An Authentic Living Museum
The 20th century hasn’t yet arrived in Bukhara’s Old Town, let alone the 21st, and even though the city’s origins are lost in time, that didn’t stop local authorities from arbitrarily choosing 1997 to celebrate Bukhara’s 2,500th anniversary.
Like Samarkand and Khiva, Bukhara was one of the legendary Silk Road caravan cities, but unlike its neighbors, it has avoided growing into a modern city (like Samarkand) or being so overpreserved that it’s had the life squeezed out of it (like Khiva). Instead, Old Bukhara has a lived-in center. Close to 150 buildings are protected architectural sites, and overzealous restoration has been kept at bay so far.
The 12th-century Kalan Mosque and Minaret and the 1,000-year-old Ismael Samani Mausoleum are some of the architectural highlights, but much of the Old City’s present appearance dates to the 16th century, when Bukhara was capital of the Bukhara khanate. Of the dozens of caravansaries and bazaars, 100 madrassas (Islamic colleges), and 300 mosques that filled the desert city in those days, many remain, in various states of dilapidation and preservation.
Once you’ve seen Bukhara’s famous monuments, take time to wander its backstreets, where goats have unofficial right of way, children romp, and old men fill the teahouses playing the backgammon-like game shishbesh. It’s a precious glimpse of Central Asian life and culture on a more personal scale.