Bukhara, one of the oldest cities in Central Asia, was already a town in the first millennium BC, it became important historically in the eigth century, when it was conquered by the Arab Abbasid Caliphate (709 AD/90 AH). Bukhara flourished both intellectually and commercially, and by the tenth century, under the powerful Samanid Dynasty, it became a renowned center of the arts and learning, especially the sciences and mathematics. The city's rich cultural heritage, commissioned by the patronage of its rulers, includes many architectural landmarks of the Islamic world. Recent excavations by the Uzbek Academy of Sciences have revealed that present day Bukhara is built up on layers of past settlements. By dating some of the discovered remnants that have been excavated, it is quite likely that Bukhara can be considered at least 2,500 years old.
Bukhara lies on a flat plain and is surrounded by semi-desert lands. It is situated on the edge of the Kizilkum desert and has a dry and arid climate. In the past, the Bukhara oasis formed part of a vast region of Central Asia which had been conquered by Alexander of Macedon. These events led to the forming of feudalism in the Bukharan oasis.
The new social system introduced a social hierarchy: the individual principalities were ruled by kings supported by armed nobility. The process of town formation became very active and the ancient settlements surrounding Bukhara developed into the towns of Varakhsha, Vardanzi, Ramish, and Kermine. All these towns followed a similar structural pattern, they all were made up of: the Ark (citadel), the Shakhristan -well planned residential; core, and a necropolis on the outskirts of the city.
Bukhara in this period followed the same layout and pattern of development. It sprawled over an area of forty hectares. The Shakhristan which was rectangular was cut into four sections by two crossing main streets which led to gates opening out on all four sides of the city. At the turn of the tenth century, Bukhara had developed into a major cultural and religious center. Bukhara was almost leveled by Gengis Khan in 1226/623 AH; few monuments survived the destructiveness of the Mongol hordes. Bukhara revived under the Shaybanid Dynasty in the sixteenth century, but it's importance decreased with the decline in traffic along the Silk Road. In 1753/1166 AH, Bukhara became an independent emirate and remained so until 1868/1285 AH, when it was incorporated as a vassal state under Tsarist Russia. Bukhara was forcefully taken by the Bolshevik forces after WWI; a number of monuments suffered great destruction during the bombardment.
The name Bala Hauz Mosque translates as "The Mosque of the Bala Lake", which refers to the octagonal pool (hauz) in its public forecourt that is lined with stone steps. It was built in 1712 for Bibi Khanum, the mother of Ashtarkhanid (or Janid) ruler Abu'l Fayud Khan (1711-47). Although built as a royal chapel, the mosque has become a significant civic monument as a consequence of its eminent site near the famed Registan Square.
The Bala Hauz Masjid was part of an elite neighborhood to the west of the Ark until the early nineteenth century, surrounded by two mosques, the residence of the imperial army commander, an arsenal, a weapon's workshop, theological colleges (madrasa) and a Sufi hospice (khanqah). A richly decorated entry iwan was added to the mosque's eastern façade during a general reconstruction of the area in 1914-17 by the last Mangit ruler Sayyid Alim Khan (1910-20). In 1917, famed local master craftsman, Shirin Muradov built a small minaret in front of the mosque.
The mosque consists of an east-facing porch that leads into a square domed chamber flanked by ancillary alcoves to the north, south and west. Clerestory windows along the drum of the high dome light the central chamber, which is also entered from the two sides. Two rooms are placed on either side of the alcove (mihrab) built into this qibla wall. More rooms are built behind six alcoves on two floors along the eastern wall, on either side of the entry vestibule.
The east porch, with a wooden coffered ceiling supported by slender wooden columns and masonry sidewalls, hides the large domed chamber behind it. Its twenty columns are crafted from walnut, poplar and elm wood, and arranged in two rows, creating two bays of roofed-prayer space, protected from the street's bustle by latticed wooden screens (pinjara). Staircases lead one up to the roof at either end of the portico. The rooms along the eastern wall open out to this porch with windows framed by twelve iwans on two stories; a pattern continued on the sidewalls of the portico with shallow niches.
The Bala Hauz Masjid is noted for the profuse colors and carvings on the wooden columns of its porch and its ceiling. The joinery of its painted ceiling features extraordinary craftsmanship with the use of suspended weights, semi-circular arches and balusters.
The important mosque lies in disrepair today, despite considerable tourist interest. The porch is threatened by water damage while its front minaret tilts precariously despite repair attempts. The pool is not dredged or cleaned, and the public toilet adjacent to the mosque adds to its squalor.
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Borodina, Iraida. Central Asia: Gems of 9th-19th Century Architecture, 164. Moscow: Planeta Publishers, 1987.
Knobloch, Edgar. Monuments of Central Asia, 120. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
Prochazka, Amjad Bohumil. Bukhara: Architecture of the Islamic Cultural Sphere, 36. Zurich: MARP, 1993.