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Bukhara – History and Architecture

Oasis city in the Republic of Uzbekistan, Central Asia.

Old City of Bukhara - Water Colors

Painiting in Water Colours - Mausoleum of Isma'il the Samanid

Mausoleum of Isma'il the Samanid – Water Colors,

Bukhara is located in the valley of the Zeravshan river 200 km west of Samarkand. The city was first mentioned by its present name in a seventh-cen-tury Chinese text; however the city itself is probably older. The first Arab raid on Bukhara occurred in 674 although it was not finally conquered until 739. During the ninth and tenth centuries the city was under the rule of the Samanids and from 900 was capital of the province of Khurassan. During this period the city flourished and became established as one of the greatest centres of learning in the Islamic world.

Descriptions of Bukhara in the Samanid period indicate that it consisted of two main parts, the citadel and the town itself. The citadel and the town were separate walled enclosures on a high plateau, with a space between them which was later occupied by a congregational mosque. The citadel had a circumference of 1.5 km and contained, besides the palace, the city’s first Friday mosque which was built on a pagan temple. The town itself was approximately twice the size of the citadel and was enclosed by a wall with seven gates. Later the whole area of the city and the citadel was enclosed within a wall with eleven gates (visible until 1938). In addition to the city walls there were outer walls which enclosed the villages around the city to protect them from nomad attacks; traces of these walls still survive.


Samanids Mausoleum – Details

Tenth-century tomb of the Samanids, Bukhara, Uzbekistan (after Creswell)

Tenth-century tomb of the Samanids, Bukhara, Uzbekistan (after Creswell)

Little is left of the Samanid city except the tenth- century mausoleum of the Samanid rulers known as the mausoleum of Isma’il the Samanid. This is one of the earliest examples of Islamic funerary architecture and consists of a square chamber with a hemispherical dome and decorative brickwork on both the exterior and the interior. The corners of the building are formed by engaged cylindrical brick piers whilst the corners of the dome are marked by small domed finials. In the centre of each side there is a recessed niche containing a door which acts as a focus for the surface decoration. The main form of decoration is small, flat, tile-like bricks laid alternately in vertical or horizontal groups of three. Another decorative technique is bricks laid horizontally in groups of three with one corner projecting outwards producing a dog-tooth pattern. This dog-tooth pattern is used mainly in the spandrels of the door arch which are also decorated with square terracotta plaques. At the top of the exterior facade there is an arcade of small niches which mask the zone of transition and also provide light to the interior. The decoration of the interior is similar to the exterior facade although here tiles are set vertically on end producing a diaper pattern. The dome rests on arched squinches which alternate with arched grilles which admit light to the interior.


The collapse of the Samanids at the end of the tenth century led to the gradual decline of Bukhara under their successors the Kharakhanids. This decline was reinforced by the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century which twice destroyed the city. There seems to have been no recovery in the fifteenth century and it was not until the arrival of the Uzbeks in the sixteenth that the city recovered some of its former splendour. There are few structures which survive from the period between the Samanids and the Uzbeks although there are a few important buildings which date from the twelfth century. The most famous of these is the Kaylan Minaret which is a huge tower over 45 m high and is decorated with bands of decorative brickwork. The tower is a tapering cylinder with an arcaded gallery surmounted by an overhanging muqarnas corbel; its form is similar to that of Seljuk towers in Iran with its band of polychrome tile decoration at the top. Another twelfth-century structure demonstrating Seljuk influence is the shrine of Chasma Ayyub with its conical dome. A few buildings survive from the fifteenth century including the Ulugh Beg Madrassa built in 1417.


Pоi Kаlоn Complex (12-14 century) left: Mir-i Arab Madrassah; center: Minâra-i Kalân; right: Masjid-i Kalân

Pоi Kаlоn Complex (12-14 century) left: Mir-i Arab Madrassah; center: Minâra-i Kalân; right: Masjid-i Kalân

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Minaret of the Kaylan Mosque, Bukhara © St John Simpson

Minaret of the Kaylan Mosque, Bukhara © St John Simpson

Most of the major monuments of Bukhara date from the Uzbek period and include the massive Kukeldash Madrassa, the Divan Begi Mosque and Madrassa and the Kaylan Mosque. The buildings of this period resemble the Timurid buildings of Samarkand which they were clearly intended to imitate in both size and design. Another feature of this period is the grouping of buildings around a focal point or square such as the Lyabi Hauz or the Poi Kaylan in order to increase the visual effect. The Kukeldash Madrassa measures 80 by 60 m and is the largest madrassa in Central Asia although its decoration is surprisingly austere. The Divan Begi Mosque and Madrassa are equally impressive with tall pishtaq entrances framed by twin minarets. The largest mosque in the city is the Kaylan Mosque built in the sixteenth century with the twelfth-century minaret nearby. The entrance to the mosque is through a huge entrance iwan or pishtaq decorated with blue glazed tiles covered with yellow flowers and turquoise stars. Within the mosque is a huge courtyard surrounded on three sides by a deep arcaded gallery. At the south-west end is another large iwan which leads to a domed room covered with a mihrab.

During the eighteenth century there was a move away from the monumental architecture of the first Uzbek rulers towards a lighter form of architecture inspired by Saffavid Iran. One of the finest examples of this style is the Masjid-i Jami opposite the Bola Hauz which has a magnificent hypostyle wooden porch supported on twenty wooden columns with painted muqarnas capitals.



Further reading:
J.Lawton and F.Venturi, Samarkand and Bukhara, London 1991.
G.Pugacenkova and L.Rempel, Bukhara, Moscow 1949. L.Rempel, ‘The Mausoleum of Isma’il the Samanid’,
Bulletin of the American Institute of Persian Art and Archaeology 4: 199-209, 1936.


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