2012
05.10

DAY 8 – BUKHARA

SYNOPSIS:    IMPRESSIONS OF BUKHARA – MADRASSAS, CARAVANSERAIS, AND MORE.  A SYNAGOGUE AND TWO BRIBABLE POLICE OFFICERS. 

I crammed three days worth of sightseeing into one – madness!  That meant a first stroll at 6:30 AM to catch the town empty and at a soft light.  After breakfast the real marathon started until dark,  interrupted only by a quick soup dinner.  Yes, I have been eating soup every night since I got here.  The soups are delicious, affordable and at this heat – picture full Michigan summer temperatures – I can hardly handle much more, except for the obligatory daily ice cream, of course.

I am reminded of a comment by one of my students while traveling in Italy.  After two days of Rome one of them said:  Not another cathedral, please!  I felt like saying:  Not another pishtak (tall entrance gate),not another courtyard, please!  Don’t get me wrong.  But there is a certain formula for mosques, madrassas, caravanserais, and mausoleums, as there is for many other architectural types.  You have to have time and a lot of knowledge to appreciate the fine differences when confronted with the sheer number that Khiva, Bukhara, and I anticipate Samarkand, offer.  I am able to distinguish old from new and earlier from later.  But I am in no position to fully appreciate the nuances of the dozens of buildings I am seeing here in just one day.  My main goal was to see as much as possible and to discover some of the irregularities, and some of the the buildings that fell outside the formula.  Bukhara has quite a few of those.  The question was, if I would find them before dark!

Most of the historically significant buildings are within the confines of the old city, about 3 kilometers East-West and 2 kilometers North-South.  If I had restricted myself to that, I would have been fine, but a few interesting sites were outside of that rectangle and I found out the hard way how deceptive my very general map could be…  Not to complain too much, but ever since that stupid fall in Tashkent, one of my knees hurts.  And ever since I climbed three corkscrew-staircase minarets with oversize steep steps in Khiva, my muscles have been complaining, not to mention a pulled tendon last year which acts up ever since…  I heaped up some self-pity as I was limping along, but really it’s OK.  I had to ponder how people with chronic pain manage.  I can walk just fine if I accept that there is pain in every step.  I am a bit slow but can walk as long as I want.

If you are interested in the architectural fine-points of the town, you can Google plenty of material.  I will just mention a few unexpected things:  First, there are two synagogues in town and after meandering in a maze of narrow alleys, I found one of them in addition to a Jewish school.  A young man greeted me there and answered a few of my questions:  in the 1970’s over 25,000 Jews were living in Bukhara.  Today, 300 are left.  Most of them emigrated to Israel or the United States after the Soviets opened the country to emigration, and the young man in question is hoping to leave in a year’s time as well.  Why?  Things are not bad here, he assured me.  But there are no women for him to marry!   I am sure that is an overstatement, but the pool among 300 people must be limited nonetheless.  In general, there is the “American Dream” – things must be better there than here, which is very much alive in almost all young Uzbeks I have been talking to, so far.  I try to tell them that in America not all is roses these days either.  Young people don’t find work like they used to.  But I know they are not listening.

The Jewish school is open to anyone who wants to attend.  The young man told me that several nationalities are represented.  Not all of them are Jewish.  A peek into an open classroom window made me think I had landed in the wrong century.  Wooden benches, no air conditioning, no computers, projectors, or any of that modern stuff we think we need for a good education.  A teacher with chalk and a blackboard and wooden benches was all.  Some students from the upper story spotted me and stuck their heads out of the window to be photographed.   A lot of kids have been following me wanting their pictures taken.  That is as far as the good-natured “harassment” goes.  No pestering for bakshish, no pressure by merchants to buy stuff.  However, a few kids asked for bonbons and pens.  I wonder where they came up with these particular choices.  There are sweets everywhere and pens, too.  But pens from foreigners are probably still a novelty worth owning.

In search of the Jewish cemetery, I got lost at the outskirts of town and finally caved in and took a taxi back to the main tourist attractions.  But the cemetery itself was interesting.  When I approached it, I thought I was in the wrong place as it looked just like another blue-domed mosque, similar to all the surrounding architecture.  But that is typical for Jewish architecture wherever you go – it blends in as much as possible.  Jews have learned throughout the ages not to draw attention.  That’s why it was so hard to find the synagogue, too.  It looks just like a house.  But that’s probably how this congregation made it through Soviet times as well.  There was nothing spectacular or extrovert about it.  Except for a mall plaque on the outside you would not expect a significant or holy place at all.  At the cemetery, I did not see any evidence for the common Jewish practice of leaving a rock after you visit the grave of a loved one.  Except for two graves which had cookie-shaped man-made “rocks” nailed permanently onto the grave top!  From far, it left the impression that lots of visitors had come by lately.

Bukhara is home to the 10th Century Ismael Samani Shrine, one of the earliest Islamic mausoleums.  Its history is telling:  For century it had survived because layers and layers of sand had buried it and an entire necropolis at the Western side of Bukhara.  A Russian archaeologist discovered it in the 1930’s.  He excavated the site and the Soviets promptly decided to eliminate the grave yard (except for this one special shrine) and create a park for the people on the spot.  The park is really nice – no question.  There is a pool with boats, fountains, rose gardens, and a memorial for the fallen during WW II.  It’s all great if it had not in its way destroyed irreplaceable historical artifacts!   You really have to wonder what drove a decision like this.  It’s not like there is no space here!

There are, of course, dozens and dozens of spectacular Islamic buildings which attest to the significance of Bukhara along the Silk Road and insure its reputation as a unique city in the world.  A notorious center of life in the past was the Registan, the large square in front of the citadel, called the Ark.  There were markets, there were slave traders, and there were executions.  But as luck had it, the Ark itself was closed for renovation, or was it?  A woman at the closed gate whispered to me:  Come back at 7 PM and talk to him – pointing at one of the two security officers who kept nosy tourists at bay.  I took her word and came back at 7 PM.  But the ropes were still up, the Ark still closed.  I pointed to my wrist and said question-mark in my voice to one of the officers:  It’s 7 PM?!   Come, was the answer!  Indeed, there was a way – these two officers were taking 5 Euros from foreign visitors willing to pay and opened the citadel for an unofficial evening visit.  Not bad for a side-line business.  Of course, I was willing to pay.  The sun was perfect and the panorama all worth it.

And so went this day.

My little old notebook computer is stressed to its breaking point by my large images and the software I use to process them:  Lightroom.   I know that I will be out of computer reach for the next two or more days until I surface again in Samarkand.  Please hang in there.  Already, my last computer disaster put me two days behind…  I will write and hopefully also get some images processed unless the computer gives up the ghost completely.  Like an old horse, it has gotten slower and slower by the day…

Good night.