The doom that came to Bukhara, or: how to lobotomize a dreaming city
If you’re a poetically-inclined prince there’s no finer place to be than sipping sherbets in the leafy teahouses of Bukhara at its height, in the time of the last Abbasid Caliphs.* It is said that the city called to great souls then from across the Abode of Peace so that they enriched it with all the treasures of their own lands, their courts-in-exile making a world-within-the-world that was the envy even of mighty Baghdad.
If you’re a more practically-minded prince then the brain-drain that the Dreaming City caused was a right royal pain – something to be overcome, competed with or destroyed. But this gets you into a war with a numinous quality. What makes a city dream?
If you listen to the poets they’ll tell you about the majestic courtyards of Bukhara’s mosques, the awesome height of its grand minar and the sweep of its peerless Registan parade-ground at the foot of its hulking citadel.
So if you’re an upstart barbarian lord like Tamerlane** then you seek to outdo Bukhara in each of these particulars – to make your own capital higher and wider and sweepier and consequently more magnetic – to strain against the limits of stone and sinew and eye (only to watch in fury from your hidden tomb as your own descendents abandon war for irresponsible dreaming in the trap you built for them). Or perhaps you trample its mosques and minars into dust, fill its registan with your battle-tents, only to find that in a generation or two all has been rebuilt, grander than before, its cracks and crannies testament to a history enriched by just such moments of horror. Or you seek to strip-mine the city for its sacred geometry, replicating it in perfected form or tearing it up and transplanting it wholesale to your own cities, trusting the architecture itself to carry its charm into your hands, only to find that such emulation serves to canonize the original.
But if you’ve learned from Marx that things stand on unmajestic foundations then you seek to do your damage elsewhere. Then perhaps you know exactly what you’re doing when you celebrate those majestic spaces by freeing them from the untidy tangle of streets and souks, squalid sewers and kinked alleyways and nested, complicated, concealing, dingy low dwellings that surround them.
Then you might conclude that the best and most lasting way to destroy the memory of a city is to remove all the untidy people and convert it into a museum.
That’s how Bukhara stands now, its sacred precincts laid bare as eggshells in the scoured waste of a new highway system, cleaned up and clarified and made ready for study: pre-dissected for the benefit of the magical researcher. And there’s something terribly wrong about the storefront city that’s left behind.
It’s not haunted, quite – no personal shades have been allowed to cling to its walls or empty spaces. But it still dreams – dreams that no longer call to poets and princes, but to something else. Something blank and inhuman and cold. And it still speaks to the cities around it, but now it infects them with a gaze of the void that stares back into the jealous hearts of those Emirs that resented its magnetic presence, when it was alive.
Still the sages of the Great Tatar declare it an exemplary piece of preservation work: they’ve even suggested it as a model for similar projects in urban theurgosurgery – to no less an urbomancer than the Dragon Emperor himself, as a remedy for his own accursed, ancient, magnetic megalopolis, Old Kashgar.
* Tenses get so muddled where time travel might be involved. When Rhialto the Marvellous visited Bukhara shortly after its “clarifying regeneration” he affected the guise of a local elder or Aksakal. He was not able, however, to conceal his naturally flamboyant self-esteem, so that he was quickly identified among the Tatar’s rather less colourful functionaries and persuaded to leave with undignified haste.
** Intriguingly more properly Timur-i-leng (Timur “the lame” so I’m told, although I’m suspicious of the derivation)… which might help explain why his burial place has never been positively identified.