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
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.