July 05, 2014

Bukhara. An ancient city dominated by a Minaret.

I was up at 5:30 AM, a time unheard of normally for me, but this was Bukhara, in the middle of the Khyzl Kum desert, with temperatures passing 45C by midday, so I had to overcome my natural aversion to getting out of bed.

I was the only one around as I walked around the beautiful Kalon Madrassah and its minaret until this lone cyclist passed in front of me. I was reading the Uzbek poet Navoi (1441-1501) as I watched the sunlight reach the top of the minaret, and his words were so relevant.

"Treasure the moment, it will not last, only the fool lives in future or past"

Welcome to Bukhara, my favourite place to stay in Uzbekistan. As with so many Central Asian cities Genghis Khan leveled everything built prior to his arrival in 1220. All buildings were burnt, and any male higher than the butt of a whip was slaughtered. As he laid waste to Bukhara, Genghis justified the devastation, saying "If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a  punishment like me".

It took a few hundred years to recover, and become again a powerful city state. Much of the ancient heart of Bukhara dates from the early fifteenth century, except for the Kalon Minaret. Built in 1127 and 155 feet (48 metres) high this was the only building spared by Genghis Khan during his rampage. He was said to have taken off his hat and bowed down in front of it in wonder. When it was built the minaret was the tallest tower in the world. It played an important part of the life of the city, calling the faithful to prayer, and with a fire lit on top, guiding the caravans of the Silk Road out of the desert. It was also the place of the rather barbaric executions that continued until almost the 20th century, whereby criminals were thrown from the top of the minaret after first being put into a sack (presumably to make it easier to clean up afterwards). 

Today Bukhara is slower, quieter, and emptier. I am one of the first independent travelers this year (tour groups are the norm). With Ramadan in full force the restaurants are closed or near empty at lunch, before erupting in noise, laughter and frenetic activity as the sun goes down. The city, which was a country less than a hundred years ago, is easy to walk around through its twisting narrow alleys. You are sure to get lost, but only need to look up for the Kalon minaret to get your bearings again.

Walking around the edge of the Registan a few hours later I came across yet another Non Bread Seller on his bike. This is not unusual anywhere in Uzbekistan at this early hour, however this man was an artist. It was the most beautifully presented of all bread I have seen in the country, just zoom in to see the amazing patterns and work that has been applied to bread only to be ripped apart and eaten in minutes at the coming evening meal.

And, yes, this type of Non is extremely tasty, although it looks more like a pizza base, it is soft and totally addictive when bought fresh off the back of a bicycle. I was told many people live on Non and melon as their three meals of the day in the middle of summer.

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