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 mosque's name, Maghak-i 'Attari (Uzbek: Mag'oki Attori), means 'scented pit' in Farsi. The name is thought to refer to the structure's sunken plinth level, and to the aromatic herb markets that once assembled in its vicinity. It has functioned as a sacred or religious site over millennia. The present mosque was built in the early eighth century and rebuilt numerous times until the early twentieth century. The building is notable as the oldest extant mosque in Central Asia, and as one of the few pre-Mongol monuments in the region.
The mosque's origins, like many others in Bukhara, are mysterious and legend-laden. The site is now understood to have once formed the core of Bukhara's city center (Shahristan) in the early Sogdian era, or around 500 BC. The site was occupied in the fifth century by a Zoroastrian temple, which was replaced by a Buddhist temple. An important temple dedicated to Moh, the moon deity, and a market surrounding it stood there until a conflagration in 937. The sacred site was then used to house one of Bukhara's earliest mosques built following the Arab invasion in the early eighth century. A mosque known as 'Makh' or 'Mokh' is mentioned in tenth century literary records, however, nothing has remained from these earlier mosques. The southern portal, which is the oldest component of the present structure, can be traced to the Qarakhanid dynasty's extensive rebuilding in the twelfth century. A contemporary description of the mosque then, mentions it as a slightly elongated building with domes supported by round pillars, and with an attractive side portal. Comprehensive restoration carried out by Ashtrakhanid ruler Abdul Aziz Khan in 1546-7 constitutes most of the present mosque. He also built a new roof, and a new entrance to accommodate the rise in street levels. The last stage of building extended into the twentieth century, at which time the eastern portal was rebuilt, imitating brickwork of the Samanid mausoleum from the tenth century.
The Maghak-i 'Attari mosque lies to the south of Bukhara's Ark, on the commercial street connecting the Tak-i Telpak Furushon and Tak-i Sarrafon markets. The rise in street levels over the centuries forces a descent of approximately three meters to access the mosque. The structure is based on a rectangular plan built around six piers and roofed by two multifaceted domes raised on hexagonal drums. The southern and western plain brick facades have two elaborately decorated iwans; the southern portal contains a one of its kind pre-Mongol stalactite squinch. This portal has a recessed vault fringed with engaged columns decorated with carved terracotta panels and weaving, as well as floral motifs, inscriptions carved in stucco and blue glazed tile-work. Rectangular, inscriptive panels, in the manner of Mawara'u'n-nahr's famed wood carving tradition, frame the central arch. The figurative decorations of glazed and carved brick and the use of incised alabaster panels is exemplary of the craftsmanship of the Qarakhanid epoch.
The Maghak-i 'Attari mosque is one of the better-preserved and fully excavated structures in Bukhara. Russian archaeologist V.A Shishkin's unearthing of its buried southern portal in 1939 was followed by several restoration projects in the 1970s. Rebuilding its upper and side elements has since strengthened the ancient iwan. Paved terraces now descend to the sunken plinth level, giving access to a antiquities museum housed within the structure.
Azizkhodjayev, Alisher. Bukhara: An Oriental Gem, 85. Tashkent: Chief Editorial Office of Publishing & Printing, 1997.
Borodina, Iraida. Central Asia: Gems of 9th-19th century architecture, 98-99. Moscow: Planeta Publishers, 1987.
Prochazka, Amjad Bohumil. Bukhara: Architecture of the Islamic Cultural Sphere, 73. Zurich: MARP, 1993.