signals the scale of the once great Ulug Bek’s Observatory is a stone foundation hollowed out by a later age of narrow minded rulers. The Tomb of the Old Testament Prophet Daniel points to common religious roots shared with the Judo-Christian world as piteous pilgrims come with offerings and prayer. Like the famous mosaic above the iwan entrance on the Sherdor Madrassa depicting a tiger chasing after a deer, in this city there is much you can seek.
On our self-powered caravan we headed from one caravanserai to the next along the ‘Royal Road’. It runs 250 kilometres from Samarkand to Bukhara and with such a heady title we had high expectations. Our hopes of a visual treat were dashed as a road of Roman linearity ran into horizontal surroundings following the oasis sprouting along the course of the Zervashan River. This roads main function was for rapid communications and trade rather than our more prominent aesthetic considerations and with the speed it allowed us and millennia of previous travellers; one can see how it has taken on regal undertones.
Unlike the coruscations of Samarkand, the cobbles of Bukhara transported one back to the time of the Emirs. Stalls nestled into the cracks and juts of madrassa’s and bazaars and a uniformity of domes pimpled the landscape rising like mole hills from a sandy basin. The famous Kalyan minaret pokes up like the stump of a cigar adorned with a sombrero shaped pinnacle, wrapped in a band of Islamic motives. Below is the Arc fortress, the old seat of the Emir of Bukhara. It is squinted by a sparkle of mosaic from the Mir Arab reflecting with a blinding intensity, like a maze of brightly shattered glass webbed into millions of pieces.
It is a city that captures your gaze and is much more authentic experience. Inside it feels like you are dwelling in a khanate rather than a country. However, with hundreds of sites to visit it is easy to take it for its parts rather the whole and like the Silk Road itself one must view it in its charming, multifaceted entirety.