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 Ark or Arg of Bukhara is the central citadel within the city's larger mud wall fortifications. It has served a multitude of royal functions over the last twelve centuries ranging from military barracks and palatial quarters to administrative offices. Currently situated as a citadel within the northern section of the old city, it was originally built as an independent fortress and had stood distinct from Bukhara's earliest shahristan, or city center. With its sloping mud walls, this Central Asian citadel is in dire need of repair. As a structure that was continuously used through the centuries, it demonstrates the transformations in military architecture and technology from early Arab rule until the modern Russian state.
The Ark has been shrouded in mythology from early times. Abu Bakr Muhammad Ja'far Narshaki's history of Bukhara from the tenth century attributes it to a legendary Iranian prince, Siyavush. Mansur Abu al-Qasim Firdawsi's Shahnama from the eleventh century declares as the Ark's founder, Shiri-Kishvar, a vassal of the Turkish Kagan Kara-Churin from the end of the sixth century. Sources from the Sassanids (226-652), through the Sogdians (ca. third to eighth century) confirm the fortress's existence. Kuteiba ibn Muslim, Arab vice regent of Khorasan in 705-715, had built the first mosque here and renamed the fortress, Kukhendiz. Ismail bin Akhmad, or Ismail I (892-907) who embellished Bukhara as capital of the Samanid dynasty capital made significant additions. Arslan Khan Mukhammad (1102-1129) commissioned new sections as part of the Qarakhanid Dynasty's ambitious construction campaign. Later, Makhmud Yalavach as Mongol governor of Bukhara undertook major repairs in 1220 after Genghis Khan's pillage of the city. Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg (1447-1449) and Shaybanid ruler Abdullah Khan II (1583-1598) were responsible for expanding citadel to enclose three hectares. Ashtrakhanid rulers Abdul Aziz Khan (1645-1680) and Ubaidullah Khan (1702-1711) radically rebuilt the Ark. It was modified in section with the Mangit Dynasty's reinforcement of its western walls with kiln-dried bricks in the early nineteenth century. The citadel has changed little after a devastating fire in 1920 that destroyed some later-period wooden buildings.
Five projecting, circular bastions protect the structures behind the Ark's tapering walls. Built in mud brick, these crenellated walls enclose buildings erected atop an earthen mound. This artificial hill is believed to be composed of layers of building rubble, whose gradual rise required piecemeal heightening of the fortification walls and their resulting eccentric profile. The Ark's internal layout is largely governed by the primary east-west street connecting Bab as-Sahl (Western Gate) and Bab al Djum (Eastern Gate). The latter, also known as Darvaza Guriyan or the Hay-seller's Gate, led out from the citadel to the Jami mosque, before being blocked in recent times. The remaining historic structures are clustered in the northwestern quarter of the citadel, near the primary western portal. This gateway is reached by a steep ramp that served as a naqqar khana (bandstand), and alternately as a ceremonial balcony overlooking Reghistan Square. From here, a swerving and narrow, covered dalon (passageway) climbs to the citadel's main terrace. Twelve ob khanas (prison cell niches) flank this flag stone paved passageway. The upper compound includes the court mosque, administrative offices, storage chambers, water tanks, treasury, Emir's chancellery, ceremonial reception hall and private chambers. These functions were organized hierarchically in rooms around arcaded courtyards. The visitor's social status and proximity to the Emir determined the individual circulation routes and access levels.
The interiors of the remaining structures reveal fragments of decoration including a variety of painted woodwork, stucco molding and elaborately carved marble bases. Some of the better preserved buildings, like the court mosque, retain traces of painted plaster and of gilt papier-mache. This seventeenth century mosque was built by Subhan Kuli Khan and consists of a single prayer hall enveloped by a colonnade on three sides. The Kurnish Khana (reception hall) built in 1605-06 features exquisitely carved wooden columns surmounting a marble throne and canopy. The harem, whose walls were once embellished with gilt molding and small polychrome floral motifs has been vandalized in the early twentieth century Bolshevik struggle for the Bukhara Emirate. Large parts of the Ark are empty today with ruins or mounds waiting excavation. Preservation efforts have concentrated on the more visible or public portions instead of formulating a comprehensive conservation strategy. The citadel's mud filled plinth is facing erosion on the northern and western sides where the fortification walls have crumbled.
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Borodina, Iraida. Central Asia: Gems of 9th-19th Century Architecture, 106. Moscow: Planeta Publishers, 1987.
Prochazka, Amjad Bohumil. Bukhara: Architecture of the Islamic Cultural Sphere, 12-3. Zurich: MARP, 1993.