No­ble Bukhara

One of the most im­por­tant re­li­gious cen­tres in the me­dieval world, Bukhara, which is more than 2,000 years old, is a su­perbly pre­served Is­lamic city in Cen­tral Asia that is now pro­tected as a UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site

Asian Geographic - - CONTENTS - Text & Pho­tos: So­phie Ib­bot­son

Bukhara was one of the most im­por­tant re­li­gious cen­tres of the me­dieval world, se­cond only to Bagh­dad as a place of re­li­gious learn­ing and the­o­log­i­cal de­bate.

Sa­cred long be­fore the dawn of Is­lam, Bukhara is shaped by the cult of Per­sian god­dess Anahita, Mizrahi Ju­daism, Manicheaen­ism and Nesto­rian Chris­tian­ity. Daz­zling mosques, madrasahs, and mau­soleums dom­i­nate Bukhara’s sky­line to­day, form­ing the ar­che­typal im­age of Uzbek­istan, but they are built upon a rich foun­da­tion of di­verse spir­i­tu­al­ity.

Bukhara was one of the most im­por­tant re­li­gious cen­tres of the me­dieval world, se­cond only to Bagh­dad as a place of re­li­gious learn­ing and the­o­log­i­cal de­bate. The Per­sian scholar Imam al-Bukhari — best known for col­lect­ing the ha­diths (the say­ings of the Prophet Muham­mad) — was born here, and so were the philoso­pher, as­tronomer, and physi­cian Avi­cenna (widely re­garded as the fa­ther of early modern medicine); and Ba­haud­din Naqsh­band Bukhari, founder of Su­fism’s largest and most in­flu­en­tial or­der, the Naqsh­bandi.

My plan for dis­cov­er­ing Bukhara’s sa­cred sites be­gan at the Chashma-Ayub Mau­soleum (The Well of Job), but on my way through the park to find it, I be­came dis­tracted by a cu­ri­ous cu­bic struc­ture topped with a dome. Built in the late ninth cen­tury, it is one of the few an­cient build­ings in Bukhara that have sur­vived de­struc­tion by Genghis Khan and his Mon­gol horde.

Made of baked mud bricks and un­adorned with mo­saics, carved stucco, or other colour­ful or­na­men­ta­tion, the build­ing would be easy to pass by. But this is the mau­soleum of Is­mail Sa­mani, a pow­er­ful Per­sian ruler of Cen­tral Asia. The ar­chi­tec­tural styles and mo­tifs syn­cre­tise Zoroas­trian and Is­lamic con­ven­tions, re­mind­ing us that for cen­turies, these re­li­gions co­ex­isted along the Silk Road. The fact that the king had a mau­soleum at all is also sig­nif­i­cant. Or­tho­dox Sun­nism pro­hib­ited their con­struc­tion over burial places, so this build­ing is a state­ment that the Sa­manid Dy­nasty was pre­pared to de­part from the stric­tures of the or­tho­doxy and in­stead prac­tise their re­li­gion as they pleased.

The Chashma-Ayub Mau­soleum is a short walk fur­ther on, and de­spite its name, it isn’t a mau­soleum at all. Three cities — Al-Shaykh

Saad in Syria, Urfa in Turkey, and Ja­bal Qara in Oman — all claim to have Job’s body. The un­usual con­i­cal dome here sim­ply cov­ers a well and, lat­terly, Bukhara’s Mu­seum of Wa­ter Sup­ply. Leg­end has it, how­ever, that Job mirac­u­lously found wa­ter here in the desert, and that wa­ter has heal­ing prop­er­ties. Be­liev­ers still come here to sit and pray.

Across Bukhara’s Old Town, which is now pro­tected as a UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site, tourists and pil­grims, often in­dis­tin­guish­able from one an­other, min­gle. In Poi Kalon square, there’s a third group: the schol­ars and teach­ers of the Mir-i-Arab Madrasah — a rare sight in Uzbek­istan to­day. Eighty years of com­mu­nist rule de­stroyed al­most all of Uzbek­istan’s re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions; even when the build­ings sur­vived in­tact, they were often con­verted for sec­u­lar use. The Mir-i-Arab Madrasah is a no­table ex­cep­tion: It was the only re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre still func­tion­ing in the USSR af­ter World War II, and thus all the re­gion’s lead­ing imams had to study here.

Uzbek­istan’s modern state per­mits re­li­gious free­dom, but does so war­ily. Around 90 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is nom­i­nally Sunni Mus­lim, but the ac­tive prac­tice of re­li­gion is not en­cour­aged. Re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions must be li­cenced, and the re­quire­ments that madrasahs and other re­li­gious schools must meet in or­der to gain reg­is­tra­tion are par­tic­u­larly ar­du­ous. There are strict penal­ties for par­tic­i­pat­ing in un­li­cenced groups or pro­duc­ing and dis­tribut­ing un­sanc­tioned re­li­gious ma­te­ri­als. The gov­ern­ment fears that with­out such re­stric­tions, for­eign-backed ex­trem­ist groups would rise and threaten the sta­bil­ity of the state as they have done in neigh­bour­ing Afghanista­n and Ta­jik­istan.

I wanted to step in­side the Mir-i-Arab Madrasah to find out how this 500-year-old ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion was sur­viv­ing in the cur­rent, rather chal­leng­ing con­text, but vis­i­tors are pro­hib­ited to cross the thresh­old. I there­fore con­tented my­self with a stroll across the square to Kalan Mosque, which was built to ac­com­mo­date as many as 12,000 wor­ship­pers. Its roof con­sists of 288 domes sup­ported by

Lo­cals say that walk­ing three times be­tween the cen­tre of Bukhara and Naqsh­band’s grave is equiv­a­lent to the hajj in God’s eyes.

208 stone pil­lars. A group of work­ers were ham­mer­ing away at the stonework — its con­ser­va­tion is surely a never-end­ing task. Other than the work­ers, this mosque-mu­seum was empty; no one preaches here now, and the vast open court­yard no longer hosts prayers.

I felt a cer­tain amount of frus­tra­tion. This is, af­ter all, the coun­try the BBC de­scribed as the “land of a thou­sand shrines”, a place that draws pil­grims from many faiths. Yet, I was left with empty build­ings and shad­ows of the past. Tak­ing time out over a bowl of tea be­side Lyabi Hauz, one of the city’s few sur­viv­ing ponds, I asked Leonid Danilchik, a travel agent, where pil­grims visit in Bukhara. Where do the pil­grims still go? I knew that what I sought must be here some­where. In­deed, the Uzbek­istan Tourism Com­mit­tee es­ti­mates that nine mil­lion Uzbek ci­ti­zens — al­most one in three of the pop­u­la­tion — per­formed a pil­grim­age last year, and the vast ma­jor­ity of them did so within their own coun­try.

Leonid smiled when he heard my ques­tions. To him, the an­swer was ob­vi­ous. The holi­est site in Uzbek­istan — and ar­guably in all of Cen­tral Asia — is the memo­rial com­plex of Ba­haud­din Naqsh­band, around 12kilo­me­tres out­side Bukhara.

Ba­haud­din Naqsh­band was born here in 1318 and was adopted as a child by a Sufi kh­waja, a spir­i­tual teacher and guide. Naqsh­band be­came the 17th link in the sil­sila (Ara­bic), a ge­neal­ogy of spir­i­tual teach­ers start­ing from Prophet Muham­mad, and he founded the Naqsh­bandi — the largest and most in­flu­en­tial spir­i­tual or­der of Su­fism. The Naqsh­bandi spread from Cen­tral Asia to In­dia, Rus­sia, Syria and Pales­tine, and even as far east as China.

Its ad­her­ents still re­turn to Bukhara in large num­bers to pay their re­spects.

I took a bus to the mau­soleum com­plex and cov­ered my head with a shawl be­fore en­ter­ing through the arched door­way of its blue tiled por­tico. There wasn’t a sou­venir seller in sight. Nei­ther was there a speck of dust or a grain of sand. The pave­ment had been swept un­til it was spot­less.

The main court­yard was an oa­sis, with shaded patches be­neath the roof and calm­ing blue-white-green tiles dec­o­rat­ing the walls in pan­els. Naqsh­band’s tomb was off-cen­tre, and be­side it stood a se­cond, more or­nate struc­ture be­lieved to have heal­ing prop­er­ties. Around the walls, lines of Uzbek pil­grims sat on benches or stood qui­etly, lis­ten­ing in­tently to the rum­bling ser­mon of an imam. Un­like in the grand mosques, there was no min­bar on which he could stand and preach; he in­stead stood be­side the wor­ship­pers, speak­ing to them di­rectly, not in Ara­bic but in their col­lo­quial tongue. Ev­ery now and then there would be a prayer, and the pil­grims would pass their palms across their faces in a mark of ut­most re­spect.

Hum­bled by the pil­grims’ gen­uine de­vo­tion, I sat awhile and watched, en­joy­ing the sense of peace. Be­hind the court­yard, a huge dead trunk of a mul­berry tree lay be­side the com­plex’s hauz (wa­ter tank in Urdu). I was told that if you made a wish — in par­tic­u­lar one for a child or a re­turn to good health — and could squeeze be­tween the bark and the ground, your wish would cer­tainly come true. This is what I had hoped to find: the in­ter­min­gling of Is­lam and folk tra­di­tions, which typ­i­fies the rich­ness of Su­fism.

It is be­lieved that Naqsh­band made the hajj to Mecca no fewer than 32 times — a re­mark­able achieve­ment in any age and even more so in the 14th cen­tury. His fol­low­ers needn’t travel so far: Lo­cals say that walk­ing three times be­tween the cen­tre of Bukhara and Naqsh­band’s grave is equiv­a­lent to the hajj in God’s eyes. Just as with the con­struc­tion of the Is­mail Sa­mani Mau­soleum more than 1,000 years ago, Uzbek­ista­nis are still fly­ing in the face of the or­tho­doxy — which only makes the holy sites of Bukhara all that more beguil­ing.

So­phie Ib­bot­son is the founder of Max­i­mum Ex­po­sure Lim­ited, and the Eurasian in­vest­ments spe­cial­ist at Glacex LLP. She is the au­thor of five Bradt Travel Guides, in­clud­ing guide­books to Ta­jik­istan and Uzbek­istan, and lec­tures reg­u­larly about Cen­tral Asian busi­ness, cul­ture, and travel.

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